Here’s my review on Goodreads of Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo:
1 star = I didn’t like it:
In short, I was disappointed. Ah, fantasy-lite? Not sure what everyone is supposedly raving about: the language was idiosyncratic, too many modern AE colloquialisms in a Russian/Mongolian approx. 19th century setting; the story had the beginnings and framework to be interesting but weren’t explored so “Shadow and Bone” felt like a 300+ page introduction or sketch that could have been engaging if the author cared about things like character development and plot and humanity; and the core story saddened me – girl has crush on guy but he doesn’t realize he has feelings for her until she leaves and learns how to put on make-up. Essentially.
And one plot twist does not a novel make… especially when the only twist is delivered in a straight-forward manner. The whole story is completely straight-forward. Court intrigue was limited to mean (not vicious, just mean) gossip, girls trying to out-do each other for favorite status with the leader of Grisha/magic users (and of course he’s male), and mention of the King sleeping with servants. Of course the Queen does nothing but envelop herself with pretty women who fawn over her and worry about clothing. I found the “plot” and one plot “twist” to be insufficient for YA and more inline with middle grade – though writing a middle grade novel is no reason to hold back on characterization and plot and real depth (and again, girls interested in looks and male attention – please!).
(some spoilers below)
I would waffle between 1 and 2 stars because there was a bit more to the story than MC, Alina, wants guy to like her – Alina does become more physically beautiful (sigh, can we not get away from this trope? Is this the only thing girls are concerned with? I wasn’t) and self-confident because she learns to stop fighting her true nature and accept the talents she has, even if by doing so she will be taken away from the guy, Mal, she loves (the reason she quashed her talent in the first place) – but she’s already been separated from Mal, so that message seems a bit lost. It is a good message for anyone, just not a driving force for a novel over 300 pages long.
The main ideological reason this novel wasn’t all out blah and forgettable (the reasons for it being bad come up below – cultural appropriation) – Alina is able to save Mal, and possibly the whole country, in the end because she discovers “not just the price of mercy but the power that it bestowed” (pg 344). Alina decided not to sacrifice an ancient animal for her own betterment and power even though in showing mercy and not killing it she seemed to lose control over her abilities allowing the villain to enslave her. That’s a worthy ideology in my book, and one not often enough told. That glimmer of hope for this story, however, was lost in a bunch of pretty bad to plain out bad, what those things are follow:
After the third person prologue, the first person narration felt weak. I had issues, as I mentioned, with the language. “People, particularly big men carrying big rifles, don’t expect lip from a scrawny thing like me. They always look a bit dazed when they get it” (pgs 8-9). “Lip”? Is this pseudo-Russian (as in pseudo-science) fantasy set in the place people keep referring to where all the women are quiet and pretty, and the ones who aren’t are nags and everyone likes to make fun of them for it, and all the men are gruff except the ones that are are transformed by a good woman but even then they keep their male gruffness… where is that, the land of yesteryear, the land that never really existed. Oh yeah, stereotypeland.
Single-track storytelling of time moving forward as plot, and simple shallow characters that did not display much of any emotion or development… and the whole beauty thing. Sigh. I guess we haven’t come a long way, baby.
And the main reason I’ll only give it one star (other than bad writing, lack of character development and plot) is: cultural appropriation. [– added 27th October – okay, that might have be too strongly worded… cultural exoticism, then. Or, cultural wash, or lazy? [see discussion of this and links for further reading in the comments] I think exoticism is the word.] Bardugo seems to have included Russian and Russian-type words because she likes they way they sound and because she didn’t want to write just another fantasy or romance novel, as if she wanted her story to be interesting and shiny. So my problem is that there are better ways to make a novel interesting and shiny than to take some aspects of a culture – the culture of many, many peoples with a long history and significance that when used in this way feels disrespectful and shallow. Cheap. Why only this surface treatment then (and poorly done at that, read below)? I mean, we are talking about people’s culture here – I would not want mine thoughtlessly thrown about like so much window dressing. There’s some decent critiques of the poor use of Russian, one by Tatiana, who looked on the author’s website to research the Russian inspiration (kudos to her, I happened to see some “poster-boy” photos for the character Mal and they turned me offfff, and well, I just couldn’t anymore):
>>I took pains to check out Leigh Bardugo’s website, to see how exactly she addressed this inspiration. Here are her words: “Ravka and its language were heavily inspired by Russia, but with a few deliberate exceptions, the words and place names in Shadow & Bone are my own invention. My goal was to keep things simple and to make sure that Ravkan words still had resonance for readers. In short, I took a lot of liberties and I hope the purists won’t beat me about the head and shoulders.”
>>Sure, I do not want to be a language nazi or anything. I can skim over Russian-sounding made-up words, even though they linguistically do not make much sense. Not every writer can be like Catherynne M. Valente [link mine], who embraced Russianness so fully in her Deathless [link mine], that I had to do some research to find out if she was Russian herself (she is not). But is it too much to ask of an author to at least google the actual Russian words she does use in her work? I swear, it would only take 10 minutes to research the glaring mistakes I found.
>>For instance, if you want to give your characters Russian names, it is not that hard to find out that men and women in Russia have different variations of the same last name? Let’s take the book’s main character, Alina Starkov. Starkov is a masculine version of the last name. Correctly, it should be Alina Starkova. In the same way, there is another character, whose name is Ilya Morozova. The problem with this name is that Ilya is actually a male name, while the last name has a female form. In the book, Ilya Morozova is a “she.” If you google “Russian last names,” this information comes up in the second or third link from the top. How much time would it take to do this research?
I agree with Tatiana, and thank her for writing it out. And for bringing up Catherynne Valente!