Rarely do I find a book so good that it touches my soul. Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo does just that. The entire series does.
I read this book several times, and I never fail to gain something new out of it each time through. It’s a story that’s art transcends the page and speaks of more profound things — of loneliness, power, and the monster inside us all.
Bardugo is a master of her craft, and she’s proven this time and time again. While I always found Shadow and Bone to be her weakest novel — a buildup to more significant things to come in the series.
My opinion changed completely after I spent some more time with it. I’m biased when it comes to good fantasy, and Shadow and Bone certainly delivers.
It’s got it all – the characters, romance, magic, evil, and the deeper meanings that relate to our own lives as much as the people have written about.
BOOK IN THREE SENTENCES
Alina, an unremarkable underdog, finds herself wanted by the most powerful man in the country – The Darkling. With his help, she’s learning to develop the powers she only just discovered she has. Powers of which, he claims, will be able to save not only Ravka, but maybe the entire world.
THE EXCITING PLOT
At the risk of mentioning too many spoilers, I’ll keep this pretty basic.
Our story begins with two orphans – Alina and Mal. They’re best friends, having grown up with each other in an orphanage after their families were killed in one of Ravka’s many wars.
They are currently both enlisted in the First Army, a cartographer, and tracker respectively. Alina’s the awkward underdog, and Mal’s the popular lady’s man.
Trouble starts when they set out to cross The Fold, a section of land that’s been cast into darkness. Many years ago, it was created by a former darkling, a man called The Black Heretic.
The area was consumed, and creatures known as Vulcra make their home therein, terrified of the sunlight, and hungry for anything they can get their hands on. Ravka’s split into two parts because of this — the eastern and western front, and crossing to the west side’s necessary to get resources and trade.
Inevitably, they were attacked. Alina and Mal get mixed up in the assault and somehow manage to survive when a brilliant light is set off, killing the vulcra and allowing them safe passage back to the shore.
The Darkling, being the most powerful man in the world and the leader of the Second Army, takes notice. He declares Alina as the Sun Summoner and informs her that she has the power to summon light; granting her the ability to destroy The Fold and save Ravka for good.
With this knowledge in mind, he tears her away from Mal and takes her to The Little Palace where she can develop her powers along with others who possess similar abilities — the Grisha.
The key to creating a robust, engaging book is through its characters. Plot and setting help, for sure, but nothing draws you into the story quite like characters you can love, hate, and obsess over.
Shadow and Bone have some of the most likable and complex characters I’ve seen in fiction to date. Each one, even the side characters that appear no more than occasionally, is three-dimensional.
Their struggles and desires are apparent, and they draw us deep into the story and into ourselves. Even the ‘bad guy’ isn’t without his charms, and at the end of the day, he’s one of the most popular characters Bardugo has created and one of the most loved.
One of my favorite parts about the people she’s created, Alina, Mal, The Darkling, etc., is how relatable and down-to-earth each of them is. They are dealing with huge issues.
The salvation of a country torn by war, for example, or the development of extreme powers they never knew they had. But they deal with these things in a way that’s so ridiculously human.
They’re often unclear as to the direction they need to take, get caught up in their emotions, and regret decisions they’ve been forced to make. No, we don’t all have to save a country, but we’ve all experienced loneliness.
We’ve all been through unrequited love and the blossoming of new relationships and desires. At one point in our lives, we experience feeling like we don’t fit in anywhere.
We come to feel deeply with the characters because of this and feel the depth of their emotions and struggles along with them.
Although Shadow and Bone have many themes like standing up for what’s right, good against evil, etc. The key takeaway is something we can all relate to. Bardugo weaves a tale of rejection and acceptance.
We follow Alina, an outcast, as she struggles to fit in and find a home for herself. She’s on the path to discovering herself and where she belongs in the world. Sometimes that gets messy and she has to deal with that.
I think that’s something that can speak to all of us, especially young adults, which is the general readership of this book. We’ve all been there, and in a significant way, I believe that the journey to find yourself and your place is one we never actually finish.
A LIFE LONG STRUGGLE
We adjust to the changes inside and around us, coping the best we can, and making the best decisions we know how to make.
I’m at a period in my life with a lot of questions. I’ve tried to create an experience for myself, but I’m now just ‘discovering my power’ as Alina had.
I’m now only in the process of figuring that out. Watching her go through that reminds me of watching myself.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT
At its core, Shadow and Bone is a fantasy novel. Bardugo expertly creates the world and culture of Ravka, as well as the surrounding countries. She creates a system of magic called the Small Science, usable only by particular people — the Grisha.
This book is everything you want fantasy to be. There’s political plot lines, drama, romance, cross-cultural conflicts, and different languages scattered without.
There’s a journey, a hero, a savior, and a group of well-meaning but sometimes aggravating sidekicks. It’s hard to find books in this genre that are done so well that it creates such a vast world to be explored, and culture to be learned about.
Bardugo’s given such depth to the world she’s created it’s hard to believe it’s not real. It’s evident that she’s spent a lot of time herself exploring it, and it’s an absolute privilege to be able to experience pieces of it.
Ravka is also loosely based on Russia, which is super neat. Most fantasy, especially YA, tends to base their cultures off England.
Although you can feel the European roots in Shadow and Bone, it’s refreshing to see how she weaves Russian folklore and culture into the story.
It’s refreshing, and it creates a world that’s so much more than a cliche. It’s original, unique, and something more YA authors should incorporate.
I’m always a little bias when it comes to Leigh Bardugo’s books. I’ve adored every single one she’s written, and she quickly takes her place as my favorite author.
Her stories contain all the elements that I love — conflicted characters, grey morality, romance, fantasy, and political shenanigans.
Shadow and Bone deliver on all of this. While it’s only the first novel in the series and mainly acts to set up the rest of the story, it has a significant value in-an-of-itself, enough for me to read it over several times without tiring.
The characters are relatable, the plot engaging, and the romances exciting. Bardugo developed the world incredibly well. It’s a book you dive into wholeheartedly.
You leave carrying tiny pieces of Ravka with you long after you put the book down, and anything worth thinking about that much is definitely worth the read.
About the Author
Breanna Harwood has been writing stories ever since she could pick up a pen and form letters. While she specializes in fiction, she also enjoys personal essay and media analysis. She currently runs a blog, Scripturients, where she aims to give writers the resources and tools they need to achieve their goals.