Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo

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Ruin and Rising is the long-awaited finale to Leigh Bardugo's Grisha Trilogy, and probably my most eagerly anticipated book this year. It did not disappoint. But since I assume most people who've read the first two books of the series have already picked up the third, and because I don't want to write any spoilers, I'm going to focus here on reviewing the series as a whole.

The Grisha Trilogy is deliciously dark YA fantasy, full of shocks and twists and big questions that will have you gripping the pages and desperate for more. The story starts out predictably enough. Ordinary trainee soldier Alina finds out that she has magic powers, and is thrust into the elite world of the magical Grisha to train. Her unique power -- summoning and controlling sunlight -- may be the key to her kingdom's problems. But there are forces that wish to use her power for evil. Etc etc. You've heard all this before. But the skill is in the execution, and Leigh Bardugo writes it amazingly. No possibility is too dark. There's no success when failure seems inevitable. The story goes places you would never expect it to go and explores possibilities you would never expect it to explore.

Alina is a fascinating -- if controversial -- protagonist. She starts the story as a lonely orphan, somewhat caustic and short-tempered, but caring too. She hates the Grisha for treating the lives of people like her as disposable, and when she finds out she is one of them, she's less than pleased. Her character development throughout the series then takes her many interesting places, and raises endless questions. How much power is too much power? Is it OK to be power-hungry if you're doing it for "good"? Does power corrupt -- or was the corruption always there? What sacrifices are necessary to be a good leader? Is it selfish to do things for yourself when others view you as their savior? Through the books, Alina is a soldier, an apprentice, a captive, a runaway, a leader, even a saint, and her actions, decisions and desires are challenged every step of the way. She's a heroine who might not be entirely good, a female character with power who makes mistakes, someone manipulated and manipulative in turn, commanding and demanding and intriguingly unique. I know not all readers respond positively to her, but I loved her, and she's definitely a challenging and compelling character to read about.

Alina also finds herself in the middle of a kind of love square, the one element of the books I found disappointing. There's Mal, her childhood friend who is probably her true love but who alternates between being boring and criticizing Alina for daring to have more power and significance than he does. Then there's the Darkling, the leader of the Grisha who controls darkness and shadow. Sexy, tortured... but also ambitious and highly untrustworthy. The likelihood of a good relationship with him is kind of apparent in his name. And then there's the Book 2 addition, Nikolai, a charismatic prince who sees Alina as an excellent political ally. He's easily the most likeable of the bunch, but as he represents the pragmatic, sacrifice-for-duty option, he's less part of a "love" triangle and more part of a "love vs great friend who I could do great things for the kingdom with" triangle. Which is an interesting dynamic, except for the fact that her "love" Mal spends a significant amount of time sulking and disparaging her for having power and priorities other than him. He does grow as a character as the series continues, but I soured to him to the point I kind of just wanted him to go away. Unfortunate, when he's a major part of the romantic plotline.

Still, one love interest aside, this is a great series. Fun magic and worldbuilding, several fantastic female characters, excellent writing, and a lot of really intriguing ideas. Highly recommended!