Compulsively readable, that’s one very crucial way to describe the first book in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy. A high fantasy world loosely modelled on Russia, the novel tentatively and slowly builds the imagery of Ravka, a kingdom which isn’t entirely yet realised but holds much promise for the trilogy as a whole.
My grasp on the location was uncertain and the entire world felt shadowy to me at this stage, much like uncharted territory (ironic given our protagonist-narrator’s job as a mapmaker), and I hope to see this fleshed out some more in the next books though I do recognise that perhaps this is the entire purpose of the first novel given the obscurity contained within the mysteriously destructive “rip” in the world known as the Shadow Fold with its promise of darkness and death.
“So I’m the Darkling’s prisoner?”
“You’re under his protection.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Pray you never find out.”
The protagonist Alina finds herself plucked out of her life in the First Army and everyone and everything that she knows to be groomed instead by the impressively feared Grisha known only as The Darkling. Being favoured by him is a dangerous game and Alina is thrust into the court and all its politics at Os Alta, training with Grisha powers that she hadn’t even realised she possessed. The fish-out-of-water element ensures Alina becomes a likeable enough character to allow me to root for her despite wanting to shake some much needed sense into her at times. However, her status as an orphan who has a bond from childhood with fellow unwanted child (soldier, tracker, and charmer, Mal) undoubtedly heralds the beginning of a love triangle which I’m not overly fond of. Perhaps I read it wrong, perhaps it’s simply because I inevitably like darker characters (and am therefore biased if one of them is a point of a love triangle), but I found Mal’s devotion, at times, to come across as manipulative. Saying that you risked life and limb for a girl seemed fairly guilt-inducing to me rather than romantic which is probably how it was intended. I liked Mal most when he was simply Mal, especially in the beginning, overconfident and cocky but charming, likeable, and a good heart underneath the bravado.
“Fine […] Make me your villain”
Do I need to say anything about the ambiguous figure of the Darkling? Given my penchant for villains and the amount of times he is called handsome or tensed or sharp… come on, hook, line, sinker. And I hate myself for that as much as Alina does. I sense/hope that this first instalment barely scratches the surface when it comes to his back-story and motivations and I sincerely hope for the exploration of this in later books, to prevent him from becoming the dark and cackling, if seductive, villain.
So, yes, I rolled my eyes at the tropes – the dramatic ‘I’m drawn to him’ tone which is borderline creepy, the love triangle that will probably re-emerge, the girl who was never anything special but there is a magical way for her to become suddenly beautiful and glowing. And yet, despite all these little grievances, I found myself turning page after page and I finished this book in practically one sitting. Clearly, then, Bardugo knows how to write an enthralling narrative with great pacing and this was a solid first book- I hope for further development of characters and the world in the next. Recommended for fans of young adult fantasy, doomed romances, or anyone with even a passing interest in a Russian setting!