Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

10194157 Shadow and Bone is the first in a YA fantasy trilogy by Leigh Bardugo. Set in a Russian-inspired magical world, Shadow and Bone follows the story of Alina Starkov, an orphaned cartographer in the army who has never been particularly notable until her best friend is attacked, and in saving him she discovers that she has magical powers not seen in centuries. Her kingdom, Ravka, has been torn apart by the Shadow Fold, a stretch of darkness crawling with flesh-eating monsters that was accidentally created by a powerful sorcerer hundreds of years ago. If Alina is truly the long-hoped-for Sun Bringer, able to produce and control light at will, she might be able to stop the spread of the Shadow Fold, defeat its monsters and reunite the kingdom again. But if she is to learn to harness her powers, Alina must ally herself with the mysterious and dangerous Darkling, leader of the magical Grisha army and the most seductively powerful man in the kingdom.

Unfortunately, it's pretty impossible to state in a review what makes Shadow and Bone (and its even-better sequel, Siege and Stormso fantastic. Most of the books' joys come from the endlessly twisty and surprising plot, and any specifics would ruin the experience. Bardugo isn't afraid to make things dark or explore elements you wouldn't expect a fantasy YA novel to explore, and the result is utterly gripping.

Alina is an interesting and compelling protagonist, especially as she comes into her own and embraces her powers as the story progresses. She's definitely a fish out of water in the magical world at first, but the magic of the novel mostly comes from her growth as a character, and the novel's simultaneous explorations of the nature of power, duty and desire. How much power is too much power? Will it taint even a good person in the end? And if it does, does that mean the person was never as good as they initially believed?

Be warned, the series does have a love triangle (or even a love square, when another, far more interesting, guy is introduced in book 2). But this love triangle does go interesting places and helps to reflect on the different parts of Alina's personality and the different paths she could take. Her childhood best friend, Mal, at first seems the obvious safe romantic option, and I always found him a bit bland, but things certainly get more interesting when her power and influence grows, and his jealousy and own feelings of inadequacy grow with it. Mal's reaction is pretty irritating, from my perspective, but it allows for a realistic exploration of their relationship dynamic. Meanwhile, Alina's relationship with the Darkling explores her darker, more self-indulgent and power hungry side, and her (in my opinion, most enjoyable) relationship with late addition Nikolai introduces ideas of her potential political power and how she might exploit it.

I must admit that my knowledge of Russian culture mostly comes from high school lessons on the Russian revolution and one too many viewings of the adorable but slightly inaccurate Anastasia movie, so I'll leave any comments on those elements to people who actually know what they're talking about. But the world building here is rich, and the bleakness of Ravka's frozen tundra is certainly a refreshing change to the usual western European-inspired fantasy fare.

If you're looking for new fantasy that's not too hard to get into, fun to read, but ultimately delves deep, Shadow and Bone is definitely one to pick up.