This is compulsive reading.
Shadow & Bone is a world of magic and monsters, kings and princes. Meet the Grisha, skilled in magical arts that actually serve a purpose, a useless King, a scheming ancient power called the Darkling, whose forbear once created the Shadow Fold, a looming blackness that consumed the lands around the kingdom and peopled it with monsters that will claw your heart out. The only thing they fear is light.Two unrelated orphans Alina and Mal are raised under the Duke’s patronage, schooled ready for a prosaic life. Perhaps more of their life in the orphange would have been nice but this is a harsh world and they need to grow up fast. Mal grows to be a natural born tracker and will always find a role in the army. Alina, sickly and thin, grows up to a map-maker in the King’s Second Army. They are still together, bound by something raw and fiercely loyal to each other, even if Mal is a rogue lover and Alina is mocked by other, prettier girls, for pining after him.
Crossing the dangerous Shadow Fold with the Second Army, they are set upon by the Volcra (the flesh eating monsters of the dark) and as Mal is attacked, Alina summons up all her fear and anger and suddenly sunshine, brilliant light pours out of her to burn out the eyes of the looming monsters.
Clearly Alina has been hiding something. She is arrested, summoned by the court and she catches the attention of the Darkling. Many believe she is the Sun Summoner, long promised; never yet seen. Alina is now to be trained as a Grisha, a person of privilege at court and to be parted from her precious Mal.
The story of Alina’s rise and training set against the brooding Darkling, who can summon darkness and coverts her skills, is totally absorbing. He asks her ‘Does the bird feel the weight of its wings?’
Alina is befriended by Genya, who works her Grisha magic to make Alina seem more than she is. But whom can she trust in the world of the court and the gossiping hangers-on? Mal has disappeared from her life and she has no one to turn to. Learning to fight is hard and try as she might she cannot summon up her special power unless in pain.
As we turn to Siege and Storm we see the Darkling for who he really is and as Alina’s power grows and her control of it, understand what temptations lie in her path. Only Mal grounds her and he is back to his old ways. Perhaps Mal may disappoint some readers but his loyalty is his power and of course Alina's weakeness. Sure he doesn't have the magnification of the Darkling but he is there as contrast and a rudder to keep Alina sane.
Enter Sturmhond, Captain of a Whaler, the Darkling has hired for the hunting of a sea-dragon. What secret does this Captain have and what interest in Alina?
‘I’m notoriously immune to tales of woe. So unless your story involves a talking dog, I don’t want to hear it. Does it?’
‘Does it what?’
‘Involve a talking dog?’
Great fun, beautifully drawn in a wonderfully staged setting. Alina's list of enemies grows and the expections of the people who call her a Saint are sure to be disapointed. Can the Darkling be defeated? Or does he control Alina from her dreams? Leigh Bardugo has arrived fully formed and her writing will astonish you as you pray that Alina and Mal can survive long enough for part three!
It began with Shadow and Bone and a girl, Alina, a simple map-maker in the King’s Army. It was set in a world not dissimilar to the Baltic Countries and is immediately gripping, complex and vivid as Alina, under extreme stress discovers her extraordinary powers as a sun summoner and seals her fate as a Grisha. She goes from no one to the linchpin in a world devastated by the fold, a permanent darkness that wastes the land and all the people in it. The Grisha are the power behind the throne. Feared and loathed, but essential in the battles to come against the dark powers. Alina is to be trained as a Grisha and learn how to control and exploit her power. If she is to be able to defeat darkness she needs all the power that can be found.
Siege and Storm leaves a country battle scarred as Ravka is torn apart by darkness and the cunning rise of The Darkling. If you haven’t discovered the amazing palaces, the powerful writing about extraordinary people with astonishing skills yet, there is time to read the first two books before you get to Ruin and Rising. It’s Game of Thrones with merciless magic.
In part three Alina Starkov, now considered a Saint by the populace at large, is weak and imprisoned for her own good in the White Cathedral by the slippery scheming Apparat. She has lost her Sun Summoner powers and they are fooling the faithful with daily appearances and mirror light to keep up appearances. The Grisha seem defeated, demoralised, a few, like Mal, keep in training, ever ready to serve her. But the Apparat keeps her well-guarded underground, in the eternal damp – perhaps to prevent her recovery and reconnection with her Grisha powers.
‘They wanted a Grisha queen. Mal wanted a commoner queen. And what did I want? Peace for Ravka. A chance to sleep in my bed without fear. An end to the guilt and dread I woke to every morning. There were old wants too, to be loved for who I was, not what I could do, to lie in a meadow with a boy’s arm around me and watch the wind and the clouds. Those dreams belonged to a girl, not the Sun Summoner, not to a Saint.’
Alina must find all three of Morozova’s amplifiers before she can take on the might of the Darkling. This then is the search for the Firebird that might be a salvation or be the ruination of Alina and Ravka forever. But they have no idea where it might be. Alina is brave but is learning all the times the terrible temptations of power and how it might corrupt her. Old friends keep her grounded to be sure, but can a Saint even have friends? Or lovers?
Leigh Bardugo writes with compelling skill and like Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name Of The Wind, it possesses you and invades your dreams. Bardugo’s main characters such as Tolya and Zoya or Harshaw with his Oncat are extremely vivid and their bickering is touchingly genuine, as is their loyalty to the Saint they follow – no matter what. Alina has a fine band of warriors to lead, flawed to be sure and all the better for it. Mal comes into his own in Ruin and Rising, as does the danger loving, witty Prince Nikolai who seeks Alina for his bride. He is the most engaging character, but then again, you are rooting for all of them. Nikolai and Mal are both rivals for Alina’s heart, but one senses this can only end in tragedy for one, or indeed all three.
In Ruin and Rising, Alina is in communication with the evil Darkling by telepathy. He gloats at her attempts to outsmart him, but she is growing in confidence, an apt-pupil who can at times shake his confidence. But the Darkling knows she lacks the ruthless disregard for human life that gives him his power. She lacks the dreaded nichevo’ya – winged vampires that will tear you limb from limb. He toys with Alina and does not believe she can defeat him. But he does not know she can cut through mountains ...
Ruin and Rising is a battle of wits and is all times terrifying and utterly compelling, written with a beautiful eye for detail by Leigh Bardugo. Alina’s journey from the lowest ranks to reluctant Sainthood is like a bright jewel in fantasy fiction.
The strangest thing, when it ended, I immediately wanted to start the journey all over again. There is a powerful spell at work here – read it and you too will be entranced. No surprise at all this has been optioned by Dreamworks and Director David Heyman - Order your copy now. And then start 'Six of Crows'!
© Sam Hawksmoor June 17th 2014
The Repossession - Joint Winner for The Wirral 'Paperback of the Year' 2013