A really fantastic fantasy series, one you won’t want to miss (like I did for a while)!
As the nation of Ravka is burdened from wars on all borders and a magical blight known as the Shadow Fold scars the center of the country from its western half, a hope emerges in an unlikely heroine. Orphaned as a child, Alina Starkov has only counted on one thing in her hard life, her best friend Malyen “Mal” Oretsev. When he joins the Ravkan First Army, she goes with him and is apprenticed as a mapmaker. As part of the First Army, including Mal and Alina, crosses the Fold, a magic-created hellhole of darkness populated by winged man-eating beasts called volcra, they are attacked. Mal is about to be killed by a volcra when Alina attempts to save him. Her strikes are feeble and don’t stop the horde amassing against them. As she is about to be ripped away and killed with Mal, a hidden power unleashes from her to save them all just as Alina goes unconscious. Upon waking, she is named one of the Grisha, an elite group of magic wielders, and she is the lone Sun Summoner among hundreds. The leader of the Grisha, the Darkling, who powers her elemental opposite, that of darkness, orders her sent to the capital, and Alina is torn from everything familiar, having just learned her entire identity is a lie and that she will be hunted down by ruthless assassins from other nations. Once at the capital, she struggles to make friends, since her strong, rare gift and the abnormal discovery of her powers set her apart from the other Grisha. Her only friend is Genya, a solitary Grisha servant who is in service to the Queen, but Genya is also holding on to her own secrets. With the Darkling trying to seduce her, the old crone Baghra trying to teach Alina to use her powers, and the armsmaster trying to beat some sword skills into her, Alina is overwhelmed and homesick. She’s tried to reach Mal but to no avail. With Alina’s gift miserably not working or maybe only the slightest, her only hope to try and make her gift powerful enough to save Ravka and its people from the horror of the Fold is to try and capture an elusive mystical stag whose antlers magnify a Grisha’s gift. Just when Alina thinks everything is falling into place, Mal comes and her world turns upside down. Alina must choose who is telling her lies, Mal or the Darkling, and just whose purpose does she truly serve?
As Alina and Mal try to escape the Darkling’s reach on Ravka’s western coast, Alina is haunted by her actions in the Fold, allowing people to be attacked and killed just so she could save herself and Mal. Posing as common folk, Alina tries to keep her identity a secret, but their past catches up with them eventually. The Darkling comes for them, sporting a new power from the events at the Fold where he can create corporeal unstoppable shadow beings. Being captured by the Darkling and his loyal Grisha this time takes them onboard a ship bound for a sea north of Ravka to find a magical leviathan whose scales will further amplify Alina’s powers. Just when they are about to lose hope that Alina will be enslaved to the Darkling and Ravka will fall entirely under his thumb, their notorious privateer captain, Sturmhond, outwits the Darkling and his army, saving Alina, Mal, and the leviathan’s amplifier with a secret ship and Grisha crew. For their rescue, Alina and Mal are bound to Sturmhond to listen to his bargain to save Ravka but then they’re free to choose their way. Despite wanting her freedom, Alina feels her duty lies in helping her country and her fellow man, and she allies herself with Sturmhond. In enlisting her help, Alina has requested to find the third Morozova’s amplifier, a firebird, and be leader of the Second Army of Grisha, or what’s left of it. Together, Sturmhond and Alina’s influence inspires the people of Ravka, for they have been worshiping the Sun Summoner since the events of the Fold, against the Darkling. Mal is left to be Alina’s strong and trustworthy right hand and captain of her guard. As Alina learns to become a leader and tries to fortify the Second Army for their inevitable fight ahead, she faces a choice with a double-edged sword. Her power is growing and so it seems is a sort of connection to the Darkling, but this drives her away from Mal. Either way, she is losing, but what is worth the greater cost in the battle against the Darkling’s evil and all-encompassing destruction?
Alina has failed and the Darkling has risen to ultimate power in the capital. He now rules all of Ravka from his shadow throne as Alina, much weakened and practically deathly ill, is in hiding underground with the overzealous Apparat (high priest of Ravka) as her power-mad puppeteer. His followers are all enthralled to the Sun Summoner cult, and Alina’s friends are beaten down and practically destroyed. Only a mere remnant of the former formidable Second Army remains. Desperate to escape the moldy, incense-laden tunnels controlled by the Apparat, Alina, who is slowly–slowly recovering, and her loyal few manage a surprising coup to blackmail the Apparat and escape to the northwest, taking a grueling journey to eventually make contact with their ally, Prince Nikolai. There, in the high reaches of a snowy mountain pass officially on enemy territory, Alina finally learns the true extent of her power but is still determined to find the firebird and stop the Darkling once and for all. Just when you think the tide will really turn, the Darkling’s forces attack and many are killed while Prince Nikolai is turned into a volcra. Alina, Mal, and a few favorite characters travel to find the firebird and stop the Darkling, for what other choice do they have but let Nikolai and the others have died and suffered in vain. Mal’s unique tracker abilities have known no match and they do not fail now. Upon finding the firebird, Alina learns one final lesson, that to find and embrace the last amplifier will mean a great sacrifice. Will Alina bend and take the third amplifier and defeat the Darkling once and for all despite the great personal risks or are they always doomed to fail?
From world-building to character creation to plot twists, I was blown away by this series! Just when I was terrified to read on and sure to meet tragedy, I was breathless with excitement at finding them reasonably (and believably) unscathed and rescued from danger. I don’t know how she did it (almost) every time! Just for your sake, I kept out many of the key spoilers (though I could have easily revealed a few of them). One of the biggest debates in this series is which male to root for! Many first readers fall into the trap of loving the Darkling and being seduced by him just as much as Alina is in Shadow & Bone. Careful with this one! The Darkling is oh-so-temptingly evil for a reason! So, in case you’re looking for a weekend series read, definitely try this one as it is a satisfying and inventive fantasy.
So excited to read her new book, Six of Crows, coming out September 2015 set in the same world. Strikes me as very Stiefvater-esque ala The Raven Boys in the title, certainly.
P.S. Team Nikolai!