My foray into the genre of young adult/new adult fantasy continues with my completion of The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo…
This trilogy comprises the novels Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising, all of which follow the story of Alina Starkov, a powerful Grisha (a sort of magician) who learns through a traumatic near-accident that she possesses the ability to summon light. Henceforth referred to as The Sun Summoner, Alina is given Saint-like status among the citizens of her home of Ravka, and she is pursued endlessly by characters like The Darkling, Nikolai “Sturmhond” Lantsov and a figure known as the Apparat, all of whom wish to control and make use of her unique powers. She is aided in her quest to bring peace to Ravka, at any cost, by her childhood best friend Mal, and by new friends she meets along her travels, such as Genya (a fellow Grisha with remarkable talents for tailoring and altering physical appearance, and by far one of the most fascinating characters in the series), Baghra, Tamar and Tolya. It’s pretty easy to get a detailed synopsis of all three of these novels online, so I won’t go into any more detail than that, but suffice it to say that Alina’s life goes from ordinary to dramatic and dangerous in the span of a few short chapters.
I don’t normally read all of the books in a series at once (in fact, I think that before this year, I hadn’t read an entire series from start to finish since reading the Twilight series when I was in grade 11), but it is something I’ve been doing a lot lately. The Grisha Trilogy came onto my radar a few months ago when I was buried deep in the A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas – I was looking for something to fill the void that I knew would inevitably be left by Feyre and Rhysand, and I noticed rave reviews on Goodreads of both Maas’ other series, Throne of Glass, as well as of Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy. Thinking it was a good idea to get some distance from Maas’ writing style and some variation in what I was reading, I put the Grisha Trilogy on my immediate To-Read list. In a wonderful twist of Fate, my fiancé went out a few days later to Chapters and bought me 9 different books (he’s amazing, I know!), including the entire Grisha Trilogy. Once I finished a few novels that I had been waiting to read for awhile, and put some distance between myself and the ACOTAR series, I was reading to dive right into Bardugo’s world.
And, it is quite a remarkable world! From the first pages of the book, when the reader is faced with an impressive and imposing map, it becomes obvious that the tale will literally span an entire world that Bardugo has painstakingly created. Based on Russian culture, this world encompasses multiple kingdoms and involves many cultural and political structures that are both recognizable to readers and yet extremely unique and well-executed. Most notably, Alina finds herself a reluctant Saint figure, and she is constantly overwhelmed by the religious fanatics that follow and worship her. Class struggles are also prominently explored, particularly because Alina is an orphan and was raised in the lower class as a member of the First Army, prior to discovering her Grisha powers and achieving elite status. There is a noticeable divide between the soldiers of the First Army, who are human, and the Grisha of the Second Army who practice the Small Science, and prejudice is a theme that Bardugo explores subtly but at length. Bardugo’s world is intricate, fleshed out and realistic, and there is no doubt that she spent a great deal of time not only creating human culture but also envisioning unique terrains and environments (her description of the Shadow Fold alone, and its various creatures such as the volcra, is detailed and thorough).
Bardugo’s characters are undoubtedly the most engaging part of the series, though, and it is because of the characters that I chose to wait to write a review of the entire series, rather than writing individual reviews of the books within it. The main reason for this is that I was not a huge fan of any of the characters (except for The Darkling – more on this later) after reading the first book. I think Sarah J. Maas’ ACOTAR series is largely to blame for this because I found myself constantly comparing Alina to Maas’ main character, Feyre Archeron. Probably it wasn’t the best idea to read the Grisha Trilogy so soon after finishing the ACOTAR series, and I must admit that, if it weren’t for the fact that I had all three novels of the Grisha Trilogy sitting in my house, I may not have actually moved onto the second novel so quickly after the first one. I definitely would have finished the series at some point, but the first novel did not make me that eager to dive into the second right away, which is totally different from my experience of Maas’ trilogy, where I actually rushed out to buy the next two books in the series because I was so shaken by the first. As I said, this difference is mainly due to the striking differences between the two main characters of each of these series – where Feyre is strong-willed, vocal and fierce, I found Alina to be quiet, meek and far too self-conscious. For most of the first novel, Alina doubts her powers and Grisha status, and when she does finally begin to accept that there hasn’t been a mistake (how could there be, since the power did in fact come from her body?), she continuously laments the fact that Grisha are normally born naturally beautiful and she is just plain and unspectacular (in her own eyes, at least). It became tedious to constantly read about Alina’s self-esteem issues, especially because I was hoping to see her develop some internal strength and purpose from her Grisha status – this was her chance to become extraordinary for her talents and abilities and amass confidence from what she has to offer, rather than how she looks. Unfortunately, I found that Alina made it to the end of the novel without ever truly growing or achieving any sort of force or strength of character. Even worse than that, she continued to pine over her childhood friend and crush, Mal Oretsev, who I found to be boring, stereotypical and one-dimensional. He didn’t grow or develop much as a character, either, during the first novel, and I found this very frustrating. (I should say that his character grew on me by the conclusion of the final novel, but I still only really felt as connected to him as I would to any plot device, designed to propel the main characters forward and challenge and interrogate them.)
Like I said, if it wasn’t for the fact that the second novel was sitting on my bookshelf and staring me in the face, it would’ve taken me a lot longer to pick it up after finishing the first novel. I was intrigued by the world and by one character in particular, but I was struggling to like Alina or to feel empathy for her. That all changed with the second novel however, and I think I’m in the minority when I say that the second novel was so much better than the first one for me! Finally, FINALLY, Alina starts to get a sense of direction and purpose, and she has a clear vision for what she hopes to accomplish in Ravka. More importantly, she decides to go after that vision and future, and she becomes defiant in the face of obstacles, and is noticeably more strong-willed. Although she has her internal doubts and fears, as a reader we are called to sympathize with her difficult position of power, and Alina seems much more developed and intricate than she did in the first novel. She also begins to realize that her power is a huge responsibility, and this begins to affect her relationship with Mal in complex ways that are surprising and welcomed. Alina becomes much more of a force to be reckoned with in the second novel, and this continues into the third when she truly comes into her own, begins to hone her powers and becomes a real adversary for The Darkling, who has otherwise commanded and overpowered her at every measure.
Seeing Alina grow into a strong female character is very gratifying, and it also opens her up to have some very interesting interactions with male characters that I found altogether MUCH more complex than Mal. These two male characters, and the way they challenge Alina, were the highlight of the series for me. The first of these characters is Nikolai “Sturmhond” Lantsov, a prince turned pirate (or, in his words, “privateer”) who seeks to take over the throne of Ravka from his ailing father. Nikolai is truly unlike any character I’ve encountered in a long time – he is cocky, over-the-top and witty, and he reminded me in many ways of Henry Higgins with his sharp tongue and unruffled demeanour. He challenges Alina to help him bring peace to Ravka, and their fast repartee is one of the elements of the second and third novels that really stuck out to me. Nikolai is not weak or soft-spoken, and so he forces Alina to use language as a weapon. He teaches her so much about how to be a ruler and what her obligations are, and their relationship is heated and sensual in ways that shock and test Alina.
Despite Nikolai’s strong presence, there is no character in the Grisha Trilogy quite like The Darkling, a “man” who is at once ultimate foe and forever friend. His literally physical as well as emotional connection to Alina is the crux of the entire series: will Alina submit to her powers and join forces with the Grisha whose powers complete hers, or will she choose peace over tyranny? The Darkling is such a complex character in that he is intoxicating but also dangerous. Everything about him draws Alina, and the reader, in and yet there is a latent insanity and desperation to him that is terrifying. The strongest scenes of the entire series, in my opinion, are those when The Darkling and Alina visit each other through their complicated bond – their conversations and interactions in these scenes are fiery and flirtatious, but there is also so much that is alluded to and so many layers of personality that they each peel off of each other. Alina’s powers make her thirsty and hungry for control and dominance, and it is The Darkling who perhaps sees her most clearly, for who she truly is, and encourages her to embrace the fact that she is unlike any other Grisha in history. Although he is a villain in many senses, he is also the only character to let Alina be free in the sense of allowing her to fully use and exercise her powers. This fact is paradoxical because in trying to set Alina free in this way, The Darkling must capture her – to fully give into her powers and abilities, Alina must submit to The Darkling’s master plan for Ravka, which is much less peaceful and inclusive than she would hope. The series becomes all the more complicated as Alina struggles with her inherent desire to be with The Darkling and her simultaneous fear of him, and it is very engrossing to watch this struggle play out as Alina herself becomes more self-assured.
Overall, I would highly recommend this series, as it became much better as it progressed. I always appreciate when a series is not just a series for the sake of it, when the second and third installments are meaningful and add something to the fictional world that would otherwise be lacking. This is definitely the case for the Grisha Trilogy, and while it is not my favourite trilogy that I’ve read this year, it is still certainly a fun ride! If fantasy novels are meant to be an escape, then this is the quintessential fantasy series, and the ending of the final novel was satisfying and utterly rewarding!
A few of my favourite quotes from the novels…
“The thought filled me with grief, grief for the dreams we’d shared, for the love I’d felt, for the hopeful girl I would never be again. That grief flooded through me, dissolving a knot that I hadn’t known was there….I’m sorry I left you so long in the dark. I’m sorry, but I’m ready now.”
“‘I love you, Alina, even the part of you that loved him.’”
~ Shadow and Bone
“‘I’m not going to apologize for being ambitious. It doesn’t change the fact that I’m the best man for the job.’”
“‘I’m not a symbol…And I’m tired of being used as a pawn.’”
“Stop it…You’re not some scared little girl anymore, shaking in her army-issue boots. You’re a Grisha, the Sun Summoner.”
“‘I have loved you all my life, Mal…There is no end to our story.’”
~ Siege and Storm
“‘For all my talk of vows and honor, what I really want is to put you up against that wall and kiss you until you forget you ever knew another man’s name. So tell me to go, Alina. Because I can’t give you a title or an army or any of the things you need.’”
“‘He watches her the way Harshaw watches fire. Like he’ll never have enough of her. Like he’s trying to capture what he can before she’s gone.’”
“‘You are all I’ve ever wanted…You are the whole of my heart.’”
~ Ruin and Rising
- Shadow and Bone ~ ❥❥❥❥
- Siege and Storm ~ ❥❥❥❥❥
- Ruin and Rising ~ ❥❥❥❥❥
- The Grisha Trilogy (overall) ~ ❥❥❥❥.5
Girl with a Green Heart