Last year someone recommended Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo to me. I noted the recommendation and then promptly forgot it because my reading queue is two years long. But this last week my wife brought some books home from the library, and there, sitting on top, was Bardugo’s book.
I opened it. Page one listed the orders of magic. I was immediately drawn to the names. They were Grisha, “soldiers of the second army, masters of the small science.” They had divisions of corporalki, etheralki, and materialki, who are the order of fabrikators.
I don’t know what it is, but I love, not steampunk (well, I don’t know if I don’t love steampunk because I really haven’t read any, but I do think dirigibles are vastly overrated), but the mixture of machinists and engineers and magic set in the late 1800’s, the time period when Sherlock Holmes was running about. It’s something I can’t resist.
And “fabrikators”? Russian? Oh, baby.
Most epic fantasies are set in some kind of old German or English medieval setting. Nothing wrong with that. We luvs them, Precious. But something different is nice as well. Recently, Peter V. Brett and Saladin Ahmed have given us fantasies with a Middle Eastern flavor. But I haven’t read an epic fantasy with a Russian flair since C. J. Cherryh’s Rusalka series. And here on page one I’ve got magic and machinists and all these Russian sounding terms.
I turned the page. The opening paragraph of the prologue pulled me right in, and I was off and running, soaking up this little snippet about an orphaned boy and girl who, fast-forward in the next chapter, are now in the army. Not the second army that’s made up of Grisha, but the first army that’s made up of soldiers with rifles who have to slog through mud and march while a handful of Grisha of the second army roll by in a carriage.
Alina, the girl who is now working with the army’s cartographers, and Mal, who is a tracker, are heading with the troops toward the Unsea, the Shadow Fold, this darkness that cuts the country in two and is full of these horrors called volcra. They enter the Shadow Fold, are attacked, and Alina unconsciously calls forth a powerful magic.
Of course, she can’t reproduce it, but it’s a magic that might be used to banish the Fold forever. The rest of the book is about Alina avoiding assassination, trying to learn how to summon her magic, and being pulled into a surprising and terrible plot. It’s also about her and Mal. Yes, there’s a love story here, but this is NOT a romance where everything focuses on her feelings and his feelings and touches and sighs and unbounded quivering.
This is an epic fantasy, remember? Those books that delight readers with dark lords and magic? Well, there’s plenty of that here, plus secrets and a number of delicious plot twists. There are escapes and chases and battles. And, yes, that love story that isn’t overblown but feels very real indeed.
Epic fantasies come in lots of different sizes. This isn’t one of those huge doorstop epics with twenty sprawling plotlines. This focuses on one point of view and one storyline, which means you are able to enter the story very quickly, much like the epics by Hambly and McKinley and so many others.
It’s a terrific read. Give it a go. If you enjoyed Vin in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and Cinna and Katniss in Hunger Games, then I think you’re going to love Shadow and Bone. I’m certainly looking forward to the next volume.