Who else has been so excited about Netflix’s series Shadow and Bone, which is based on the Shadow and Bone trilogy by Leigh Bardudo? It was such joy to watch the series, which was well made and had excellent diverse cast, that I along with many others decided to read the trilogy as quickly as possible. I think I read the three books in just over a week. 🙂
The thought filled me with grief, grief for the dreams we’d shared, for the love I’d felt, for the hopeful girl I would never be again.
It’s been a while since I’ve immersed myself in some YA fantasy. The trilogy had ups and downs, some disappointments too, but it was a fun journey to just read these three books non-stop and feel the excitement of “I just want to know how it all ends”.
I’m sure the Netflix series has led to many others also reading through these books for the first time, so I’ll keep this short and as spoiler free as possible, but be warned that there are spoilers especially if you have only watched the Netflix series.
To me the first book was the best. It introduced us to an interesting world, influenced by Russia circa 1800s -ish, and the power wielders called Grisha. We get to know Alina and Mal our star-crossed main couple, and the very fascinating Darkling who is the most powerful Grisha there is, but still he is serving under the thumb of the king. Obviously Alina has the role of “the chosen one” and as is suitable for this genre the “ugly duckling” becomes a super powerful Grisha and suddenly she is all beautiful as well. 🙂 I do get that the point was to underline how sickly and meek she is before and to show how being able to use her powers/embrace true self affects Alina’s health in a positive way. Still the whole transformation/dressup moment still made me laugh a little bit. But who doesn’t love playing dressup though, especially with some magical enhancements?
There is an obvious love triangle, that on one side turns into a very abusive one, and the other one just seems dull. To be honest if there is a question of “which couple did I root for”, I would have answered neither.
Mal to me was an odd choice, since he didn’t seem to really accept Alina with her powers and she seemed to want to change herself for his sake. It just felt like an odd balance of not really accepting your loved one for what they are, and yet we are supposed to believe that Mal loved her always. Overall I think Mal’s character was a bit one-sided, too perfect, probably because the books are written in Alina’s perspective. He lacks some depth, and personality in my opinion.
And then there is the Darkling who is powerful, gorgeous, dangerous and abusive. To me he is a much more interesting character than Mal and Alina together, and it was fascinating to learn about his past and motives throughout the trilogy. His and Alina’s relationship is an abusive one, so I did not root for them. Their interactions do however serve as a good “mirror” to Alina for what she herself might become as she grows more powerful, and more power hungry. I wish there had been more of this exploration of a darker Alina. It would have been an interesting contrast to the Sankta Alina plotline where the ordinary people are worshipping her as a saint.
Perhaps there was one person I could have seen Alina with, and that’s Nikolai who is introduced in the second book. He’s a fun character who jumped off the pages with his light-hearted nature and humor, in an otherwise gloom atmosphere that continues throughout the trilogy. Actress Jessie Mei Li, who plays Alina, said very correctly in one of the interviews that she didn’t get to have many funny moments or something like that, because Alina’s storyline is quite serious/dark. And to this gloominess Nikolai’s character brings some balance, until things happen and it gets again more serious. I think I could have seen Alina happy with him, having some joy in her life as well as someone who accepts her as she is.
The political setting was very interesting, and I would’ve enjoyed reading more about the powers in play, the effects of the Fold and political plotting. There are Grisha’s who can use their powers and are very much respected in Ravka, but they are less accepted in other countries. In Ravka we have the royal family that wield the highest power, even though the Grisha could technically just take over. And then there is the Rasputin-like character, The Apparat, who is all about raising Alina into a saint and having the ordinary people on her side, and his side as well. The world situation is interesting too since there was a real worry of other countries surpassing Ravka with more advanced technology, and that the time of the Grisha being over.
Some of the things that bothered me in addition to the ending (which I’ll shortly go through next), were some oddities with the adaptation of Russian language. This is of course a fantasy world, so it’s not meant to be realistic, but it bothered me surprisingly much that e.g. Alina’s last name was Starkov and not Starkova, as the feminine last name should be in Russian. Also it was quite amusing that the drink called kvas was treated as an alcoholic drink, sort of like vodka, even though kvas is actually a very low alcohol beverage. It bothered me that after the first book, I started to feel that Alina’s character growth was starting to stall and she could’ve done so much more to show us her inner conflicts, new motivations, but to me she became unfortunately more bland towards the end of the trilogy. I found myself wanting to give her a push, a boost to be more evil or more good, more anything to be more actively involved. The supporting cast was quite good, apart from Mal who I think also suffered from being stuck in character growth. In the end my favorite characters were: Genya, Nikolai, Baghra and the Darkling. Sorry Alina and Mal. 😀
Spoilers about the ending of the trilogy, do not read here if you want to keep completely spoiler free:
The ending of the trilogy was a surprising one to me. I wasn’t particularly satisfied with it, because to me it felt like Alina’s character growth was sort of “cancelled”. The setup of the trilogy, the build up with the powers and the danger of those powers and turning evil, just seems to be pushed aside. I would have preferred for Alina to stay with the Grisha, to help them rebuild, but instead she just goes back to her origin as if nothing had changed. And the way it was done, it sort of seems like Alina didn’t get to make the choice herself. When the powers vanished, it was easier to go back to a humble, familiar life, but what if she had been able to keep the powers? It would have been interesting to see what Alina’s character would have chosen for herself. Would countryside life with Mal have been a realistic option then? Or would Alina finally have made decisions just for herself without Mal?
When the thing happens with Mal at the end, my first thought was: yes, this sacrifice makes sense finally for his character as long as he stays dead, and I crossed my fingers they wouldn’t be able to bring him back. Alas, they did and Alina was back in the dull relationship, and we didn’t get to see what she might have decided to become without Mal dragging her “down”.
All in all Shadow and Bone trilogy was an enjoyable YA fantasy and I am looking forward to going back to Grishaverse with the Six of Crows books and seeing another angle to the world through them. The Netflix series did an excellent job introducing the Crows in the first season already as it brought balance to the Alina plotline which, as said, can be quite gloomy on its own.
The Shadow and Bone trilogy books fill these prompts from the two Reading Challenges I’m doing this year:
Shadow and Bone:
– Two books on the same subject (Helmet Reading Challenge)
– A book you have seen on someone’s bookshelf (in real life, on a Zoom call, in a TV show, etc.) (Popsugar Reading Challenge)
Siege and Storm:
– Two books on the same subject (Helmet Reading Challenge)
– A book about do-overs or fresh starts (Popsugar Reading Challenge)
Ruin and Rising:
– A book featuring a group of friends
– A book that has a heart, diamond, club, or spade on the cover (Popsugar Reading Challenge)