Review – Shadow & Bone Trilogy

I’d never heard of Tsarpunk before a friend recommended this series and asked me if I’d ever heard of Tsarpunk. Which I hadn’t. 🙂 Now that I have, I’m glad to know the term.

There will be spoilers in this post. This is your stop here warning if you’d like to read these books spoiler free. Turn back. Turn back. TURN BAAAAACK.

The Shadow and Bone Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo is set in Ravka, a war-ridden kingdom similar to 19th century Russia, with a unique magic-but-not-magic system. Magic-but-not-magic? Yep. It’s called the small science, and it’s all about manipulating matter (which, BTW is really cool).

The story is narrated by Alina, an orphan turned cartographer in the war. She grew up with her best friend Mal, a boy noticed by everyone but he doesn’t notice Alina. He’s a tracker in the army, the best there is.

When Mal’s life is in danger, Alina is also revealed to be one of the Grisha–those folks practising the small science. In fact, she’s revealed to be the Grisha, a sun summoner, second only to the leader of the Grisha, the Darkling.

Alina’s power is to summon light, while the Darkling summons shadows. He’s also an amplifier, someone who amplifies other Grisha’s power. Amplifiers don’t just have to be people, objects can also be amplifiers, but more on this later.

So what, she summons light? And that’s exactly what Ravka needs. You see, ages ago, a power-hungry Darkling (the Black Heretic) created the Unsea, this place of shadow and flying monsters called volcra. The Unsea has effectively cut off greater Ravka from its harbours in the west, and leaves it landlocked between its enemies.

Alina’s power of summoning light can remove the Unsea and reunite all of Ravka.

Of course, she doesn’t know how to use this power. The Darkling takes her away to train but also to keep her out of enemy hands, gets romantically involved with her (sort of) and reveals his plan to get an amplifier for her.

There’s a legendary stag, and its horns are believed to be amplifiers. The person who wants the amplifier must kill the stag, thus claiming the power, and forge the horns into a wearable item.

Enter Mal, the tracker.

Over the course of the books, Alina and Mal find three amplifiers. No one Grisha is supposed to have more than one amplifier, but the amplifiers Alina seeks are meant to be worn in a set.

She struggles with the worry over what three amplifiers will do to her, struggles with her will-they-won’t-they relationship with Mal, struggles with the sainthood that was bestowed upon her by a nation hungry for salvation.

Overall, I think the story is good. The concept of Tsarpunk is super cool, the small science is a fresh idea, and I really appreciated the almost Dragon Age Inquisition quality of Alina becoming a religious figure in this country rife with superstition.

I really liked the Darkling, Nikolai, and Zoya, but didn’t really feel connected to many of the other characters. I didn’t always understand their motivations, so I didn’t get why they did certain things.

Personally, I really wanted to see the Darkling redeemed. He became a bit of a cartoon villain as the end of the story neared, but he’d been so interesting before that. I loved the revelation that he was the Black Heretic and was actually the power-hungry evil genius who wanted to right injustices against Grisha. He’d been around for so many ages, completely alone in his fantastic power.

I also felt that he was a better match for Alina than Mal. He and Alina just clicked. Both were super lonely even if one grew up with a loving mother and one grew up an orphan. And yes, he was ruthless, but I think if anyone could have softened his edges, it would’ve been Alina. But alas.

Fans may crucify me for saying this, but I didn’t really get Mal. Didn’t hate or love him, but I didn’t like him and Alina together.

At one point it’s revealed that Alina knew the power was there, but she had to suppress it to be able to remain with Mal in the orphanage. The result of suppressing her power led to her being a super sickly child, always skinny, always tired. So basically, Alina suppressed who she was her entire life just to be with Mal, who didn’t even notice her until the Darkling took her away.

After he finally noticed her, Mal had to change to be with Alina. He was constantly shoved into situations he hated and had to befriend people he didn’t really like. He became pretty territorial and jealous, then reckless towards the end.

Then Mal is revealed to be the third amplifier. Alina’s always felt a spark with Mal, just as she’s always felt a spark with the Darkling. Both of them call to her power. Would she have been attracted to them if they hadn’t been amplifiers? I don’t know.

In the end, Mal has to die so Alina can claim his power and get rid of the Unsea. I loved this storyline, except Mal’s sacrifice amounts to nothing because he’s resurrected.

{Side note. What is this trend of characters dying only to be resurrected? It’s popping up everywhere and I don’t like it. Dear authors, please commit. If you’re going to kill someone, put the reader through all the sobbing and sorrow, please leave the character dead. Sincerely, Distraught Reader.}

More than diminishing Mal’s sacrifice, I also think his resurrection diminishes the fact that the reader has been told for three books straight there would be a major price to pay if Alina gathered all the amplifiers. So she loses her power and Mal dies, but don’t worry, he lives. It feels to me that the stakes were so much higher than just losing her power.

Having said all of this, I still really enjoyed the story. Reading Alina’s tale was fun, and I’d happily do it again. The world really drew me in, and Ravka was by far one of my favourite settings. These are good, easy YA reads, and I recommend them to anyone who loves fantasy.

Meanwhile, I cannot wait to get stuck in the Six of Crows Duology, which everyone I know has recommended at least once, and many people have said these books are some of the best in the genre.



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A Trial of Sparks & Kindling


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