I have a lot to say about Shadow and Bone. I might have too much to say about it. There is nothing more wonderful than a book you can't get out of your head. Leigh Bardugo's stories consistently do this to me, and it's interesting that Shadow and Bone does it when it does not have the same kind of scope as Six of Crows.
I know comparing Six of Crows and Shadow and Bone might be an inappropriate thing to do. But I'm going to, because honestly the contrast between the two is fascinating to me. Shadow and Bone came first, but I'm reading it after already completing the Six of Crows duology, and one might assume the first trilogy came about when the world was less developed and Bardugo was not quite as strong as a writer. I don't think this is the case. I wouldn't even argue that Shadow and Bone is what it is because it was meant for a “younger” audience. I think it is the way it is because it was made for the only audience that was seen as relevant at the time – the same audience that devoured Twilight, The Hunger Games and Divergent, as well as their many many clones.
Stop me if you've heard this one before – a plain, mousy teenage girl is plucked from obscurity and thrown into an extravagant and new world due to something inherent in her that is unique (and she has no control over) while attracting the attention of a powerful immortal that also happens to look like a teenage boy. I am speculating, of course, but I think this was very much intentional. I think Bardugo had a world and realized the best way to get it in front of other people's eyes was to use it to tell a story that had proven effective in the past. But because Bardugo is the phenomenal writer she is, it's astronomically better.
Six of Crows in general is much more immersive. I think I actually have a better understanding of the Grisha and the magical system from Six of Crows than I do from this book (I mean, what is the Darkling's ability even called?). There's also a lot about this story that is strikingly anachronistic. In Six of Crows, while the speech and thoughts of the characters are relatable and accessible, Kaz, Jesper and Inej all very clearly belong to their neo-Victorian magical version of Amsterdam. If you took Kaz and dropped him in our modern world the son of bitch would probably adapt as quickly as a chameleon, but he would have to adapt. Alina would not. Her snarky sense of humor, while distinctly her own, is also distinctly modern, as is much of the dialogue and interactions in Shadow and Bone. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of atmosphere. I was feeling the tsar punk, and I cannot believe no one thought to do this before. But, take the Darkling, for example. Going in I expected a dark, mysterious, perhaps slightly inhuman overlord. And there's a glimmer of that when he's first introduced. But after that he's just one of the guys. Casual, occasionally ruffled, not even that mean. Of course, there's a reason for his easy engaging demeanor in terms of story, but stylistically I think it was another means pulling the reader closer.
The intention of this story is to tell a grand Cinderella epic that of course falls apart by story's end. And to be honest, I was broken-hearted for Alina in a way that I haven't been for other heroines in her place. She's an orphan that discovers that she has a power that can save the world. She should get to wear pretty dresses, and have prettier women be jealous of her, and fall in love with the dark and powerful prince. When the lie is revealed, I was not entirely surprised but I was sad for her. I think that's why I wasn't bothered by the fact that Alina has very little agency and doesn't make a single decision for herself until the last act. Or that there was so much fixation on the beauty and wealth of the Grisha girls and the catty way they treated Alina. The intention was to tell a grandiose, compelling version of boiler plate “paranormal romance” with significant mature undertones hiding just barely beneath the surface.
Shadow and Bone is achingly easy to read. As stated, not a whole lot happens during the first three quarters of the book, and yet they vanish before you even realize it. Alina doesn't have a central desire, there isn't much of a conflict (aside from her own initial inadequacy), and the world is very minimally explained. There's so much about this that just shouldn't work, and yet it does. The prose is swift, Alina is funny, the glamour of the Grisha world is tantalizing, and the Darkling is just the right amounts of scary and sexy (ok, he could have been a little scarier, in my opinion). And then the shoe drops, and it's in that last act that I found myself saying, “Ah, there you are, Alina.” Hiding beneath the tropes was in fact a character with a soul, a love interest and best friend who is genuine and real, and a villain whose desire for her is born from his deep loneliness.
I want to swim in this world, I want to roll in every word. Logically, I know there are pieces missing from this story, but none of it is sloppy. Everything that Bardugo accomplishes here is intentional, and that's fucking amazing. Now that the initial YA framework that got people in the door is cast aside (ok, I imagine the love triangle thing might stick around for a bit), I am so excited to see how she expands this story in the next two books.