Monday, March 24, 2014

Shorn of Mystery and Shadow, This Was the Truth

Shadow and Bone
~Shadow and Bone~
Grisha Trilogy
Book 1

By Leigh Bardugo
Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

Alina Starkov doesn't expect much from life. Orphaned by the Border Wars, the one thing she could rely on was her best friend and fellow refugee, Mal. And lately not even that seems certain. Drafted into the army of their war-torn homeland, they're sent on a dangerous mission into the Fold, a swath of unnatural darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh.

When their convoy is attacked, all seems lost until Alina reveals a dormant power that not even she knew existed. Ripped from everything she knows, she is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling. He believes she is the answer the people have been waiting for: the one person with the power to destroy the Fold.

Swept up in a world of luxury and illusion, envied as the Darkling's favorite, Alina struggles to fit into her new life without Mal by her side. But as the threat to the kingdom mounts, Alina discovers a secret that sets her on a collision course with the most powerful forces in the kingdom. Now only her past can save her...and only she can save the future.

This story had a lot of familiar elements. A girl who doesn't know her own powers, a magical school, a villain out for world domination, a romance between childhood friends... But for every similar element, I kept thinking of another story which had done it better. I'm not saying I'm against authors using similar elements and reinventing stories, but it would be nice if I got something new out of the story...

I think it all started with the characters. Alina is our heroine in the story. She's been orphaned by the war, and now in her late teens has been recruited as a mapmaker in the army. Little does she know that she's actually been blessed with the super rare magical ability to summon light, the only ability that might finally destroy this magical rift of darkness that splits their country. So now she's whisked off to MagicGrisha School to harness her abilities. Anyone in their right mind would be excited about this, right?

Alina is one of the most bland main characters I've ever read. She may be super gifted, but she doesn't want to stand out, and makes it a point not to. She's practically anti-social, with on-screen interaction with only her teachers and this one other girl. Then, as the plot moves forward, she is all self-sacrificial, telling her love to kill her to make sure her powers don't fall into the hands of the villain. So we're left with a main character who's an anti-social martyr with low self-esteem. If she doesn't even care about herself, why should we care about her?

I suppose perhaps Alina's love interests might help in this, but honestly we see so little of them it's ridiculous. Mal is her childhood friend and fellow orphan that Alina has glommed onto all these years. But as soon as her Light powers are revealed, she's separated from him for over half the book. It's only upon a chance reuniting that their feelings are rekindled. And even then, he says he didn't realize he loved her until she was gone. Such a charmer, isn't he? Past that he acts so stony, besides one humorous breakdown, that I can't see any attraction whatsoever.

The Darkling is our other prospective love interest. Most powerful Grisha, wielder of Dark magic, leader of the Second Army, and second only to the King, he's got it all going on. He's also got that mysterious vibe going on, plus a tragic backstory to boot. But because he's so big and powerful and important, we hardly see much of him either, such that any romance he might have going with Alina seems completely rushed and lusty. I mean, it must be nice having someone believing in you and noticing you for once, but slow it down a little. In fact, if things had turned out differently, I'd probably root for him over Mal.

But what really disappointed me was providing a fascinating world and mythology, but only giving us glimpses when it was necessary for the characters. Normally I would praise this, as I'm never a fan of unnecessary exposition dumps or pages of unrelated world description, but the scraps of mythos we were given were far more enticing than the story being followed. Case in point, there's a school of magic in which magic is treated more like a science than a mystical force, but because Alina's powers are so unlike anyone else's, we never get to see anything anyone else does. And the little we do get to see, concerning Alina's own training, takes place mostly off-screen.

I can see why an author wouldn't want to go too far into the magic school, seeing as it's practically become cliche these days. So what about the other aspects of the world? The deep political strife? Hardly mentioned and then handled completely off-screen. The ancient mythology? There's this magical stag whose antlers can be made into a super-powerful magic-amplifier, but other than mentioning some "Gods" in passing, I never understood why this herd and this stag were so magical. In fact, I never understood where any of the Grisha's magic stemmed from.

Ultimately, I feel as if the story got in the way of the details. There are some gems of characters in the background who I would have loved to learn more about, discover why they do some of the things they do. Instead they just do things because the plot says so. Same goes for the mythology. We need a super-powerful amplifier that's super rare and hard to about a magical stag's antlers? Yeah, that sounds cool, and it'll get super-hunter Mal back into the plot. We need our heroine to find out about the villain's plot but not from him...PLOT TWIST!

Yeah, there are a lot of plot twists in this story. Not that I'm against surprises or convenience in stories, but when the entire thing is built up of plot twist upon convenience upon nondescript happenstance, then I get a bit annoyed. Give me reasoning behind one thing. Give me lore or prophecy or something that explains why a character acted in this perfect way, and I might buy it. Give me logic and I'll be even more understanding. But as much as I love fantasy, I don't love lazy fantasy.

On that note, there have been a few reviewers questioning the semi-Russian-ness that the book obviously draws from. If you're interested in the author's explanation, you might want to check out her page describing some of the terms and variations she came up with. For me, I didn't really mind. I didn't see it as a distraction, but I can see where Russian speakers might get annoyed. To each their own.

While I was underwhelmed with this book, I'm going to give the series another shot with the sequel, Siege and Storm. I'm hoping to see some more character development, especially with our lead, and perhaps some more juicy mythos thrown in. But really, if there isn't a little more development in something, then I'm going to drop it.

Overall, Shadow and Bone left me wanting. If you've got some time and are in the mood for a high fantasy YA rooted in a non-European setting, then I'd say give it a try. No language, but there is a make-out scene and some fantasy death, so I'd put this in the high school and up range. Perhaps not the most original piece of literature out there, but if you're eager for some plot twists you may want to check out Shadow and Bone for yourself.

Approximate Reading Time: 4.5 hours

Audiobook Review
Read by Lauren Fortgang
Length: 8.9 Hours
Listened at 2.2x Speed

There wasn't anything really stand-out for me with this audio. Ms. Fortgang did a fine job giving voice to numerous characters, and I don't remember ever becoming confused with who was speaking, so that's a plus. Also, as with many Fantasy novels, having someone else pronounce all those foreign/made-up words is always a weight off my shoulders, so I'd definitely recommend the audio on that basis alone.

The production on this audio was noticeably higher than others I've heard, but that was both a boon and detriment in my eyes. During the last track of each disk, some music starts up under the narration for the last 20 seconds or so, followed by "This ends disc #, please insert disc #." Music also underscores the narration at the beginning of each disc, but unfortunately that narration is exactly the same as what was underscored on the last disc. So essentially, you've only got to listen to the music-ed parts once, because it's spoken both at the end of the disc and the beginning of the next.

But other than that slightly strange decision on production's part, the audio was useful. Especially for those leery of Fantasy names and terms, I'd definitely recommend the audio to help alleviate the stress around pronunciations. If you've got an audio copy handy, definitely give it a try, but I wouldn't go too far out of my way for this middling experience.