The truth is that I could probably read YA fantasy novels all the time and not get bored if they had two things: a compelling protagonist (especially if she’s female) and a premise about magic that rings true to me. I’m simple really.
So Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo is right up my magical alley. (Harry Potter reference quite intentional.)
The gist of the story is this: Alina and Mal are orphans, and from the get-go, we know that something is unusual about Alina but aren’t sure what. In time, we learn that she has a particular power that makes her so special that she is wanted by everyone, even when she feels the most unwanted.
It’s a simple story – good and evil, a little romance, an interesting Russia-like setting. I read it in four days. . . while working full-time. So, yeah. Good, quick read.
When We Hold Ourselves Back
So this is a tiny bit of a spoiler – skip to the next heading if you’d like.
When Alina finally gives into her power, when she lets it move through her freely, she finds that the physical frailty she has felt her whole life falls away. She becomes healthier in body and mind, and she is able to work her magic more adeptly. . . but first she has to give into the full truth of who she was made to be.
I found this aspect of the novel to be stunning in the way quiet truths often are. I know what it is to try to suppress a calling (for me, it was writing) and the way all the energy you use to hold that thing back are then stolen from the wholeness of who we are. So this small but important aspect of Alina’s character rang so true to me. . . and it also adds an interesting complexity to her character.
A Writer’s Eye View
While I am a little weary of the love triangle in YA fiction, I found that Bardugo’s use of romance was fresh and exciting. I understood Alina’s attractions and followed her into them because of Bardugo’s full-wrought characters, who are compelling in their complexity.
Additionally, I find myself more and more drawn to settings that come from real-life cultural traditions. Here, my love of Russian literature and history got a tickle with place names and phrases that recall the one semester that I tried to learn Russian. (Cyrillic is a beautiful bear of an alphabet!) I enjoyed Bardugo’s setting much as I did N.K. Jemison’s in The Killing Moon* because it was drawn from cultures and traditions I had a passing familiarity with but that contained enough foreignness – at least for this reader – to feel fresh and exciting.
Finally, I loved Alina. Unlike some female heroines, I didn’t find her whiny or pitiable, even though she struggled a great deal in this novel. Instead, there was a brashness about her self-awareness that was refreshing and true.
If you enjoy YA fantasy, appreciate stories where the magic is important but doesn’t overshadow the characters, if you enjoy Russian literature and fairy tales, or if you want to read a fast-paced but artfully rendered novel of self-discovery, Shadow and Bone is a great choice.
You can get your copy at:
And if you’d like to launch into another great series of fantasy novels, be sure to check to check out N.E. Conelly’s A Witch’s Rite, available now for pre-order. Or pick up the whole series and begin with Book 1, A Witch for Hire.
Tell me – what fantasy novels do you enjoy most? Why those?