This is the first in a series of 52. For more information on this personal project go here: 52 Reads Project
I met Jane in Ohio. Like most folks I know, we skated together. I still think she is Diana Prince’s alternative alter-ego. She also takes cool pictures (picsbyjane).
She recommended Shadow and Bone by Leah Bardugo about which she says, “I know it’s listed as YA, but I loved the heavy Russian influence mixed with fantasy and the hero is a young woman. It’s the first book in atrilogy so if it’s too sophomoric and you blow through it feel free to read all three!”
When I worked in my first bookstore, young adult was a brief section just outside of the children’s department. There were some interesting titles, but we shelved the hot commodity on the other side with the middle-grade readers. J. K. Rowling was only three books deep into her now completed Harry Potter series. The genre had yet to feel the influence of Twilight or Hunger Games. There was buzz that YA was becoming a thing, even Joyce Carol Oates penned YA novel around that time and other respected authors were toeing around the genre.
But, boy howdy, did this bracket of publishing ever take root. This section is essential to any bookstore, and preteens through adult readers come in craving the next greatest series. This is why I picked Jane’s recommendation as my first read. I am also a sucker for coming of age stories and light fantasy, so it seemed the perfect way to start.
A common trope of fantasy and YA (and narratives in general) features main characters who are “chosen ones” or characters on the Campbellian hero’s journey. These chosen one narratives are reassuring to freaks, geeks, and bookish weirdos because they offer worlds in which we can overcome obstacles, look inward to find enviable power, and end up on a predestined path. When Bardugo’s book opens, two young children Mal and Ana are about to be tested to see if they are Grisha, a powerful and magical class who practice the Small Science. Essentially, it’s a test to see if they deserve an invitation to study at this universe’s Hogwarts.
When we catch up with the two as young adults in the next chapter, surprisingly neither has transformed into one of the fiercely beautiful Grisha. Ana is a cartographer (!) charged with making three sketches a day of the terrain surrounding a smudge of darkness on the map named the Shadow Fold. Her childhood friend Mal has grown into a popular, handsome young man, as well as a capable tracker.
My heart lept a little at the prospect that this wasn’t a typical chosen one narrative–maybe it was a book about a girl cartographer who charts darkness. I began to lust not after the dashing Mal, but the prospect of rolled up maps and pots of ink. I swooned over the concept of lingering in tents in the field trying to get the edge of a ridge just right. That sounds exciting, yah?
Instead, the army soon ventures into the Shadow Fold, and Mal’s life is threatened by some nasty sounding winged beasties called volcra. This existential threat to her friend summons Ana’s buried special chosen-oneness–and we quickly leave the cartographer’s tent for a more typically sexy and glittering royal court and the Grisha. It’s a fun, if more typical journey in itself, but a week later I find myself still mourning the early demise of competitive cartographer Alexei and the uncharted routes the story might have taken.
Leah Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone is the first of a trilogy and then some. Her books now all feature the label Grishaverse. As Jane cautioned, the book spends a lot of time laying the foundation of this ‘verse. As such, there is something kind of unsatisfying about this one taste. I can’t decide if that is a side effect or by design.
Bardugo does a tremendous job of world-building, but as a consumer of many worlds sometimes learning all the new nooks, crannies, and languages of a space feels exhausting. I spend a lot of time drawing mental corollaries to other imagined worlds. Poor me, I soldiered on and gobbled the book up in a couple nights. The book is extremely readable, the Imperial Russia-inspired world is lush, full of hard beauty and many enviable fur-lined cloaks. I especially appreciate the way Bardugo uses the need to belong as a multi-faceted and dangerous motivator. However, as the book’s pages dwindle, it becomes even more clear that she is simply laying track for a wider world.
The thing that I like about most chosen one narratives is that we usually get a team of ragamuffin characters (Wookiees, Weasleys, scoobies) that support the chosen one on their journey. Chosen-oneness has a tendency to make even the coolest characters kind of a drag, and I heavily rely on well-drawn sidekicks help bring levity and humanity to each journey. This aspect is what I think I was missing in this novel. The story is voiced in the first person, and Ana’s perspective doesn’t provide the full access to the world and its characters I want. We spend time with a few teachers and other Grisha, but not enough for them to resonate fully.
I am kind of a loner, but I have never felt more like myself than when I was surrounded by the endless amounts of weirdos roller derby provided–each on their own journeys of self-realization. Stranded as I am with my primary weirdo here in Southern Oregon, I think maybe I just need more fictional weirdos to fill that empty space.
The thing I didn’t expect to learn: this book wasn’t grisly enough for me. It’s young adult, which means it’s really being sold to younger readers as well as curious adults. That means violence and sexuality are present, but each is tamped down. It falls far short of the descriptive and inventive violence of an adult series like A Song of Ice and Fire. When a character executed a gnarly maneuver called the Cut, I admit I salivated a bit thinking the book would veer into a little more brutality. However, most of the action of the novel is elemental and beautiful: more blinding beams of light and less intestinal perforation. I dunno that thirteen-year-old me would have needed more visceral content than what is provided–it is still a dark and tragic world. I am not sure how to process my craving for fictional violence–especially since reality is so full of its own stomach churning grotesquerie. (….my bloodlust was more than sated by Sunday’s Westworld episode “Akane No Mai”)
I want to come to my own conclusions about these reads, so I avoided online reviews, interviews, and summaries. But I’ll admit I needed to bounce my reactions off someone, so I tapped my coworker who is younger and more YA savvy. She likes Bardugo, but prefers her other series. As if cued by narrative gods, later that day a used copy of Six of Crows came in to seduce me with its lovely black-edged pages:
And, whoo-golly, that tagline has my number x100, so I am definitely not done with the Grishaverse.
Despite mixed feelings about Shadow and Bone, I am crazy excited about this personal project and grateful for Jane’s perfect recommendation. It was a delicious sip of kvas to start this long haul.
Next week: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt recommended by Stabby (Jane isn’t Jane’s real name either, get used to it!)
If you would like to suggest a book, there’s still space later in the year. Please fill out this form:
52 Reads Recommendation Form
Suggested further reading:
The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce: Probably the first young fantasy series I read, or at least the one that held my imagination the longest. My cousin passed these on to me. I had never encountered a lady chosen one prior to this series. They run a little more rampant now, but Alanna remains one of my favorites.
Still Life with Tornado by A. S. King: The other side of the YA coin. This a lovely book that also meditates on the idea of belonging. A sixteen-year-old stops going to school and wanders around downtown Philadelphia where she encounters versions of herself at different ages. It is sophisticated and humanizing in addressing of the flaws of its characters.