Novel * Leigh Bardugo * Fantasy Russia Wizards * 2012
I’m not sure what it is about fantasy stories and the idea that the world is about to end. Fantasy really is the most apocalyptic genre. Science fiction is often concerned with what the world is going to look like in the future, and a lot of the time that imagining is pretty dire. Be it dystopias or post-cataclysms or whatever, sci-fi can be pretty dire. Yet fantasy is almost always worse. More often than not, there is some kind of global peril in play. Be it a novel or a movie or a video game, the endgame of the plot usually involves the end of the fantasy world itself. Even with works as different as that of Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire (or hell, at this point, Game of Thrones), the stakes are the world as we’ve come to know it. The idyllic, pastoral land of The Shire is threatened by Sauron’s all-powerful menace while the far more realistic, fucked up Westeros is under the oppressive, apocalyptic threat of the White Walkers. It doesn’t matter what kind of fantasy world it is, it’s probably going to turn to ashes.
Shadow and Bone, a really very good first-book-in-a-young-adult-fiction-trilogy, is no different than the above-mentioned heavyweights. In the beginning, the particular kind of apocalypse isn’t fully formed. We get a pretty good idea of the state of the world, which is what sets this novel apart. One, the story is extremely Russian in flavor. It’s not as omnipresent as, say, George R.R. Martin’s modelling of Westeros on War-of-the-Roses medieval England, but it’s definitely there. And it’s cool! Russia is a strange, fascinating place with an equally strange and fascinating history, so there’s lots to draw from. Beyond the Russian influence, the world is comprised of at least three warring nations. The nation our hero lives in is called Ravka, which is a place ruled by two powerful leaders. First is the king, who sucks, but is the nominal head of state. The other is the Darkling, who wields actual power. Oh, and the Darkling is a warlock or some shit so guess who is actually in charge?
The king, actually, because as we enter this world we quickly realize that political power is more potent than magical power, despite the magic system being fairly formidable. The magic users in this world are known as Grisha, and are generally despised and mistrusted by the bleating masses. The other two countries actively hunt them out of fear of their power or out of religious mania. I will say that for a novel based in political intrigue, so far the other countries are not given much in the way of depth. They’re akin to the evil masses to the south and east of Gondor in Tolkien’s work (with about 75% less implied racism). Regardless, we’re mainly concerned with Ravka and its internal conflicts. They’re constantly at war with their neighbors, and they use the Grisha as implements of that war. It’s a grim, dark world which has its share of stark beauty and wonder. Not unlike the Russia it takes its inspirations from, I guess.
Oh right, characters. Sorry, it’s just when it comes to fantasy I’m usually drawn in by the world first and then get to appreciate the people in it. Oddly enough, when I’m writing fantasy it’s the total opposite. Anyway, Our Hero is a scrawny, not-particularly-interesting-or-attractive orphan girl named Alina. We figure out relatively quickly that There Is More To Her Than There Might Seem, that she in fact might be The Chosen One. And if that seems trite, well, welcome to fantasy fiction. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t care if you’re working with well-worn tropes and clichés as long as you do it well. And Bardugo does it well. I’m also pretty a sure a fuckin’ teenage love triangle is in the works and I don’t care because the writing is solid and the characters are alive.
Oh, it’s been a while since I’ve had discussion questions! These… aren’t great but they’ll do.
- Alina and Mal grow up in an orphanage in Kermazin. How does this affect Alina’s experiences at the Little Palace? Mal’s experience in the First Army?
That’s where we learn what their personalities are! Alina is taciturn and tough, self-sufficient and prefers her own company. Mal is bright and effervescent and is otherwise a golden boy despite having a deeply stupid name. Then the tables turn and suddenly Alina is in the spotlight and has no way of knowing how to deal with it. That turns out to be a struggle throughout what I’ve read of the series so far. Still, aside from natural talent as the Sun Summoner, she has a deep reserve of independent strength because of her formative years spent being self-reliant. Also I don’t really care about Mal all that much.
- How is the Fold connected to the Darkling? What does this connection say about him and his power?
Yo, I’m pretty sure the text explicitly says that the Darkling created the Fold. That’s a pretty direct connection, you know? And since he did that, with seemingly no regrets, I’d say he thinks pretty highly of his own power and self-worth, like every other megalomaniacal powerful villain who thinks they’re the only solution to the world’s problems. Again, tropes. But well done tropes!
- How does Alina feel about her power? How do her feelings change? Why?
These questions… jeez. To be fair, I understand that they’re created with the intention of getting the target audience – teenage girls – to think about what they’re reading. That’s fine. Admirable, even! Still, the text is pretty explicit. A big part of Alina’s arc is coming to terms with her own power. A more subtle read on this is Alina coming to terms with her own character’s power, unrelated to magic. She learns to control and channel her Sun Summoner power, but she’s also becoming a woman, and is learning how to control and channel her own experiences and inner strength to eventually become a leader. Again, this is the first book and is therefore the nascent stages of all this. Alina’s still a kid, and she’s going to make a kid’s mistakes.
- What is the connection between Alina and the Darkling? What does Alina think of this link at different points in the novel?
It’s pretty clear that the two are different sides of the same powerful coin. The title “Darkling” is a bit on the nose, considering his power is darkness while Alina channels the power of light. Actually, their whole dynamic is a bit on the nose. Which, again, whatever. It’s the whole Sauron v. Gandalf thing. Well, if those two had a bunch of sexual tension, I guess. Because Alina pretty well hates the Darkling, but that doesn’t stop her from wanting to jump his goddamn bones. Oh, and I will take this moment to point out that it always creeps me out in fantasy when the Ancient Powerful Man who looks like he’s only 22 falls in love with the literal teenage girl. Buffy did this, and I never liked it. Angel is a fuckin’ pedophile. The Darkling is over a hundred years old and still wants to be with a teenager? I didn’t want to hang out with teenagers when I was a teenager! They’re gross and awkward and bad at sex. That said, if I was Alina, I’d probably want to bang him too.
- How are Grisha talents like science? Why are other people afraid of what the Grisha can do?
They’re not? It made very clear that the Grisha are born, so they’re basically mutants. Yeah, they can study and hone their powers, but their powers are innate. Science is science because anyone with a mind to it can reproduce results. Grisha power is reliant on power only available to the very few. It’s that fundamental difference that people are afraid of, here and in the X-Men. If you’re just some random chud and you meet some dude who can literally kill you with a thought, you’re going to be afraid of that dude. That fear is totally natural, and fair or not makes it the responsibility of the powerful to be mindful of the powerless. Alina understands this, even as she laments the injustice of it. The Darkling just goes full Magneto and seeks as much power as he can.
Only five questions! I appreciate the brevity, even if I miss some of the more absurd questions I’ve seen in other YA fiction. Ah well, maybe in the next one.