Without a doubt I truly enjoyed reading the Six of Crows Duology by Leigh Bardugo that I decided to read the Shadow and Bone trilogy for more Grisha. I did some research and learned that this was her first book published so some things made more sense as a result.
The main character of the story is Alina Starkov and I hesitate to call her a protagonist let alone a compelling one. By definition a protagonist is the central character to a story that actively participates in the story and pushes it forward. But save for the beginning and the end of the story, she does nothing to really decide for herself what to do. Constantly she’s told what to do and how to do it. There were many times I stared at the page and kept thinking “Come on!” She never really pushes the story forward herself and it’s hard to be engaged as I slowly lost my ability to root for her. There are moments where there’s doubt or there’s questions and I’m hopeful for some kind of motivation to figure things out for herself but it doesn’t quite manifest. Now there’s nothing wrong with a passive character but this felt almost way too passive as it felt like she lacked any agency in her own future.
It took me a while to think about this but I realized that the best way to explain it is to reference the Three Pronged Character Development described in the podcast Writing Excuses. They describe that there’s three main scales to character design that describes who the character is: Competence, Proactivity, and Sympathy. While this isn’t necessarily concrete, it is a great way to view characters and their development. They describe what happens when all the scales are ramped up to 100, but I would argue that Alina Starkov has these ramped down to 0 or close to 0. Alina starts off not good at anything really and her main moment of proactivity is really the inciting incident but from there she’s basically told what to do. It was harder to feel sympathetic for her as the story progressed because she didn’t really feel like she had a goal she was working towards that was her own ambition. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as they describe the lower ratings as room for character growth and I would say there has been some character growth that makes her a bit more competent and more sympathetic. The reason I kept reading was because there were signs that she was (though slowly) becoming a more dynamic character. But these were small incremental steps that never really feel consequential up until the end and even then barely so. I wish there was more of an impactful change to who she was by the end of the story, that she became more independent and certain of herself.
The supporting cast of characters, while pretty much static, are a bit more interesting. As you read you find several characters that feel very alive and colorful in their interactions with Alina. It all ranges from creepy to fun to competitive and it helps to make the setting feel more alive. I particularly enjoyed Botkin as this kind of harsh but fair teacher archetype. It’s unfortunate that I ended up finding the secondary characters more compelling than the central ones.
The world of the Grishaverse is a very compelling and interesting setting. As the story takes place primarily in Ravka, there’s a great deal of world building done that makes it feel more real. The amount of detail in the magic system is satisfying as it is central to the entire plot. There’s time taken to explain just what each form of Grisha is able to do and how they’re organized as a result of that. It’s also great to see how the politics of Ravka actually works as Alina learns the truth of the kingdom, the Grisha, and what really matters in the world despite the war. I just wish there was more attention paid to the war as it seems like the main motivating factor behind the actions of the story but it’s not touched on enough to really create an impactful sense of scale for what is at stake.
I never thought I’d read a book that follows the “generic YA storyline” but Shadow and Bone was pretty close to it. There is a very faint hint of a love triangle but thankfully it never overtly becomes that. But the story follows the typical YA plot line. There is a rather plain character, plucked from the crowd because she’s the chosen one and whisked away from her old life to a new magical world where the story feels more like a high school drama rather than an epic fantasy until the ending portion of the book. The story follows a rather predictable route from beginning to end with little to no real surprises. What I think bothered me most though, was that there was more telling than showing. The “big twist” was basically told to Alina rather than her discovering it. It was kind of disappointing that she never really discovers things nor does she really actively investigate what’s going on. She’s pretty much told what’s happening rather than discovering it up until the end which I kind of liked because she figured it out on her own for once. The story also leaves a few open strands to explore in the sequels which I also appreciate. I do actually want to know what happens to a lot of the side characters and their side plots that are hinted at and touched on. I just wish I could feel as invested in the main plot and the main characters as I did with the backgrounds and side stories of the supporting cast.
The writing is easy to follow as is to be kind of expected of the genre. The story has some pretty good pacing though some of the chapters did feel a bit longer than they should. The flow was very smooth at first however around the middle part of the story it feels like the story slows down and then suddenly ramps up very quickly. It makes for a very odd pacing that almost feels rushed at the end. However despite this, I found myself able to keep reading as nothing ever feels like it drags on too long in each chapter. The action scenes are fast and end a bit faster than I would have liked.
What Writers can learn from this book
Considering that this was Leigh Bardugo’s first novel, I felt like she played it very safe. The worldbuilding and magic system feels well developed and hints at a greater explanation in the following books, but the central story follows a rather predictable and uncompelling route. It might explain why it felt like the story moved from a high fantasy story to a high school drama back to a high fantasy story. But I think it’s also important to note that this story was written with the intention of being a series and you can see that with the set up of side plots and characters. There’s a status quo that’s established throughout the story and as you finish the novel you know that there will be consequences for Alina’s actions and the idea of what that will do to the side characters and her world has me, as a reader, interested to continue reading the rest of the series. I think it does work as a good example of how to set up a series.
I honestly just wish the main characters were more compelling than they actually were.
Verdict (potential to change upon completion of the series)