Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Posted on: June 29, 2013

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

The Grisha are people with the abilities to manipulate elements around them - they can call forth fire, wind, fabricate special metals, cloth that won’t tear; some can heal, some can wound - one can even call forth darkness and amplify the abilities of others. They are a  cut above the ordinary citizens of Ravka, helping protect the country from its enemies and assisting in the crossing of the Shadow Fold, a strange darkness that has cut Ravka off from its ports and rendered it economically weak and divided. In the midst of this constant civil and political turmoil a young girl is discovered with an ability that so far been considered myth: Alina is able to summon light. As a Sun Summoner, someone who could potentially eliminate the darkness that divides Ravka.  

Shadow and Bone follows a classic, safe pattern of quest fantasy and yet provides a completely satisfying experience. Bardugo uses pretty much all the standard quest fantasy tropes here to their fullest - the orphan’s rags to riches story, the sudden call to adventure, the attraction to the dark, even versions of training montages are to be found here. While this may be enough to annoy a great many readers who consider themselves very discerning, I personally appreciated the simple, formulaic approach to this story. It may not have re-invented the wheel, but sometimes all you want is the familiarity of a wheel, with a new lick of paint. 

There’s a great deal to be said about this new lick of paint though. There is really excellent worldbuilding in Shadow and Bone, for instance. Set in Quasi -Tsarist Russia, Bardugo is able to paint a perfectly beautiful, cold country ruled by a weak King, a vain Queen and possibly a completely mad, powerful man behind every political move. Bardugo’s Darkling is no squinty-eyed, scraggly bearded mystic like Rasputin however, but he is just as enigmatic a character; a possible antagonist who is strangely attractive. Other characters share the same development - Bardugo has a deft hand at dealing with characters, even those with small parts to play leave an impact. 

Alina’s development as a hero with agency reminds me of those of classic fantasy protagonists, like Diana Wynne Jones’ Christopher Chant, for instance. They share many similarities here too - both are being trained by crotchety older people who just wont back down, both can not access their abilities at first but are incredibly powerful when they do, both have a friend they will grow to love. And of course Alina is drawn to her perfect foil - the Darkling, the leader of the Grisha who is, amongst other things, the only one who can summon the dark. Again, perhaps it’s formulaic, but Bardugo has enough skill in setting up these situations and in drawing arresting characters to make it all work. 

I read Shadow and Bone in one long swallow and it went down as easily as comfort food. It was just as satisfying, and I look forward to another helping.