Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.
Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha…and the secrets of her heart.
I knew from the very first page that I would love this one. The dark tone reminded me of Grave Mercy, one of my personal top books of 2012. While I was immediately curious about Mal, I pretty much fell in love with the Darkling by the fifth chapter. He sounded beautiful and scary and powerful, and Alina does find him handsome. What can I say, maybe I never left my goth days behind me. I was really intrigued by the descriptions of the landscape, the monsters, the Grisha and their powers, and I wanted more. It was the same with Ismae and her killer nuns. I was sucked in right away by things I usually don’t care about, like landscape descriptions! This is the kind of novel I love, dark and rich and wicked and frightening. I don’t think I rolled my eyes at all during the first quarter of the novel and that is really saying something. I also really liked that things were hard for Alina right off the bat, and the Darkling was so very blunt and honest with her about her new role. I love the Darkling. And I love Alina Starkov.
This seems to be another coming of age tale, and we all know how those seem to be my kryptonite. This is very much Alina’s story, despite the war raging around her. There are politics and intrigues, but Alina is learning about herself and her power, and exploring her feelings for many people. I was worried that this would be a love triangle situation, but it really wasn’t. Mal represents comfort and safety to Alina, while the Darkling represents power and balance. Bardugo really takes pains to present the pros and cons of Alina’s matching with Mal or the Darkling, and it was pretty impressive. I applaud her for how authentic she made the romances. I also liked the female friendship shown here. Alina has “friends,” girls who smile to her face then talk behind her back, but she does have a real friend in Genya, servant to the Queen. I really liked how frank and honest Genya was to Alina. I think Genya helped propel Alina to a higher place. Alina starts coming into her own about halfway through.
And then? Mal shows up, and I find myself of two minds. I like Mal because Alina does and because she seems to want him, and when I had this thought, I was only two-thirds finished with the novel. The Darkling, on the other hand, is more my kind of anti-hero for reasons mentioned above, but I was right in that all is not as it seems with him. He disappointed me a little, to be honest. His plans were a little cliche, but I was surprised by a few of the reveals. I still hold out hope for the Darkling though. Why do I always end up on the wrong side of these ships? I did warm up to Mal though, because we didn’t have time to get to know him at the beginning of the book. We start learning his side of the story here, and it made me happy, even thought it wasn’t always pretty or even happy for Mal and Alina.
And then my heart was broken. The Darkling does appear to be a bad dude, no matter how hard I try to twist his intentions. Remember how I said he was honest to Alina about her role and it was refreshing? Yeah, not so much, it turns out. The way he speaks to Alina in the later part of the novel reminds of the way some love interests speak to some protags of paranormal romance. Which is to say I have seen authors salvage relationships from horror and abuse, and though I almost never agree with them, it can be done. I don’t want it to be done here; I want Alina to stay with Mal.
This book is a beautiful, dark rollercoaster ride that will give you goose bumps and make you cry. It’s a perfect debut for Bardugo and I will most definitely be reading the next in the series. I can’t recommend this one enough. Get to reading!