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Werthead

[Book review]: The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

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Book 1: Shadow and Bone

 

The great nation of Ravka is troubled by war with her neighbours and by the Shadow Fold, a mysterious force of darkness which has cut off the west coast from the rest of the kingdom. Only the Grisha, the magic-wielding servants of Ravka, can cross the Fold in safety. A young mapmaker, Alina Starkov, is recruited to help such a crossing but she manifests the powers of the Grisha along the way. Recruited into the order, Alina discovers she has the power to summon light, the power to perhaps destroy the Shadow Fold forever...and a power that some will do anything to possess.

Shadow and Bone is the opening novel of Leigh Bardugo's Grisha Trilogy, a work of fantasy that is both familiar and different. Its core story, of a young woman who discovers she has powers and different forces in the world want to use or abuse those powers, is pretty standard. The setting, which borrows elements from Russian history and geography, is certainly unusual for the fantasy genre although not completely unique (The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia and Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins are recent genre works influenced by Russian culture and mythology).

Shadow and Bone has a number of negatives which I'll get out of the way first. It's pretty standard fare. Traditional fantasy tropes are deployed and explored with some flourishes, but no real originality. It's entirely possible you will predict every plot twist well ahead of time. The main character, Alina, is an orphan who turns out to have amazing powers. There's an unrequieted romance, a heated rivalry with a jealous, more aristocratic fellow student and a dangerous, spark-filled relationship with an older man. There's also scenes of Alina learning the arts of magic from an older mentor who deploys pithy sayings and unconventional teaching methods to get spectacular results. There are desperate betrayals, daring escapes in the night and magical battles. And so forth. Depending on how much traditional fantasy you have read in your life, you may not have a huge amount of time for yet more of the same.

But if Shadow and Bone is mostly standard and familiar fare, it is very well-written standard fare, delivered with pace and excitement. The Grisha, a magical order set up like an army with chains of command and different forces and disciplines within its ranks, is an original and memorable creation and the interaction between the different orders is quite well-established. The Shadow Fold is also an unsettling creation and the nature of the creatures within it (the volcra) is disturbing. The different types of Grisha and their abilities are set up but in this first novel we haven't seen too much of what they can do, which hopefully later volumes will rectify.

Characterisation is mostly strong, with Alina making for a likeable heroine and the Darkling (despite his emo name) an interesting and multi-faceted character. Most intriguing is Genya, a Grisha with an apparently limited skill (making people appear more attractive) which she deploys to strong effect. I get the impression she has an interesting story to tell and hopefully she will be more prominent in later volumes, along with her low-key love interest, David. Less interesting is Alina's unrequieted love, Mal, who is a pretty standard hunky soldier with elite tracking skills and limited personality, but hopefully he will develop more in later volumes.

Shadow and Bone (****) won't be winning awards for originality, but it does tell its story with verve and vigour, building up to an explosive climax. It's a very short novel (360 pages in paperback, but with a fairly genrous font size) but will leave you wanting to jump into the sequel, Siege and Storm, straight away. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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Book 2: Siege and Storm

 

 

Alina Starkov is the Sun Summoner, able to wield tremendous powers of light. She wants to use this power to burn away the Shadow Fold and reunited the sundered land of Ravka, but is opposed by the Darkling, leader of the Grisha, a former ally turned mortal foe. Fleeing across the ocean to the continent of Novyi Zem, Alina hopes to find sanctuary. But the reach of the Darkling is a long one...

Siege and Storm is the middle volume of the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo and follows up on the ending of Shadow and Bone. The novel is divided into several distinct sections, the first set in Novyi Zem. I was looking forward to seeing Alina and Mal in a new environment where Grisha are rare and the rules of the land are different, but this lasts a bare handful of pages before we're scooting back across the sea to Ravka. One of the main appeals of this trilogy is that the author doesn't hang around and blitzes from plot beat to plot bear with impressive skill and speed, but this felt a little too abrupt.

After this point is a series of sea battles and some impressive use of Grisha powers to create new weapons and technology (such as Grisha wind summoners fuelling sky-skimming warships), as well as Alina gaining the power of a second amplifier to increase her magical powers. This also increases the risk of her being corrupted by her power the way the Darkling was by his, and the book manages to extract more tension than you'd expect from the notion that Alina might give in to her power and either turn evil or lost control of it. This is helped by the fact that the Darkling becomes more than a villain in this second volume, he also becomes a symbol of Alina's thirst for more knowledge and the power to do good.

It's a strong idea, but is undermined by the fact that Alina never really does anything too heinous with her enlarged powers and you never really buy that she's going to be slaughtering lots of innocent people.

The latter half of the book, in which Alina has to mobilise a Grisha army against the Darkling, is good fun as Alina recruits and retains Grisha warriors, has relationship angst with Mal and is drawn against her will into the political maneuvering for control of Ravka between two feuding brothers. It's all fun but played a little too safe. It's not until near the end of the book that we get some major moments of dramatic power and some action scenes. These scenes are certainly impressive, but they are set up in a rather contrived manner where one character doesn't tell the rest what's going on, because if he did the bad guy's plan would simply never work.

Siege and Storm (***½) is an entertaining and enjoyable read. Unfortunately the atmosphere of the book feels like it's taken a knock from the predecessor. The first novel, if only intermittently, channeled its Russian inspiration into the environmental descriptions and cultural details of the book. In this second volume it feels like it's been reduced to simple linguistic variations. In addition, the book feels like it's too fast-paced when it should slow down a bit (at the start) and then too slow-paced when it should pick up (in the latter part). The result is a book that's breezy and fun, but maybe a little bit more lightweight than it should be. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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Book 3: Ruin and Rising

 

The Darkling has won a stunning victory, seizing control of Ravka and the Grisha. His agents now hunt the land for Alina Starkov and her band of rebels. But Alina has one chance to win back victory: she alone knows the location of the third amplifier, which will grant her the power to destroy the Shadow Fold and the Darkling both. But her growing power also threatens to overwhelm her morality and judgement. Saving Ravka may mean losing herself...

Ruin and Rising brings the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo to a close. This fantasy young adult series, riffing off YA and epic fantasy tropes and filtered through a Russian-inspired naming convention, has been engaging and energetic and this concluding volume continues along that path.

It continues the theme from the previous novel of Alina being torn between using her power to save her country and her friends, but worried that doing so will corrupt her absolutely. It's a powerful theme (if arguably overplayed in fantasy) but it's a little bit weakened here by the fact that it's clear Alina never would do anything so outright evil and the fact that defeating the Darkling is so important. Otherwise the book continues in a similar vein from the previous one, save that Alina and her friends are now on the run rather than working from the heart of Ravka's power.

The novel looses up a little and we have some stronger characterisation in the form of Alina's former arch-nemesis turned close associate Zoya, who has somehow convincingly become a friend and ally despite not really changing her character from a spoiled, overconfident aristocrat. This is a clever piece of character work that the author pulls off quite well. There's also more offbeat character tics, like the slightly demented Harsha (a fire Grisha who's a little too fond of fire) and his feline companion, Oncat. These add a bit more character and spark to proceedings.

There's also a nice twist where the spine of the novel, the search for the third amplifier, takes an abrupt turn that feels predictable in retrospect (it's well foreshadowed from earlier novels) but took me by surprise anyway. There's also the grand finale, which feels like it is riffing off the ending to a major late 1990s TV fantasy show, which I always thought was an excellent an unconventional way of ending a fantasy series about a Chosen One but hadn't seen replicated in literature until now. It certainly gives rise to a neat and suitable ending.

Some of the complaints about the series from the earlier novels remain in force. Sometimes things happen far too fast without proper appreciation for the consequences, travel time and distances are all over the place (Alina seems to allow her team maybe three days maximum to explore a whole, massive mountain range for a creature with no knowledge of its location) and the Russian influence seems to be limited solely to the names with little evocation of actual Russian history or culture: on that basis Peter Higgins's Wolfhound Century trilogy is altogether more successful in creating a faux-Russian atmosphere. Mal, although a bit more likable in this novel, also remains an unengaging and sometimes wooden protagonist.

But overall, Ruin and Rising (***½) is a fine and readable conclusion to what has been an entertaining and diverting trilogy, but it does feel like there is some unfulfilled potential here. It is available now in the UK and USA.

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