It’s just struck me that there’s been a pretty serious omission with my blog so far – a total lack of book reviews. That’s particularly surprising given that I read a lot and faithfully review every book I read on Amazon and Goodreads. In fact, I’m very nearly an Amazon Top 1000 Reviewer (I was 1087th last time I looked!)
I’ve therefore decided that it’s time to start adding my reviews to the blog – and this is a particularly timely decision given that I’ve just read a pretty strong contender for my book of the year: Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone.
There’s a weird feeling I get when I’ve really, really loved a book. The sort of feeling where every song you listen to and every bit of news you here reminds you of the story. The sort of feeling where you don’t want to read anything else for a while because you know it will only be a disappointment by comparison. The sort of feeling where you scour the internet for anything to do with the book and you desperately try to recommend it to all your friends and drop references to it in conversation. Yes, that’s been my weekend.
There have been a lot of books I’ve enjoyed over the last year or two, but it’s been a long time since I’ve really felt like that. The last time was probably when I first read Game of Thrones, about four years ago now, but on the whole, it’s more something I associate with being a teenager, when my hormones were on a knife edge and I was easy prey for identifying with every heroine and falling in love with every hero.
Recently, I’ve found most supposed romantic heroes to be a bit of a turn off and most villains to be a bit “meh.” I was almost scared that it would never happen again, that the weird, all-encompassing feeling of truly loving a book was something I’d grown out of – turns out, I’ve just not been reading the right books. Or perhaps more accurately, much like romantic love, it all comes down to chemistry, and finding the right one is very personal and requires a certain degree of luck.
My “official” reviews of Shadow and Bone is below, and I’ll try to add my review of the sequel tomorrow. But while I would whole-heartedly recommend this to most readers, bear in mind that my review is not necessarily entirely objective, in much the same way that a “review” of my fiancé would say more about my feelings for him than it would his actual qualities. I promise that most of my reviews are a bit calmer and more balanced than this one, as you’ll hopefully see as I start to roll them out over the next couple of weeks.
SHADOW AND BONE
“The Shadow Fold, a swathe of impenetrable darkness, crawling with monsters that feast on human flesh, is slowly destroying the once-great nation of Ravka.
Alina, a pale, lonely orphan, discovers a unique power that thrusts her into the lavish world of the kingdom’s magical elite—the Grisha. Could she be the key to unravelling the dark fabric of the Shadow Fold and setting Ravka free?
The Darkling, a creature of seductive charm and terrifying power, leader of the Grisha. If Alina is to fulfill her destiny, she must discover how to unlock her gift and face up to her dangerous attraction to him.
But what of Mal, Alina’s childhood best friend? As Alina contemplates her dazzling new future, why can’t she ever quite forget him?
Glorious. Epic. Irresistible. Romance.”
MY REVIEW – 5 Stars
The summary of this book made it sound as though it was about an ordinary girl with a unique power that could change the world, who finds herself torn between a dark mysterious figure and a faithful childhood friend. In short, it sounded like YA cliché central. On one level, that’s a pretty fair description of the plot, but if there’s one thing this book proves, it’s in the hands of the right author, the seemingly most overused plot devices can still seem original and pack a real emotional punch.
I expected to vaguely enjoy this book. In actuality, I utterly loved it. Unputdownable is an overused phrase, but I actually cancelled pre-planned Friday night drinks to stay in and finish it! It’s a long time since I’ve been so mentally engulfed in a novel. It’s difficult to say what made it stand out from the wide variety of broadly similar books that’s I’ve read and merely liked. Sometimes, a story just gels with a reader, and sometimes an author is just a brilliant storyteller, and I think both were true here.
If I tried to be more precise though, I’d say it was the following things that made it special for me:
The first was the setting, which was basically a fantasy version of Tsarist Russia. It’s great to see a fantasy novel use any model other than medieval England as it’s template, but I also thought that the glamour of the Russian court and the harshness of the landscape make for a great backdrop.
Secondly, the fantasy elements were well done: developed enough to give people who like to immerse themselves in another world a bit of a thrill, without being too overwhelmingly detailed for people who are mainly interested in the action and the romance.
The plot was nothing I hadn’t seen before and was in many ways quite straightforward, with only one or two really twisty moments, but it was very well done and left me desperate to find out what happened next and made me constantly veer between emotions. There were some cool concepts, such as a monster-filled strip of land where it’s always dark which cuts the country off from the sea, or the hierarchy and training methods of the Grisha, in effect a race of aristocratic sorcerers.
The real standout aspect, however, was the characters. Alina was an enjoyable heroine and easy to like – a good mix of ordinary but unique, powerful but weak. She did make a habit of doing exactly the wrong thing quite consistently, in an “I’m fleeing my enemies so I’m going to stop in a crowded town for food” sort of way, but I found that quite endearing. I think it’s pretty much what I’d end up doing. That said, there is one scene where she makes an utterly inexplicable decision which made me want to reach into the book and shake her. You’ll know exactly what I mean when you read it. The deer. That’s all I’m saying. Most of the supporting characters were pretty good too, though some of the Grisha and soldiers sometimes blurred into one.
Above all though, what I really loved was the Darkling, the leader of the Grisha, and the strength of his scenes with Alina. I’ve always had a soft spot for those characters that tread a fine line between dark love interest and antagonist, but since leaving my teens behind I’ve rarely developed a proper little book crush on one. The Darkling was the finest example I’ve seen in years and a new entry on my all time favourites list, making me intensely nervous and utterly seduced in every scene he appeared in. He’s the sort of character who makes a scene sexier by showing up and saying a few words than most characters manage in the most explicit sex scenes.
I’m launching straight into book two, at great risk to my social life over the next few days. If you remotely like this sort of book, I suggest you launch just as enthusiastically into book one.
This post is rapidly getting overlong, so I’ll leave the review of Book Two until tomorrow. One last comment though. As well as reading these two books back to back and then proceeding to seriously geek out over them, my weekend has also been a frenzy of trying to finish Ivory Towers. I can never decide whether reading a great book helps or hinders my own writing. On the one hand, it can provide great inspiration and remind you of why you wanted to write in the first place. On the other, it can be hard to drag yourself out of someone else’s world and back into the one you’ve created. The good news is that I think I broke my all time record for most writing in one weekend (apart from possibly one weekend during NaNoWriMo), but I’m not sure whether that’s in spite of or because of falling in love with these books.