Review: The Shadow and Bone series by Leigh Bardugo

As an avid fan of Leigh Bardugo’s subversive ‘Six of Crows’ duology, I was thrilled to delve deeper into her ‘Grishaverse’. It was a no-brainer new favourite, yet I still stopped reading before finishing the first chapter. I was shocked to see I could already guess its plot: girl meets boy; boy introduces girl to a magical new world; girl falls in love; and girl powers up to defeat the big bad. It was only when I finally picked it up again that I realised how much of that is inverted here.

“Fine,” he said with a weary shrug. “Make me your villain.” 

Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone

What worked for me

The villain: I’d argue that the protagonist gang of ‘Six of Crows’ is the closest in-universe comparison of this villain – emphasising the empathetic writing. An antagonist who’s both unlikable and ruthless, and strangely understandable in his loneliness, he is the key to keeping the series fascinating. There’s an interesting parallel too – a character foil – with another enterprising main character. This suggests how noble qualities such as ambition and a desire to protect can just as easily become flaws, depending on how far you would go to achieve your ideals. Perhaps a good person is simply one whose limits haven’t yet been tested.

Magic system: of everything I’ve read, the ‘Grishaverse’ has to have one of my favourite representations of magic. Grisha magic begins as a hard magic system, with definite categories of powers. Throughout the series, these ideas are subtly eroded to suggest that certain limitations to power may be self-defined, and therefore overcome. A certain character straddles the line between two orders of Grisha, and her powers are one of the most interesting of the bunch. In addition to this, magic is shown to have a profound and well-thought-out impact on religion, politics and culture. Bardugo’s world-building in this sense is unparalleled.

“What is infinite? The universe and the greed of men.” 

Leigh Bardugo, Siege and Storm

What almost worked

Debate on morality: With multiple characters with limitless, explosive power, ethics could’ve been the necessary puzzle piece to keep the books interesting even in its non-essential scenes. Though it is briefly debated, mostly characters seemed to see it as fairly black-and-white. An example of the ball being dropped in this is a monster type mentioned. They used to be people, and are implied to even still have some humanity; this could’ve led to a moral dilemma on whether killing them is acceptable. Yet, this is neatly glossed over and results in a plot thread with no conclusion.

“You are stronger, wiser, infinite in experience.” I leaned forward and whispered, my lips brushing the shell of his ear. “But I am an apt pupil.” 

Leigh Bardugo, Ruin and Rising

And… what didn’t

Undeveloped characters and romance: it’s been a long time since I couldn’t fully root for the main romance in a book like this. I found the main love interest intensely bland – especially when two other fascinating potentials are introduced. It’s told, rather than shown, that he’s cocky, and apart from his love, that truly seems his only defining quality. This may just be a symptom of a larger problem – unlike in Bardugo’s other books, the less important characters have no discernible spark of personality.

Lack of consequences: in a grave situation, and one later described as extremely bloody, almost every main character survives purely through the magic of plot armour. This is the risk of having multiple series following your book – most characters have to survive to continue it. The magic system comes close to being flat-out broken by being used for resurrection, raising a million plot holes. In all of this, it ends up with every character with two or less witty lines dead (in a failed attempt at emotional impact) with no fanfare, and every character with an emotional arc alive.

Final review: 4/5 stars