Note: Spoilers for the first fwo books in the series.
These three books, Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising, which should be read together in order, make up a young adult fantasy series set in the fictional country of Ravka, a place resembling Russia. This world includes a subset of people called Grisha, who are born with rare abilities to manipulate matter at its most fundamental levels. Etherealki can summon elements of nature to raise winds or create tides or fires. Corporalki can stop hearts, heal the wounded, or change a person’s appearance. Materialki are fabricators who work with textiles, chemicals, or metals.
In the first book, Shadow and Bone, we meet our two main protagonists, Alina and Mal, who grew up as orphans in the same house. When they are older and serving in the army together, Alina inadvertently discovers she has Grisha powers as a summoner, but unlike other summoners, she, uniquely, can call up sunlight. In this she is the counterpart of the de facto ruler of the nation of Ravka, the Darkling, who can summon darkness.
The Darkling hears of Alina and wants to use her powers to enhance his own. This can be accomplished by attaching “amplifiers” to Alina – the bones of mythical creatures that can increase a Grisha’s power by coming into contact with the Grisha. Because they are counterparts, the Darkling can “use” Alina whether she wants him to or not, and so the stronger she is, the stronger he is.
In the first book, the antlers of a storied stag are found and the Darkling has them placed – permanently – it seems – around Alina’s neck. Mal, renowned as a tracker, helped to find the stag (without knowing it was meant for Alina). He is forcibly pressed into service to help the Darkling find a second amplifier, the scales of a mythical dragon known as the Sea Whip. Legend holds that with three amplifiers, the power of the Darkling and Alina will be total and invincible.
In the second book, Siege and Storm, Mal helps find the Sea Whip, and Alina acquires the second amplifier. Now she herself seeks the third with the help of Nicolai, the charming and generous Prince of Ravka. But Alina is held captive “for her own safety” – this time by the Apparat, the head priest, in an underground cathedral. The Apparat also wants to use Alina, to build his own religion based on belief in her powers, calling her Saint Alina.
The final book, Ruin and Rising, begins two months after Alina’s battle with the Darkling that ended Book Two. Alina is kept under strict control and observation by the Apparat. She needs to regain her strength by making contact with the light, but there is none to be had underground. If she could recover, she could escape and go after the third amplifier, for which she experiences a ravenous hunger. The Darkling understands her greed for power as well as the loneliness she feels by her difference, and stokes these feelings in her through the strange psychic bond they share. Two sets of desires compete within her: the greed and ruthlessness of the “new” Alina, and the dreams of the “old” Alina – just a girl who wants to be loved by a boy. But those dreams no longer applied to a Sun Summoner, nor to a Saint.
Alina finally manages to get out from under the thumb of the Apparat, with a great deal of help from her friends. She, Mal, and a group of Grisha loyal to her go off in search of the third amplifier, which they believe is a firebird. But when they find it, they learn an astounding truth about the third amplifier, and must face some hard decisions to confront the Darkling.
Discussion: Alina is not the most likable of the protagonists, but she is the hub around which all the others revolve, and their reactions to her drive the story forward. Mal is heroic and self-sacrificing, and Nikolai – solid and brave, is a true king no matter what his form. The Grisha are very different from one another, but each endearing in unique ways. This is especially true with Genya, once heartbreakingly beautiful outside, but always heartbreakingly beautiful within.
There are some wonderful turns of phrase in these books. I loved how Alina described one of the Grisha in her group:
“Stigg was short and stocky with nearly white blond hair. He had the solid, stuffy appearance of a prayer candle.”
And there was this fear Alina expressed as her group traveled through the underground tunnels to escape:
“If the earth came down [in the tunnel] . . . we would be crushed and no one would ever know, wildflowers pressed between the pages of a book and forgotten.”
The author also cleverly employs non-specific nouns and a symmetrical story structure at the beginning and end of her saga, which conveys a great deal of meaning through the medium itself.
Evaluation: This series has memorable characters, who grow in complexity and appeal as the series progresses. Bardugo jumps up a level in skill in her next duology, Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, but these books are entertaining and worth reading themselves, even if they are not as good as her next work.
Shadow and Bone Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2012
Siege and Storm Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2013
Ruin and Rising Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2014