Strap in, everyone. It’s going to be a long one.
I’m finally tackling a book series that I have been meaning to write about for ages now and it will come to no surprise to those of you who have Netflix, but I’m going to talk about the Shadow and Bone series by Leigh Bardugo.
Now, I read these books like a million years ago, when they first came out. They have been on my list to write about since starting this blog, but I never got around to it. Sadly (depending on your point of view) there were far too many other books I needed to gush about and since these books have been around for awhile, I figured y’all could just wait. So they waited on the back burner. Why now, you ask? I’m not saying that watching the adaptation now available streaming on Netflix has influenced me to get off my rear end and talk about how great the series is, but I’m not, not saying that either.
If you haven’t read the series and don’t want to hear about the differences, go read the books NOW. If you’ve read the series but haven’t watched the show and don’t want spoilers, go watch NOW. Cause there will be spoilers and I will write about the differences – the good and the bad. For my review of the rest of the series – well, to keep this review from becoming long and rambling, I’ll write separate posts for the other ones. I’m so sorry to keep you waiting. Remember, I need to go re-re-reread them all.
<Side note: I won’t be talking about the Six of Crows (SoC) duology in this – that will have to be a separate post – so I’ll (mostly) be leaving the Crows out of this conversation.>
SPOILERS COMING – YOU’VE BEEN WARNED
Ravka is a divided country at war. They have enemies from Fjerda in the north and Shu Han in the south, but its biggest problem is the Shadow Fold – an expanse of darkness that divides the country in two. Created by a powerful Grisha (humans with special magical abilities) many centuries ago, humans can’t cross it because dangerous magical creatures called the Volcra live within the Fold and feed on humans as they attempt to cross. The only thing that repels them is the sun – which is non-existent within the Fold.
Alina Starkov is a mapmaker in the Ravkan army. When she and her best friend, Mal – a tracker in the army – are slated to cross the fold, they are both terrified since a successful crossing is never guaranteed. As their skiff crosses the Fold, they are attacked by the Volcra and when Mal is attacked, Alina saves him unexpectedly by creating a beam of pure light within the darkness. Once they return to the dock, Alina is taken before the Darkling, the commander of the Grisha army, to explain how such a situation was possible. Convinced that she is Grisha, and not just any old Grisha but the fabled Sun Summoner and the savior of Ravka, the Darkling immediately sends her off to the Ravkan palace and home of the Grisha training facility.
There she trains. She is terrible at first. She can’t call on her power. She can’t fight. Slowly, she starts to make progress She becomes closer to the Darkling to whom she is becoming more and more attracted. She befriends some of the other Grisha, all the while bemoaning the lack of communication from Mal. Once she finally comes into her powers, the Darkling reveals his plans for her. He wants to give her an ancient amplifier (a relic that amplifies a Grisha’s power) so she can ostensibly help him destroy the Shadow Fold.
Eventually, Alina is clued in that he isn’t being entirely honest about his intentions and that he intends to use her to make the Fold into a weapon, she runs away from the Little Palace. She reunites with Mal (who, in her absence, has realized his more than platonic feelings of love for her) and they hunt the stag that the Darkling intends to make into the amplifier for her – better for her to get to the stag before he does. Without giving too much away – everyone goes awry and chaos ensues. Intentions are made clear and schemes are formulated and executed. If you want to know more, I urge you to go read it, since I’m trying to be as spoiler free as I can be.
There is so much to love about this book!
First, the world building. The world that Bardugo has created is incredibly vivid. There is so much detail that goes into immersing the reader into this fantastical version of Tsarist Russia. Sometimes, especially in first novels, the descriptions can come on a little heavy handed, but even on this reread (the most recent in a line of many, many re- re- rereads) it didn’t seem burdensome.
Once you get past Alina’s training, the plot is thoroughly engaging. With all the betrayals, backstabbing, and drama, you just have to know what happens next. The final climactic scene on the Shadow Fold leaves the reading needing more. Not just wanting, but needing to know how the Darkling survives – you have to know that he does, and how Alina and Mal are going to survive. You’ll be reaching for Siege and Storm before you know it. (Unlike me, who had to wait a year for it.)
The plot would be nothing without the amazing character development. When you read below about my opinions of the Netflix series, you’ll find out how I feel about the plot before Alina escapes, but here’s where that part is essential. Alina’s time at the Little Palace gives space to do some serious character development. It’s great because it allows Bardugo to make each character complex in their own way. No one is completely innocent and no one is completely evil. In this book, my favorite character is the Darkling. He just really kind of surprises you with his motivations and actions. He is devastatingly enigmatic yet has absolute certainty that he is doing the right thing. He takes Machiavelli’s “the ends justify the means” to the extreme. And yet, you can kind of see his point.
Now, given what you know about me, you are probably aware that my mantra is “the book is always better.” When Netflix announced that it was creating a series around this book, you’ve got to know that I was skeptical. I’ve been burned before. So I was really nervous and anxious about the treatment this book would get. However, even with the low expectations I had, I was incredibly surprised at how much I enjoyed it!
I really thought the adaptation was faithful to the source material. I liked that all of the crucial scenes appear and they took out only some side plots that it didn’t really need. I did miss some of these plot points, but I’m sure they’ll appear in Season 2 since they are a bit more central to the Book 2 plot. They include: Ravkan court politics, the Apparat’s power, the Sankta Alina zealots, and the internal Grisha politicking.
The changes I liked:
-The Crows! I know I said I wouldn’t talk about SoC and I should probably admit that while I did like the SoCs duology, I have always loved S&B more (as if you couldn’t tell). However, the integration of Kaz, Inej, Jesper, Nina, and Matthias to the narrative was a stroke of genius. Whoever decided to incorporate the basic SoC heist storyline into the S&B plot must have been hit my a stroke of brilliance. Here’s why: In the novels, SoC takes place after the events of the entire S&B trilogy and the main plot of SoC is a heist from a Fjerda prison to capture a very strong Grisha (I think. don’t quote me on this) Since the heist of SoC always felt a little contrived to me (these amazing characters would really shine no matter what they did,) I really thought it so ingenious that the writers used the opportunity to change the target to Alina in order for the events to take place at the same time as S&B. Indeed, it could have gone incredibly wrong but for all of our good fortune, the series writers and actors were spot on with the Crows: Kaz plans a heist, everything goes wrong, and they have to fly by the seat of their pants to survive. Brilliant!
-I really appreciated how they condensed a lot of the more tedious training parts of the book into one episode. One of the things I tell people when I’m recommending this series is that it starts off with a bang but then it drags for a while. All of the time at the Little Palace is good for character development (see my comments above) – Alina becomes friendly with or becomes enemies with many of the other Grisha (many of which were left a bit less developed in the series) – but it is a little slow for plot development. In the series, most of this is condensed into one episode and told through the letters she writes to Mal as a voice over. It does, however, mean that Alina’s friendships with the other Grisha (and their backstories) are overlooked – it hurt that Genya and David weren’t really fleshed out – but what can you do?
-CASTING, CASTING, CASTING! It was absolutely perfectly cast (in my humble opinion). I felt that Alina and Inej were exactly as I imagined them. Jesper and Kaz stole every scene they were in. But my favorite? Ben freaking Barnes. The Darkling. He was perfectly cast. Let’s also not forget Milo the Goat – the star of the show! Well. You should watch the series specifically for Milo the Goat. (Then check out his twitter account. Such great stuff!) The only one who didn’t look how I expected was Zoya. I expected Zoya to be taller.
The changes I did not like:
-The racism. In the books, Alina isn’t half Shu and therefore racism is not part of the narrative. However, one of the criticisms of the books is that they aren’t very diverse. Although Jessie Mei Li looks exactly as I pictured Alina to look, I assume (rightfully or wrongfully) that changing Alina’s heritage was part of a way to diversify the cast. Which would have worked except for this terrible addition to the plot. The anti-Asian comments about her Shu heritage are vile and disgusting. And the worse part? There was absolutely no need to do this. The show could have just cast the parts the way they wanted and not had any racist narrative. It added nothing to the story and instead was hurtful.
<Side note: It is possible that there is racism and discrimination against the Shu in the books, but there aren’t any main Shu characters until Book 2 and I don’t recall any racism towards them even though there is a general feeling of dislike towards the Shu. When I reread Siege and Storm, I’ll be on the lookout for this specifically.>
-Speaking of Alina’s heritage, the series writers have changed enough from the books that I’m wondering how Mal and Alina’s heritages will play into their relationship with the Darkling and the plot of Ruin and Rising as it related to the final relic. I suppose we’ll have to wait to see how the writers handle it, but needless to say – I have no idea how they are going to handle this.
-Additionally, I really disliked the offering up of the Darkling’s name. In the books, his name is not General Kirigan and his first name isn’t uttered until one of the subsequent books. Alina is given it when she is given his full backstory and not just the parts that Baghra spills to get Alina to leave the Little Palace. I love that the Darkling’s past and the full scope of his story is given so late in the books. You have to wait to see why he is the way he is. And it is worth the wait because when the reader finds out his secrets, you really begin to understand the Darkling and exactly what Alina is up against. Especially since these secrets that have played such an important role have, unbeknownst to anyone, been embedded into Ravkan history and folklore.
So. That’s it. That’s all I have to say. What are you waiting for? Go forth and read!
OK, so I’m holding out on you. The best reason to read this S&B? So you can get to the others in the series! Not only can you get a jump on what Season 2 (I assume there will be a Season 2) but, the best character is introduced at the start of Siege and Storm… Sturmhond! Don’t say I didn’t warn you! You need to meet him!
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, published 2012
Can’t wait for more Leigh Bardugo? I’ll try to get to Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising soon, but if you are that impatient, read my review of her first adult novel, Ninth House, here.