Shadow and Bone: The Grisha Book 1 by Leigh Bardugo, Indigo, 308 pgs, £6.99 paperback, 2013
I must admit, I sometimes get a little leery of debut novels, that wariness mostly to do with the inevitable hyperbole which surrounds the book’s release. Just occasionally, however, along comes a debut that really does justify the fanfare, and Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone is one of those.
The circumstances of life can turn on the simplest of occurrences; for Alina, an apprentice cartographer, that point happens when, sand-skiffing through the Shadow Fold, her conveyance is attacked by strange airborne creatures inhabiting this smoky, insubstantial region. In saving her childhood friend Mal, a tracker in the army, she inadvertently unleashes a power that could save her world – but at what cost?
That, in essence, is the premise of this eminently accomplished first novel. It’s a beautifully-written and –realised tale of one girl growing up in a world that is far more complicated and dangerous than she gives it credit for. It’s also a tale of how even the humblest of mortals, blessed with something miraculous, can rise above unpromising beginnings and soar to the heights. More importantly perhaps, it doesn’t shy away from warning us that even the most precious of gifts can be nothing more than double-edged swords, simultaneously both a blessing and a curse. It’s this that strikes at the very heart of this novel.
Alina and Mal are orphans, taken in by Duke Keramzov and brought up accordingly by the harsh Ana Kuya. At a certain age, both are tested to gauge whether either of them are potential Grisha, an order of what are, to all intents and purposes, magic workers or, more appropriately perhaps, element manipulators. Some of these Grisha are fire wielders or wind-callers, or work wonders with materials or are healers – there’s even a type of ‘plastic surgeon’. Each branch of manipulator is arranged into orders, and all are ultimately subordinated to the Darkling, a handsome, dangerous black-clad leader of men, who in turn answers to a largely ineffectual, louche King. When Alina and Mal are tested, however, they are found to be unremarkable and so are eventually conscripted into the army, to become a cartographer and a tracker respectively.
The power Alina unintentionally unleashes on the sand skiff turns out to be utterly singular – she’s that rarest of creatures and talents, a Sun Summoner. The Darkling, whose somewhat malign reputation places him at a considerable distance above the heads of ordinary folk in the thunderclouds of suspicion and dread, becomes interested in what her power portends. Subsequently, he tells Alina that, with her power the Shadow Fold and all that lies within it can be destroyed, freeing the land and returning the world to how it once was. The Darkling’s motives appear benign; after all, everything covered by the Shadow Fold has been laid to waste and filled with creatures inimical to humans, making crossing it a hazardous enterprise. It was an ancestor of the Darkling’s, the Black Heretic, who brought the Fold into being several hundred years previously: the Darkling wishes to right the wrong, but he needs what Alina possesses in order to accomplish it. The question is, can she afford to trust him?
Alina, as portrayed by Bardugo, is, for all her humble beginnings, a remarkable girl. Despite being scrawny and a little weak, she holds within her slight frame a strong streak of toughness. She’s the one who instinctively springs into action when Mal is hurt on the skiff during their journey through the Fold, selflessly throwing herself on his prone body to protect him from the predations of the Volcra. Even when she’s taken back to the Little Palace, the Darkling’s stronghold in the capital Os Alta, she finds the environment and training challenging and intimidating, but nevertheless she toughs it out and, under the guidance of her tutors, learns to accept and control the mighty power she holds within her.
It is here, though, within the confines of the Palace, that she truly begins to grow as a person. Her previous circumstances have meant that she could only do one thing: be a survivor, disdaining frivolity and idleness, and eschewing any kind of luxury. Taken under the Darkling’s wing, her situation changes dramatically: Alina learns that much depends on her ability to harness her power, and that doubt and uncertainty make for dangerous enemies at crucial moments. Additionally, through the help of Genya (maidservant to the somewhat haughty Queen) she learns how to become a woman, ultimately revelling in the minutiae of femininity she denied herself as being alien to her nature. Genya’s gift is to teach her to see herself through new eyes and in doing so to gain the confidence she lacks, helping her to mature in both physical and metal terms.
Likewise, the supporting characters of the Grisha residing in the Little Palace inadvertently teach her about her own inner strength, even people like the empty-headed Nadia and Marie as well as the conceited and ultimately jealous Zoya. This is one of Bardugo’s strengths: she has a knack of drawing detailed and entirely believable portraits with broad brushstrokes and few words – likewise the world in which they and Alina have their being. Apart from the elements of ‘magic’ (or Small Science, as it’s termed here), the world described in Shadow and Bone is not so different from how our world would have looked just a few centuries ago.
Where Bardugo excels is in the storytelling. The pace is never forced but races along at a fair pace, the main thrust of the narrative delineating the necessary points of action without any extraneous fluff. And where the action slows down, Bardugo fills out the character of Alina through her own thoughts and concerns. Alina possesses a good bit of insight into her own being, but also manages to draw on her inner strength to do what’s necessary to move forward. A particularly good example of this is when she goes through an epiphany regarding her unrequited feelings for her childhood companion Mal: it’s those feelings which have held her back so that, in order to evolve, she must let go of them. It’s a great piece of writing – the shedding of that weight, both emotionally and metaphysically, attests to the maturing and tempering of Alina’s character through the difficult situation she finds herself in. Over and above that, there’s a bit of everything here: action, comedy, danger, frivolity and romance, but all of it is as essential to the plot as oxygen is to breathing. No word is wasted, and the language flows beautifully, never once betraying it as a YA novel – this is a book that treats its readers as people capable of understanding what’s going on without the need for condescending explanation.
Many debut authors are touted as having promise: while I can’t vouch for others I can say that Leigh Bardugo, if she carries on writing books of this calibre, definitely has a great deal of promise and potential. I felt myself being immersed completely into Alina’s world from the opening lines, and I did indeed find it difficult to surface into the real world when I was required to. I suspect that the appeal will be much broader than just the usual fantasy readership: above that, reading this would also serve as a useful primer on how to write that first novel, in terms of pacing, characterisation, dialogue, and structure. There are a lot of good writers out there, of whom Leigh Bardugo is undoubtedly one – but she also has the potential to go even further than just being a good writer. Recommended reading.