In a departure from what I normally do, I’m going to do a review of the entire trilogy of books, instead of doing an individual review for each book in the series. This is due in large part to the fact that I could not stop reading this series long enough to write a review of one book before I moved onto the next one. Leigh Bardugo sucked me into the world of Ravka and her Grisha, and I did not want to leave! For those of you who have yet to read this series, be forewarned – spoilers abound!
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 would be an understatement to simply say that I read this book. I devoured this book, finishing it in just under 48 hours. Shadow and Bone, and the entire trilogy, do something that I absolutely love, something that exists in what I consider to be every great fantasy novel: it explores the discovery of hidden strength within oneself, particularly when faced against insurmountable odds.
Two war orphans, Alina Starkov and her best friend Mal, are raised in a charitable orphanage, on the estate of a nobleman in Ravka (picture an imperialist fantasy Russia on the brink of modern warfare). Tested as children for rare magical abilities that would destine them to join the Grisha — elite magician-soldiers of the kingdom’s “Second Army” — Alina and Mal are found wanting and are instead conscripted into the common army.
Alina is perfectly unremarkable. She is skinny, brash, and insecure. She is all but friendless, except for her childhood friend Mal, who has grown up to be a hunky head-turner who is so charming that it is only a matter of time until he drifts away from Alina. But Alina’s unremarkableness makes her a wonderful narrator. Bardugo’s strong writing shines through Alina’s voice as her military regiment marches toward the Shadow Fold, “a swath of nearly impenetrable darkness that grew with every passing year and crawled with horrors.”
The Shadow Fold is the legacy of Grisha magic gone bad. A vast, lightless void, it splits Ravka in two, forcing perilous crossings through the darkness in silent skiffs, soldiers’ fingers at their triggers lest the volcra — savage winged monsters — hear or smell them. Ravkan life is defined by darkness: that of the Fold, and that of the Darkling, the most powerful of the Grisha, a figure as feared as he is revered. So when the regiment is attacked by volcra in the Fold, what power could be more fitting to burst forth from the mousy Alina, facing death in the dark, than the ability to summon light?
It is an unheard-of ability. Grisha manipulate wind, fire, tides, steel, flesh and even darkness. But not light — until now.
And that’s just the set-up of the novel! It only gets better from there!
One of my favorite parts of the entire series was the magical system. An interesting combination of science and magic, the Grisha are an intriguing creation. The magical system is loosely limited and structured around science, most notably physics and chemistry. Like calls to like, light bending, and other physical limitations of the natural world govern and structure the Grisha’s magical abilities. I found it refreshing and reassuring to explore a magical world that has clear limits and boundaries. And yet, even though there is a limit to the Grisha’s power, they are a caste system, set apart from the rest of the world. Skills and powers of the Grisha are as wide and varying as the ability to burst the human heart and a “flesh tailor,” whose skill in enhancing beauty has made her the pet of a vain queen.
The Grisha: Soldiers of the Second Army, Masters of the Small Science
Corporalki (The Order of the Living and the Dead)
Etherealki (The Order of Summoners)
Materialki (The Order of Fabrikators)
Then there’s the world Bardugo created. Ravka is a fantasy world, loosely based on imperialist Russia on the brink of modern warfare. However, there are strong Russian fairy tale elements at play as well – beautifully robed magicians, vast wild landscapes, and fabled creatures. The Little Palace of the Grisha is “like something carved from an enchanted forest, a cluster of dark wood walls and golden domes;” a place “covered in intricate carvings of birds and flowers, twisting vines and magical beasts.” But there is a darker inspiration at work here as well, and one of Bardugo’s clever decisions is to name the Darkling’s personal guard after Ivan the Terrible’s notorious black-clad “oprichniki,” the precursors of the K.G.B.
So what about this Darkling? He is an enigmatic figure: brooding, magnetic and, of course, handsome. “He had a sharp, beautiful face, a shock of thick black hair and clear gray eyes that shimmered like quartz.” And though he seems young, he has already lived a very long life. “He’s not natural,” thinks Alina, but she is drawn to him regardless, and he to her, as she grows from a scrawny nobody at odds with her new world into a passionate young woman of great power. “I’ve been waiting for you a long time, Alina,” the Darkling tells her. “You and I are going to change the world.” The Darkling is wonderfully complex, and I could not help but sympathize with him and even root for him at times. By the end of Shadow and Bone, we are left to wonder if Alina and the Darkling are fated to be matched, or if her childhood love for Mal will be the stronger lure.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Darkness never dies.
Hunted across the True Sea, haunted by the lives she took on the Fold, Alina must try to make a life with Mal in an unfamiliar land. She finds starting new is not easy while keeping her identity as the Sun Summoner a secret. She can’t outrun her past or her destiny for long.
The Darkling has emerged from the Shadow Fold with a terrifying new power and a dangerous plan that will test the very boundaries of the natural world. With the help of a notorious privateer, Alina returns to the country she abandoned, determined to fight the forces gathering against Ravka. But as her power grows, Alina slips deeper into the Darkling’s game of forbidden magic, and farther away from Mal. Somehow, she will have to choose between her country, her power, and the love she always thought would guide her–or risk losing everything to the oncoming storm.
Siege and Storm picks up merely a few weeks after where Shadow and Bone left off, and Alina’s role in the course of events has expanded to take a broader and more world-driven perspective, which allows the reader to see the plot unfolding on a global scale. With the truth about the Darkling exposed, he clearly has designs for the Ravka throne and has become an enemy of the state. Meanwhile, Alina must decide where her place is among all of this conflict. Should she run and try to hide away in the mountains of some foreign country? Should she return to Ravka and serve the King in the fight against the Darkling? Or should she surrender to the connection between them, and take her place at the Darkling’s side? Personally, I couldn’t help but secretly hope that Alina and the Darkling would partner up, at least for a little bit. With that much power and passion, you can’t help but want to watch the world burn, just for a little bit.
Siege and Storm is action-driven, and Bardugo barely gives us enough time to reunite with Alina and Mal before they are thrust back into peril. We also do not have to wait long to see the Darkling again – he is back by page 16 to take prisoners, reveal new powers, and a new plot: there is a second amplifier and he means for Alina to have it.
Siege and Storm also gives us a wonderful ensemble of new characters, including badass mysterious twins, Tolya and Tamar, and the cunning, ruthless, and very sexy privateer, Sturmhond. Sturmhond is frustratingly sexy, like every other rogue hero in fiction such as Rhett Butler and Han Solo – he is always one witty retort and two steps ahead of anyone else, which means that Alina does not like him much, but the reader thoroughly enjoys him. Sturmhond is just about as mysterious as the Darkling was in the first book, although in a very different way, and it is unclear for almost the entire book as to whether or not he can be trusted.
All in all, there are more major players and more opposing sides in Siege and Storm; besides the main political players (the Darkling, Sturmhond, and the ailing King of Ravka), Alina must also deal with the Apparat, a zealous religious leader who worships “Saint/Sankta Alina.” Still somewhat in the periphery of the action, the Apparat nevertheless is always on Alina’s mind because of the religious history book he gave her long ago at the Little Palace, which may hold the key to understanding her amplifiers. What the Apparat knows, and what his true intentions are, remain to be see, but the cult of Sankta Alina will certainly play a crucial role in the next novel.
The choices Alina faces and the allies she must make predictably put a strain on her relationship with Mal. Having resolved the romantic tension between the two characters in book one, Bardugo starts book two by giving us a glimpse of just how much Alina and Mal care about each other. But Sturmhond’s attempts to charm Alina, her responsibilities as the Sun Summoner, and the persistent connection she feels to the Darkling start to take their toll on Mal’s ability to relate to Alina and to fit himself into the world she is destined to be a part of. On her side, there is not much doubt that she would chose Mal over any other human in existence, but the lure of power may tear her away from him anyway.
Alina has grown into her powers and has learned to embrace them, but her self-awareness and level of confidence have largely remained largely the same since the first book. Although many of her actions could appear to be strong, decisive choices, her inner narrative belied that strength a little too heavily, and at times I did find myself frustrated with her. It felt to me as though Alina was reacting to everyone else’s actions, rather than choosing her own. While I could certainly see the seeds of something much more dynamic being sown in preparation for the third novel, I felt that Alina, and the story as a whole, would have been stronger had Alina matured quicker and taken more control over her own life.
I really enjoyed reading Siege and Storm, and loved both the new characters and reappearances from many old favorites from Shadow and Bone. While the use of magic took a bit of a back seat to politics and alliance-building, we do get to see some new uses of Grisha power, especially from the Corporalki (Healers and Heartrenders) and Squallers (wind makers). I also couldn’t help but notice that Mal’s incredible tracking ability was on display again in this book, and that it seemed a lot less practical than magical. Perhaps Bardugo is setting us up for a reveal about Mal’s abilities as well? After all, Alina hid hers long enough. Between that and the questions of magic versus technology that were raised in this book, I couldn’t help but jump right into the third book, Ruin and Rising.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The capital has fallen.
The Darkling rules Ravka from his shadow throne.
Now the nation’s fate rests with a broken Sun Summoner, a disgraced tracker, and the shattered remnants of a once-great magical army.
Deep in an ancient network of tunnels and caverns, a weakened Alina must submit to the dubious protection of the Apparat and the zealots who worship her as a Saint. Yet her plans lie elsewhere, with the hunt for the elusive firebird and the hope that an outlaw prince still survives.
Alina will have to forge new alliances and put aside old rivalries as she and Mal race to find the last of Morozova’s amplifiers. But as she begins to unravel the Darkling’s secrets, she reveals a past that will forever alter her understanding of the bond they share and the power she wields. The firebird is the one thing that stands between Ravka and destruction—and claiming it could cost Alina the very future she’s fighting for.
Ruin and Rising is the third and final installment in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Verse Trilogy, and to say it goes out with a bang is an understatement. There is so much action in this book! I can’t help but be a little mad at Leigh Bardugo for the several late nights she kept me up because I could not put this book down!
The capital has fallen under the Darkling’s control. Ravka’s fate rests upon the shoulders of a broken sun summoner, a disgraced tracker, and the limited remnants of the army. Alina and Mal must locate and reach the firebird, the final amplifier, in time to defeat the Darkling, but they must first overcome insurmountable odds.
Alina is weak and broken from her last encounter with the Darkling. The price of war has been steep, leaving the majority of those who are willing to fight against the Darkling to be young religious zealots who worship Sankta Alina. Allies are divided and physically separated. And on top of it all, you will not be able to lose sight of Alina’s love life. Will Mal and Alina forget their differences and find happiness together? Or will Alina accept Nikolai’s proposal and become the future queen, uniting the Grisha with the common people of Ravka? Or maybe Alina will choose the Darkling, finally letting herself be corrupted by him.
Every time you wonder how on Earth Alina and Mal will manage to make it out of this series together, let alone alive, Leigh Bardugo manages to effortlessly reveal twist after twist, pulling you through book-clutching, heart-wrenching, and tear-jerking action that will leave you wanting more.
The character development in this book is phenomenal. The characters are complicated shades of gray – they are so human. Both the heroes and villains do good and bad things. Alina is not perfect, just as the Darkling is not perfectly bad. Alina makes plenty of mistakes, hurts several people, and pays a high price for her mistakes. The Darkling, even though he is the villain of the story, is almost impossible to hate. You will pity him, love him, and hate him, all at once!
Without revealing too much, a major detail about the amplifiers is revealed at the very end of this trilogy, which had been subtly set up from book one up until the end, and I was completely taken by surprise. When you read it, you will either kick yourself and ask how you did not see it coming, or else you will be smugly satisfied that you called it and saw it coming from the beginning. However, this detail about the amplifiers is the only reason why I couldn’t give the book a full 5 stars. The piece of the ending that is connected to this major reveal felt a little bit too forced for me, and while it was the ending most people hoped for, I didn’t find it to be the most realistic.
Overall, Ruin and Rising left me teary-eyed and contented. I did not want to leave these characters behind, but Bardugo did a great job of resolving everything. I cannot recommend this series enough. Go out and read it! If I have not managed to convince you to read this trilogy yet, then let Bardugo’s final sentence of the entire series convince you:
“They had an ordinary life, full of ordinary things – if love can ever be called that.”
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Titles: Shadow and Bone (Grisha Verse #1)
Siege and Storm (Grisha Verse #2)
Ruin and Rising (Grisha Verse #3)
Publisher: Square Fish (2012, 2013, and 2014, respectively)
Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Teen, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Magic, Fairy Tales & Folklore, Action & Adventure
Read… on my honeymoon while… laying on the beach in Hawaii.
Purchase your copy here.
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Leigh Bardugo is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of fantasy novels and the creator of the Grishaverse. With over one million copies sold, her Grishaverse spans the Shadow and Bone Trilogy, the Six of Crows Duology, and The Language of Thorns— with more to come. Her short stories can be found in multiple anthologies, including The Best of Tor.com and the Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy. Her other works include Wonder Woman: Warbringer, and the forthcoming Ninth House. Leigh was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Southern California, graduated from Yale University, and has worked in advertising, journalism, and even makeup and special effects. These days, she lives and writes in Los Angeles, where she can occasionally be heard singing with her band.