I wasn’t going to review Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, which has been hailed by many reviewers as one of the high points of the summer reading season (for young adults). [Note: I wrote this in 2012.] Indeed, I have yet to see a negative review in any publication, and users will note the novel’s current aggregate rating (4+ stars as of 25 June 2012). When Shadow and Bone was mentioned in the Barnes & Noble Review as one of the three recommended summer “thrillers” for teens, I finally decided that I must weigh in.
I admit up front that I am not part of Bardugo’s intended audience. I am not a teenager, nor am I a girl. (Bardugo and readers may or may take issue with the notion that Shadow and Bone is written more for female than male readers, but it nonetheless skews that way.) That said, I read young adult fiction, particularly in the genres of fantasy and science-fiction, because that’s where much of the most creative fiction being published these days originates. Consider The Hunger Games, the novel in particular and the trilogy in general. Collins’ series was much more inventive and fun than comparable works written for “adults.” (Basically, I believe that, if a book is “good,” the intended “audience” is irrelevant. It is worth reading.)
Perhaps it is this gender difference, though, that explains my negative reaction to Shadow and Bone. I’ve already noted that all of the reader reviews I’ve skimmed were by females. I suspect that, like me, male readers will be put off. Shadow and Bone is in part a love story. That’s not in itself so troubling for male readers, as long as it isn’t the focus of the book. (The love story in Shadow and Bone is a bit more prominent than some male readers might prefer, but it is not off-putting.) The love story here is a triangle between Alina, the protagonist, her childhood friend/now soldier Mal, and a powerful wizard known as the Darkling. It’s clear from the beginning that Alina loves Mal but doesn’t feel able to express it to him. Through a variety of twists and turns, Alina and Mal are physically and emotionally separated from one another and Alina eventually falls for the Darkling, who is described in what I can only call very girlish terms. It is VERY evident that the Darkling, dark, gothic, handsome and mysterious, is an example of adolescent female wish fulfillment. Male readers will find this dull; nor does Alina’s involvement with the Darkling add much to the story.
Alina’s puzzling relationship with the Darkling (he’s called THE DARKLING) aside, there are other aspects of Shadow and Bone regarding which I am more concerned. Along with Alina’s affair with the Darkling is his sudden (THIS IS A SPOILER) and not very surprising turn to evil. The Darkling shows his true colors (evil, represented by black, in which he constantly cloaks himself, incidentally) halfway through the book. Although Bardugo goes to great lengths to convince the reader that the Darkling is actually good, and Alina falls for his tricks, the revelation that he is really evil is not surprising. That said, it is AWKWARD. It comes from nowhere, falling from the sky into the middle of the story. It simply does not make sense the way it happens and the way it is introduced into the plot. The Darkling’s change is unconvincing not because the reader really believes that he is good (AGAIN, HE’S CALLED THE DARKLING), but because it is delivered awkwardly. The story makes a 90 degree turn without first preparing the reader.
The middle portion of Shadow and Bone describes Alina’s training by the Grisha (the wizards who serve the nation of Ravka). This is an occasionally interesting series of chapters relating Alina’s introduction to Grisha training and the ways of palace life. It’s reminiscent of portions of the Harry Potter books: Magic! Visiting the village! Festivals! Again, Bardugo’s extreme tendency toward the effeminate (not to be confused with femininity) mars this section. Much emphasis is placed on characters’ appearances, not only their wardrobes but also, and especially, their physical features. Finally grasping her magical powers, Alina is rewarded by no longer looking pale, weak and haggard: Her true, physical beauty shines. Bardugo certainly has a right to her opinions and toward the dispersion of them, but I’m uncomfortable with spreading these views among an age group already awash in such messages. I’m not asking for the tired line of GRRL POWER here, but the casualness with which Bardugo relates the sumptuousness of palace life and the beauty of her characters is simplistic. If physical beauty is an important feature in the book, please examine it in a way that is less shallow.
I found most disappointing Bardugo’s failure to fully develop the unique setting she chose for Shadow and Bone. Ravka appears to be a bit of a mishmash of medieval Muscovy and late imperial Russia. Bardugo has rightfully been lauded for deciding upon a less conventional fantasy setting. I’m a fan of Russian history and often wonder why fantasy is limited to medieval Western European settings, so I, too, was intrigued by Shadow and Bone’s premise. Sadly, Bardugo underutilizes her setting. The details that make fantasy settings great are lacking; compared to Deathless by Catherynne Valente (a fantasy set in Stalinist Russia), the setting of Shadow and Bone is wanting. Yes, the Grisha ride in sleighs and people wear furs, but detail remains at that level. Readers should not expect to find a setting informed by a depth of Russian history and folklore.
I criticize Shadow and Bone not because it was a failure, but because it failed to live up to its potential. Bardugo’s prose is serviceable and her storytelling capabilities are fine, if a bit bumpy. The novel is shallow, though, and fails to fully develop some of its thematic issues. The setting was a clever choice but was poorly developed. Readers should not avoid Shadow and Bone, but should approach it with managed expectations. Suspend judgment until the second book in the trilogy is released. Perhaps by then Bardugo will have corrected some the errors she made in Shadow and Bone.
(Note: I wrote this review on June 25, 2012, and originally posted it on LibraryThing and Goodreads. Its cross-posting here is part of an effort to consolidate all of my reviews in one place.)