“The servants called them malenchki, little ghosts, because they were the smallest and the youngest, and because they haunted the Duke’s house like giggling phantoms, darting in and out of rooms, hiding in cupboards to eavesdrop, sneaking into the kitchen to steal the last of the summer peaches.”
Alina Starkov is an orphan to the border wars that have plagued her world, an imagined Russia called Ravka, and has always had family in her best friend and fellow orphan, Mal. After they grow out of the orphanage where they spent their childhood they are both enlisted in the First Army; Mal as a tracker, Alina as a cartographer. When they are sent on a mission to cross the Shadow Fold, a blot of darkness where nothing can grow or survive, an attack by the winged, flesh-eating volcra brings out a power that Alina didn’t even know she had. Before she understands what has happened to her, she is whisked off by the Darkling, head of the powerful Grisha Second Army. The Grisha all have powers, whether they are corporalki heartrenders or etherealki inferni, but Alina’s power has never been seen before and could be the key to the destruction of the Shadow Fold. As she gets sucked into the dazzling world of the Grisha, her uniqueness makes her the object of envy for many and marks her as the Darkling’s favorite; but when she unwittingly gets pulled into an ancient power play, she realizes that everything she knew about her new life was based on a fabrication, and that the fate of the world could balance on what she does with that knowledge.
So, this book sounds pretty tight, right? Well, it’s not. Kind of. I mean, maybe? The premise is so, so, good, but the execution is so, so lackluster.
Let’s start with Alina. She annoyed the shit out of me. I mean, on the one hand, I get feeling insecure about your appearance, especially during the tender teenage years. But she is the heroine of the story, and I simply could not get behind someone as singularly self-deprecating as she is; there is basically nothing about her personality that redeems her enough to place her on the heroine pedestal. The fact that she is so annoyingly self-pitying and unattractive makes her central role in the inevitable love triangle utterly unbelievable. Why, WHY would the Darkling, who is 120 years old, a brooding hunk, and can telekinetically chop people in half, want anything to do with a sickly, pimply, whiny brat like Alina?
Of course, he doesn’t start making with the smooching until after she magically starts being more attractive, and that’s a whole different issue. (And yes, I do realize that we don’t KNOW whether he was manipulating her or if he actually wanted to make out. I mean, heavy petting is pretty dope even when you’re over a century old amirite?!) The entire first half of this book read like an epic fantasy wannabe wish fulfillment in the same vein as Twilight. Alina has had a pretty shitty, lonely go of it until she is suddenly the most desirable and powerful woman in the world, and once she learns to master her powers she stops having dark circles under eyes, grows a pair of tits, and has lustrous, shining hair. I mean, I get it. It’s emotionally satisfying to experience that kind of transformation with her, and she’s more believable as the object of desire when she stops looking like a mouse and grows some confidence. But I was really, REALLY hoping that just once we could have a legit mousy heroine with a flat chest who becomes confident and awesome without the fairy godmother makeover. Please? No? OK. This is what I mean by this book leaves me utterly conflicted.
And then there’s the pacing. Literally nothing happened for most of this book. There’s a lot of intrigue and gossiping and her learning how to use her powers, but after the initial attack-laden voyage to the Little Palace not a whole hell of a lot happens. Which I think is why I was so relieved when the Darkling (no, we never learn his real name) and Alina start slipping away to grind in empty rooms. Because there was nothing else to look forward to, at all, and when he finally started rubbing up on her at least I had something steamy to occupy my attention.
Then, there’s this big reveal and OH, THE BETRAYAL, and I really hoped it would get good, but, meh. There is basically one hundred pages of mediocre pursuit and hiding punctuated by the utterly transformed Darkling. See, before this big reveal, he was actually kind of a nuanced, interesting character. After the big reveal he was suddenly archetypical villain galore, a la this scene from the best show ever:
And then, he got boring, and predictable, except for the fact that maybe he still has a legitimate boner for Alina still, god knows why. Only the sequel will tell.
So, I just spent about 700 words ripping this book a new one, but I mentioned at the beginning of this review that I felt torn. Why? Because despite the fact that this book was basically a disappointing dud, for some reason it was still really compelling and I read it really, really fast. I think this could be another instance of when, like Twilight, my somewhat intelligent brain can recognize that the book is actually kind of terrible, but my escapist tendencies get lost in the wish-fulfillment fantasy of it all. The fantasy world that Bardugo creates is so lush and unique and, I’ll admit it, totally captivating that I am almost willing to say that I’ll give the next installment in this trilogy a try to see if the story crafting improves. The jury is still out on that one.
And, just to be clear, I think all these “professional” reviewers who raved about this book and made me want to read it in the first place were clearly on drugs when they read it.
For music, I am taking back to my seventeen year old self’s school of cool for AFI’s “Porphyria Cutanea Tarda,” mostly for the one line from the chorus, “In darkness together we’re bringing the light.” I can’t say anything else without getting too spoilery, or at least, any more spoilery than my review already is.
Where I got it: the library