Agent: Joanna Stampfel-Volpe
Editor: Noa Wheeler
I love fantasy. I love exotic stories with close-to-home characters. But I really, truly want a story to do two things: be enjoyable and make me think. The enjoyable element could be painful catharsis- Freak by Rebecca O’Donnell did this- or the pure charm and dry wit of Lemony Snicket. Making me think is generally a product of thematic weight and/or depth of character. When a book does these two things, I always end up caring deeply about the story. I’m hooked. The author has made me feel, and because of that, I won’t be able to put the story down.
Shadow and Bone, book 1 of the Grisha Trilogy, has these elements in spades. I ordered the book as part of a release contest, partially because of the impressive cover (I mean, how gorgeous is that?) and partially because I was intrigued by how much the book was being mentioned on Twitter by agents and authors. I read the first few pages and did a #pagebypage on Twitter as I read (see that post), and I was immediately impressed with the writing, before I had even gotten into the story.
Concisely put, here is why I loved Shadow and Bone: substance of character, plot, world, theme, and craft. Ms. Bardugo’s craft is admirable: her opening pages are a model of showing the story rather than telling information. Subtext and implication litter the first few chapters, adding charming detail and raising so many questions that the reader has little choice but to read on in order to find out. Why are these children orphaned? What border wars, and why? What is this Small Science? Who are these Grisha Examiners, and what are they looking for in the children? So smooth, in fact, is Ms. Bardugo’s writing, I barely noticed it. I had to slow down to evaluate her writing- her craft never gets in the way of the story or overshadows it. Instead, her writing upholds the story and amplifies it.
The characters are equally substantial- the book has a wide cast and I’m impressed by how well Ms. Bardugo handles the secondary characters. Each one has a bit of backstory and at least one intriguing detail that makes me want to know more, but none of them steal the spotlight from Alina Starkov. Alina is the protagonist- a girl who, in the middle of a horrifying military assignment, discovers she has a remarkable power. Alina is a beautiful blend of ordinary and extraordinary. She’s tough, smart, and caring. She’s secretly in love. She gets scared and overwhelmed and makes mistakes. Most importantly, she picks up the pieces of the disaster, goes after what she wants, and willingly pays the price for loving someone. Alina is unique not because she’s an abnormal human, but because she’s fully human. Ms. Bardugo makes both Alina and Mal unique characters by showing their humanity and putting it to the test. Alina and Mal are wonderfully memorable, and I found myself terrified that things would go horribly wrong for them and unfailingly hopeful that they would come out in the end whole and together.
The complexity of the plot is an organic outgrowth of the world Ms. Bardugo built. A Russian-flavored culture, complete with exotic Grisha, wastelands and palaces, a gritty military presence, and all the extravagance of the magical elite, provides a complex and fascinating backdrop for the equally complex plot. The story wasn’t confusing or fragmented by tangential plotlines- the complexity was the natural outcome of a fully-realized world in which characters have multiple motives. The bad guys don’t all want the same thing. The good guys aren’t all in agreement about everything. A mysterious and primal antagonist makes the reader question which is which. High stakes and international ripple effects add to the complexity. I couldn’t guess the ending, and I normally have at least a good idea of what happens. The plot of Shadow and Bone simply has substance- intriguing, richly-textured worldbuilding makes it real, and solid escalation of the main conflict intensifies the story beautifully.
Theme is, to my writer and English teacher self, the natural effect of a well-shaped story and deeply human characters. What those characters do and who they are can explore the toughest ideas and show the most challenging truths. Shadow and Bone handles theme remarkably well, allowing the profoundness of the subject matter and the humanity of the characters to bring out ideas and truths of life with subtlety and strength. Shadow and Bone contains a world of ideas. From self-sacrifice to the treachery of beauty, the themes are like its world and its characters: deep, substantial, and true to life.
I strongly recommend Shadow and Bone.
For Ms. Bardugo’s author website, click here.
For Ms. Volpe’s agency blog, click here.
For an interview with Ms. Bardugo’s editor, Noa Wheeler, click here.