Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publication Date: 6/5/12
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Blurb (GR): Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.
Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.
Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha… and the secrets of her heart.
It is alright, if you are into fantasy lite. I, on the other hand, am a little weary of this lightish, breezy and superficial entertainment. Give me something juicier, something more thoughtful, something more sophisticated.
With that said, the reason I did not enjoy this book the way I had hoped I would is that it is just so uncomplicated and straight-forward. I have no usual complaints about Bardugo's characters and the plot. But they are familiar and well used and not very rich. These characters are very simple, void of complex emotions and motivations. Same goes for the plot and conflicts. There is no complexity to them either. The conflicts are of good/evil variety. The plot is easily predictable. Twists? What twists?
I do not think Shadow and Bone is a good fit for many adult readers, unless they are in a search for going-through-the-motions sort of story with a standard "kick-ass" protagonist (I am thinking Tris from Divergent or Ismae from Grave Mercy), and they do not expect to be challenged intellectually or emotionally.
Now, to the part of my review that will reflect exclusively my personal problems with this book, which will not bother 99.9% of its potential reader.
Shadow and Bone is, as I mentioned earlier, a Russia-inspired fantasy. I took pains to check out Leigh Bardugo's website, to see how exactly she addressed this inspiration. Here are her words: "Ravka and its language were heavily inspired by Russia, but with a few deliberate exceptions, the words and place names in Shadow & Bone are my own invention. My goal was to keep things simple and to make sure that Ravkan words still had resonance for readers. In short, I took a lot of liberties and I hope the purists won’t beat me about the head and shoulders."
Sure, I do not want to be a language nazi or anything. I can skim over Russian-sounding made-up words, even though they linguistically do not make much sense. Not every writer can be like Catherynne Valente, who embraced Russianness so fully in her Deathless, that I had to do some research to find out if she was Russian herself (she is not). But is it too much to ask of an author to at least google the actual Russian words she does use in her work? I swear, it would only take 10 minutes to research the glaring mistakes I found.
For instance, if you want to give your characters Russian names, it is not that hard to find out that men and women in Russia have different variations of the same last name. Let's take the book's main character, Alina Starkov. Starkov is a masculine version of the last name. Correctly, it should be Alina Starkova. In the same way, there is another character, whose name is Ilya Morozova. The problem with this name is that Ilya is actually a male name, while the last name has a female form. In the book, Ilya Morozova is a "she." If you google "Russian last names," this information comes up in the second or third link from the top. How much time would it take to do this research?
Then there is a matter of "kvas," a beverage everyone seems to get drunk on in Shadow and Bone. In reality, you can not actually get drunk consuming it. This is a non-alcoholic beverage (well, almost, it occasionally has alcohol content up to 1%) which is given to children as well as adults, like, let's say, soda. Wiki this word, I am not lying. You want to write about alcohol, use "pivo" or "braga" or "samogon," if researching that is too hard, use "vodka."
And, I swear, the last example (of many on my list). The name of this trilogy - The Grisha (in the book, the Grisha are magic wielding army). Grisha is actually a short form of the male name Grigori. Come on now, no better ideas, no better words to call your magician other than this random personal name? Or "otkazat'sya," which in Bardugo's interpretation means "The Abandoned." In reality "otkazat'sya" is a verb which translates into "to refuse." That is why I am saying that even the words made up by the author make no sense, linguistically.
To be sure, all these things will not bother anyone except select few, but I do not think it is too wrong to expect the author who builds her whole magical universe using Russian culture, to respect this culture enough to do a cursory google search, to give her work some appearance of credibility and care? This sloppy use of a foreign (my) culture affected my enjoyment of the novel.
Shadow and Bone is not an isolated example of a lazy handling of Russian language and culture, and very often I feel very much compelled to offer authors, who choose to base their stories on Russia, my help, to at least check the spelling of the words. But then I see that they do not care to do the most basic of researches, so why should I care?
To wrap this up, I do not recommend against reading this book. It is a light and engaging enough entertainment. In fact, after reading a few Goodreads reviews, it looks like many people found it to be utterly enchanting. I am glad they do. I, however, will not be back for more.