Before I get into the bulk of this review, I'd like to provide a few thoughts on tropes (literary or otherwise) and the hang-ups that some reviewers have with them. Tropes exist for a reason; they are the result of thousands of years of human creative endeavor. As many human minds have noted throughout history, it has all be done before. It is hard to imagine that there any truly unique underlying narratives left to explore. If the totality of human creative output could be cataloged, surveyed, and analyzed, I think we'd be stunned to find out just how few skeletons there are on which artists can flesh out their vision. Some are better at hiding them than others, but the skeletons are still there.
As reader and a reviewer, it is the flesh in which I am interested. Don't get me wrong, if all that comes through on the page is the skeleton or the entire thing is a blatant rip-off involving the changing of a few names here and there, by all means, I want to know and I want to warn others to steer clear. Otherwise, my fellow reviewers, focus on the flesh. We get it. The story has been told before. I want to know if it is told well.
(Side note: As a vegan, I am now thoroughly grossed out by my own metaphor.)
Rant over. I'm moving on.
If you are looking for a fast-paced, action-oriented thrill ride, turn back now. Find a different book. Shadow and Bone is primarily about the joys and the horrors of discovery and it likes to take its time getting there. Against this backdrop of discovery, this novel manages to explore themes such as personal identity, social status, love, lust, the corrupting influence of power, and the age old struggle between following our hearts vs. following our heads. It also puts forth an intriguing magic system.
Shadow and Bone places the reader in the shoes of one Alina Starkov - orphan, naive teenager, and savior of the world (possibly?, maybe?). Unlike some other reviewers, I think that the first-person perspective was necessary to help shape the book's sense of discovery; it was not just another default setting based on the trends of YA literature. It leaves gaps for speculation, for the task of trying to piece together the thoughts and motives of other characters, and for our emotional response to revelation. I'm not going to say that I love Alina or that I was always comfortable in her head, but I did become attached despite myself.
Bardugo's strict adherence to the first-person point of view also means that character development and world building happen at the pace of the personal, which is to say generally slowly but with the sporadic fits and starts that pervade a lived life. It also means that these aspects are limited by the characteristics and experiences of the narrator. For all but Alina herself, character development is only evidenced through personal interaction. Descriptions can and should be only as richly detailed as the perception of our narrator. Explanations of the intricacies of the world can only be revealed in passing thoughts, concentrated meditations, and explanations in other characters' voices, sometimes through the filter of our narrator's memory.
It is a book that is beautifully positioned to engage the imagination, not spoon-feed the reader the entire buffet. Ultimately, I think this is why I walked away from my reading experience in the warm glow of the Sun Summoner and immediately added Siege and Sword to my hold list at the library.
It is apparent from her writing that Bardugo is in it for the long-haul and so am I. I cannot wait to see this world unfold before me.
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