Book Review: Shadow & Bone/The Gathering Dark

Shadow & Bone (U.S. Title)/The Gathering Dark (UK Title)
Published by: Indigo (UK)
Publication Date: June 7, 2012
Source: Won in a Competition from Orion Publishing (UK)
Audience: Young Adult - Fantasy

Shadow and Bone (US title) is also known as The Gathering Dark in the UK. I don't particularly feel like either title is right for the book, even though I can see where both originate from - like the name, this book had me a little divided. 

I found the rather large proportion of Russian influenced names of people, places and things difficult to get to grips with at first, as well as the new world I had to explore. I must admit to stumbling over the words a little and making myself laboriously pronounce them until I felt like I had them, and I found that this significantly diminished my enthusiasm for the start of the book. I don't really romanticize that region of the world, and found myself drawing probably unwarranted connections to The Book of Blood & Shadow by Robin Wasserman and Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Somewhere in there, there's a little too much blood, smoke, shadow and bone for me... I digress... anyway, the setting did come around to lend credibility to the story despite my initial misgivings. 

While I was feeling frustrated about the language barrier, what I really wanted was more explanation to help me get to grips with Ravka, the kingdom under siege in which the story takes place. In the middle of Ravka is The Fold - a vast inky black fog, devoid of normal life and filled with harpy-like creatures only too happy to rip travelers to shreds. Why cross it? Trade or something. (They must have REALLY good stuff on the other side.) If you do want to cross it then you'll need an escort of Grisha - humans with special powers who are a little like medieval X-Men in some respects, but a lot more elitist. Many of the different kinds of Grisha don't talk to each other and there is a suitable amount of Grisha-girl-on-girl angst to give teens something to relate to. The Grisha are a privileged bunch who live and work together, but jealously compete for attention from the Darkling; a man with several powers, including the ability to manipulate darkness. A Darkling was responsible for creating The Fold and the Darkling that our heroine, Alina, meets is loosely trying to do something about it. (I wasn't fully convinced in what he actually did at all - he was so mysterious he became a little bit of a caricature of himself, which isn't necessarily a criticism.)

Alina is a likable character. She is small, unhealthy looking and a little bit prickly. She grew up in an orphanage with her pal Mal and had to make their way as adults in the world as members of one of the armies that Ravka needs to defend itself from surrounding countries. I really recommend studying the map which is available on the author's (pretty awesome) website to help with this; my UK paperback copy didn't have this in, and I couldn't work out which country was where, or why they would even interact as I thought they were on opposing sides of the Fold from each other. A quick look at the map sorted that out, and I feel it is a real shame that it wasn't included in the book as it is a lovely looking illustration.

The Fold has a direct impact on Alina and Mal when they try to cross it; the harpy-like creatures close in, and all looks lost until Alina reveals a unique power that she didn't know she possessed in her desperation to save Mal's life. This captures the interest of The Darkling, who whisks her off post haste to keep her safe and train her up to help him save the world. His true motives are unclear though, and interesting politics arise over the course of the book as Alina struggles to learn more about herself. 

There is a smidge of romance in the plot, as The Darkling exudes a mysterious and exotic appeal to Alina, but it is Mal who stole my heart. He moves through an interesting character arc and emerged as my favorite character my a mile! He was a touch shallow at the start, but that old phrase, "absence makes the heart grow fonder," rings true, and he shows worth by the end. Like Mal many of the characters change, for the better or worse, as the story progresses, and this helped build pace and complexity. 

I was thinking about giving this a 2.5 rating as I read - I found it just a little too easy to put down for a large portion of the story... BUT the last quarter of the book was really really good, to the tune of about 4 stars... so I think I'm going to go with the 3.5. When Alina had gotten to grips with her power and discovered why the Darkling was so interested in her I simply couldn't put this down.

I think Shadow & Bone/ The Gathering Dark is a member of that small band of books which are really good, and you come to appreciate that much more on a reread armed with some prior knowledge. You just need someone to tell you to stick with it and you'll get there... books that made me feel like that were The Host by Stephenie Meyer and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I think the sequel (also of different names in the US/UK *groan*) will be eminently readable, and I will look forward to the continuation of the Light vs Dark struggle.

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.