The Shadow and Bone Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo is the original stories for the Grisha universe. So I heard about her books out of order and therefore read the follow on duology first then went back and read the trilogy. The reason I call attention to this is that the two storylines can be enjoyed without reference to the other. Some of the things that surprised me in the Six of Crow’s storyline would have been obvious if I had read these books first but it did not take away from the books in any way.
Spoiler Alert: There will be some key plot points discussed.
This series is set in Ravka, which is essentially Russia, during a time of constant conflict. The main character is Alina Starkov; she is an orphan whose parents were killed in a border conflict when she was very young. Alina was raised in an orphanage established by a nobleman who was also a soldier. Alina’s best friend and a fellow orphan is Mal; from the beginning, these two are very close. The prologue sets up their relationship when they were children and gives us a glimpse of what it means to be Grisha in this world.
Every child is tested when they are about 8 years old; even the orphans that the Duke is taking care of. The Grisha testers come and the only two children this year who need to be tested are Mal and Alina. They, of course, are listening in from the balcony above the receiving room and realize that if either of them tests positive for Grisha power they will have to leave. The story does not say how the test goes per se but just foreshadows the story to come by saying that these children will do anything to stay together.
The real story begins with Alina and Mal now young adults in their first year of military service. Mal is a tracker and Alina is a cartographer in the First Army, which is the army of nonmagical people. They are on their way to cross the Unsea, usually called the Fold. This is a place created of dark magic that has terrifying monsters in it and even the sun cannot penetrate the darkness. The Unsea splits Ravka in two but people have to risk the crossing regularly so goods, weapons, and such can be brought from the port cities of Ravka to the rest of the country. Every crossing results in lost lives but it must be done.
Alina is worried about crossing the Fold for the first time but she will do her duty as a soldier of the First Army. During the crossing, the skiff that Alina and Mal are on is attacked by volcra, the dark monsters who live in the Fold. Alina’s friend and fellow cartographer is grabbed up by one of these winged creatures and all she can hear is his horrified screams. Then one of the beasts comes for Mal; Alina jumps in to save her best friend, when she and Mal are wounded a bright light comes from nowhere and scares the beasts away….then Alina passes out from the pain of the wounds she received trying to save Mal.
Alina wakes up sometime later and the crew is back on the shores of the Fold again and people are hovering around her. She quickly realizes they seem to be guarding her. Why? What has she done? Where is Mal? No one will answer her questions. Very soon she begins to understand that people think she called the light that saved the crew on the Fold. But this cannot be, she has no Grisha power. This is crazy at it’s best, all Alina wants is to see her best friend and know he is okay.
No one listens as Alina is dragged before the commander of the Grisha, known as the Darkling. She is sure that this is all a mistake and only hopes that once these people realize their mistake she won’t be punished for wasting the Darkling’s time. Alina is dragged to the headquarters of the Second Army, Grisha warriors, and the tale of what happened on the Fold is told. All the while Alina is saying this mistake, I have no power.
The Darkling tells her to summon the light again and she cannot. He realized that she has never been trained and maybe does not know how to access her power so he helps her. The Sun Summoner has been found; rejoice. If Alina can be taught to use her powers the Fold can be destroyed and Ravka can once again be a whole country.
From the realization that Alina is the Sun Summoner the rest of the trilogy kicks off. First Alina is taken to the Ravka capital to be trained in the Little Palace. She meets the King and Queen of Ravka, the other Grisha who live or come through the Little Palace, and the mysterious Apparat. The character of the Apparat is a quasi-religious guy that has a dark mysterious vibe to him. In my opinion, he is supposed to be a Rasputin type of character.
The bulk of the first book is about Alina learning how to access and then use her power. Her only friend at the Little Palace is a servant with Grisha powers named Genya. Alina thinks she is being trained to destroy the Fold and save Ravka but to help her become powerful enough to destroy the Fold Alina will also need something known as an amplifier. Not just any amplifier, one made of the bones of a mystical creature. However, Alina is warned that she is being used not to save Ravka but to help the Darkling overthrow the King.
All this time where is her best friend? Meanwhile, Mal has been given the task of hunting for the mythical creature that Alina must kill to claim her amplifier. When Alina runs away from the palace so she cannot be used in the Darkling’s plan Mal and his team is sent to hunt her down. But being her best friend when he finds her Mal deserts his team and helps Alina. They still hunt the Stag so Alina can have her amplifier and hopefully be able to protect herself.
Now that Mal and Alina are reunited the rest of the trilogy has them together is some capacity. They are captured by the Darkling, they escape him again. They get on a boat and leave Ravka only to be captured again some months later. Now it turns out that there are other amplifiers that the Darkling wants Alina to have so he can boost her power even more so he can carry out his plan of taking over Ravka.
The Darkling hires a privateer and his crew to hunt down another mystical creature, a sea dragon. But this is no ordinary privateer, it is the infamous Strumhond. He is not afraid of the Darkling like other people and will not let the Darkling torture Mal or Alina. They hunt the sea dragon and at the last minute, the privateer helps Mal and Alina escape the Darkling. Why would he do this?
It turns out that Strumhond has another client that is willing to pay for the Sun Summoner and wants to make her an offer. Alina is wary but Strumhond says “hey I am just paid to get you to my client. If you don’t like the offer I will make sure you are free to leave.” So Alina and Mal go along to find out what this offer is all about.
Strumhond gets Alina and Mal back to Ravka and what do we learn, yep the privateer is actually the younger son of the King. He is Nikolai Lantsov. How is it that Alina did not know this while traveling with him and his crew? Well, one he is being disguised by magic, and two he has been away from court for years so she never actually met him while she lived at the Little Palace.
Nikolai wants Alina to help him to destroy the Fold and destroy the Darkling. The Darkling is dangerous, he will never stop trying to take over Ravka, and cannot be allowed to live. Alina agrees but with a condition of her own. She wants to lead the Second Army. No more forcing young Grisha to leave their homes and family. Testing for Grisha power will continue but it will be a choice if people want to join the Second Army. It is agreed and the series moves into the phase where we see the back and forth as the two sides struggle for power leading to the final battle.
Part of the back and forth is helping Alina to become powerful enough to beat the Darkling. As far as the good guys know, the only way is to obtain a third amplifier, which comes from the last mystical creature, the Firebird. While the crew continues to fight the Darkling they are also trying to discover the location of the last amplifier.
Although the books are from Alina’s point of view, it is very much an ensemble cast. Friends turn out to be enemies, enemies turn out to be allies, allies turn traitor, and some come full circle and become friends again. There are no easy choices in war and everything is not always what it seems. I like that the author allows some characters to be redeemed. My favorite line from the whole series comes from a scene where the main characters were asked why they defended someone who was a Darkling supporter early on. The answer was basically “I don’t expect my friends to be perfect, we all make mistakes. It is about what you are doing now.” That is not the exact line but the sentiment behind it.
This series is full of imperfect people just trying to do their best and save their country. The characters are sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, and sometimes they just need to get over themselves. But overall I had a great time in the Grisha universe. If you decide to read the series, I hope you have fun too. As always please feel free to comment on these books.