Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Welcome to the special DragonCon edition of Amber’s Book Club! Every year at DragonCon the Young Adult literature track chooses a book and gives readers a chance to meet up and discuss it not only with other con-goers but the with the author herself!

Shadow and Bone is the first book in a Young Adult fantasy trilogy by author Leigh Bardugo. We follow a young girl, Alina Starkov, through her rise to power. Orphaned as a child and raised at Kermazin, the orphanage, Alina (along with her childhood friend Mal) are drafted into the King’s First Army once they come of age – Alina as a cartographer and Mal as a tracker. We first meet Alina as her regiment is preparing to cross the shadowfold, or Unsea, a giant rift in the country of Ravka, a huge expanse of darkness full of monsters that separates the mainland from its shore and trade routes. Surrounded by enemy nations to the north and south, Ravka is in serious need of a hero. While its king dines in luxury in Os Alta, the country is ruled by the Darkling and his Second Army of powerful Grisha. Of these Grisha, the Darkling is the most powerful, with the ability to summon darkness. His plan is to cross the Unsea as well.

A volcra attack during the crossing means that, despite the protection of the Grisha, survival looks bleak… until the volcra grabs Alina and everything is bathed in a bright sunlight as Alina succumbs. Next thing she knows, Alina has an audience with the Darkling himself, and he tells her that she is a Sun Summoner and the only hope for destroying the shadowfold and restoring Ravka.

Like any good fantasy novel,this book has an intriguing take on magic and its various applications. The Grisha are people capable of performing the small science. The Corporalki have power over the living and dead. The Materialki are an order of fabrikators, and the Etherealki, summoners. The magic is based on principles of molecular chemistry. The Grisha cannot actually create or destroy; they can only manipulate what is already there. The Inferni order of fire summoners must carry a flint to create a spark in order to manipulate flame. The more powerful a Grisha becomes, the smaller the molecular scale they can work on, allowing them to have a wider effect.

On the Dragon*Con Book Club panel, Leigh stressed the importance of not only having an order of power in a novel, but also having a sense of place. Shadow and Bone is based on Russian culture, which Leigh spent two months studying – everything from textiles to art to hymnals. This research influences the detailing in the book, giving it a cohesive background. After all, you can tell right from the names on the map that you are heading to Russi… I mean Ravka!

Alina is a wonderfully crafted creation within this quasi-Russian world. At the outset, she is very nervous as she frets about entering the shadowfold and pouts about all the other girls looking at Mal. Throughout the novel, she comes into her own and embraces her power and her own self-worth. As she begins to accept her newfound powers, she also accepts who she is, something she must do as she attempts to become the hero everyone wants an needs her to be. She is a patriot who wants to save Ravka, but at what cost? She wrestles with right and wrong as she struggles to figure out what is actually the best course of action for her country and who might be lying to her. All the characters, except perhaps the pampered king, exhibit many dimensions, not fitting into a single box, instead showing a moral ambiguity that is true to life. Even though characters drastically disagree on what is right and wrong, each one believes they are acting in the best interest of Ravka. It’s no surprise, then, that, when asked how she relates to her characters, Leigh responded that she sees a little bit of her self in all of them, but not too much of herself in any single character.

Overall Shadow and Bone is a fantastic read, quick not just because I had a deadline (had to crunch those pages before the panel!), but because it is a thoroughly enveloping story. I immediately bought and read the sequels, in spite of a lack of panels or discussions or deadlines, and finished them while at DragonCon. Which is impressive, because, I mean, come on, there are plenty of distractions at DragonCon. But that was the experience I was thirsting for after the a pleasure of being able to sit down with Leigh and ask her about her inspirations. Even without that context (and for it, you should totally go to cons like Dragon*Con, they’re great!). I would highly recommend picking this YA novel up!