Shadow and Bone, the first book in the Grisha trilogy, has all the promises for a wonderfully original fantasy series, but it suffers from two problems that are difficult to ignore: it lacks plot and character development, and the world building really isn’t there.
There is a simple reason for this: Shadow and Bone is about a hundred pages short of where it should be. Clocking in at just over 80,000 words, it’s only the average length of a contemporary. There just isn’t the time and space to fit in all the details needed for the reader to connect with the characters and the world.
It’s difficult to find any criticisms of the Grisha series online and don’t get me wrong – it was a good read. It follows Alina, an orphan in the First Army alongside her childhood friend Mal, as she suddenly finds herself in the world of the magical Grisha. There’s the mysterious Darkling, a dangerous darkness – the Shadowfold – slicing the kingdom in two and an obvious influence of Imperial Russia. I’m not sure about anyone else, but I’m getting a bit tired of all fantasy settings having a generic medieval European vibe. It’s all right when some fantasy books have this kind of setting, but when it’s literally all of them I start thinking ‘Is this epic fantasy or is this Chaucer with dragons?’
Alina is also a genuinely badass female character (at the end, anyway). And I don’t say that lightly because just the phrase kind of makes me want to facepalm – most film attempts at such a concept are really just your bog standard stoic male character with a female name slapped on and pushed to secondary, or even tertiary, character status. Alina will grumble about not liking her lunch but then she’ll go ahead and blind you with her magic sun power.
The romance is also done well. There is enough to fuel your fanart, but it also fits into the character development and plot structure without distraction. And on the topic of structure, the story fits almost mathematically into its three acts, so it isn’t very difficult to keep track of what is going on (but it’s also fairly easy to guess when a twist is coming).
And so when I was reading the book, it was easy to get caught up in the story and enjoy the characters and the world. But as soon as I had finished, I realised it was lacking in a few pretty crucial areas:
- the development: there just wasn’t enough time for much development and the result is a simple story with characters who don’t have much there to connect with; and,
- the world building: there is a map and a list of the different types of Grisha at the beginning of the book, but after finishing I still don’t really know what any of the towns and cities look like or which abilities correspond with which Grisha.
The world building is actually a bit of a problem, mostly because it’s thin on the ground and some of it doesn’t make any sense. They’re all getting drunk of kvas which is about as strong as the butterbeer from Harry Potter. More strikingly, Grisha is actually a name. It’s a Russian pet name for Grigori or Gregory, so calling your magical elite the Grisha is a bit like calling them Greg. It also got me wondering if Grigori Rasputin’s mum called him Grisha.
Nonetheless, I’m hopeful that all of this is just first-book/debut-author syndrome. The next books in the series have that extra length, so there’s bound to be enough time there for the development and exposition the first book is lacking. There is enough detail to fill a whole fandom Wikia, after all. The world, characters and story are all there; I’m just waiting to see more of them!
(And also that ending O.O)
Overall: 3/5 with high hopes for the rest of the series