Title: Shadow and Bone I Author: Leigh Bardugo I Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) offers the following synopsis for Shadow and Bone as it rates it one of the best YA books of 2013:
Alina discovers she has secret powers and must try abolishing the monsters of the Fold.
Plot Summary: After a brief prologue that sets the story in a fictionalized, pre-revolution Russia, the reader then flashes forward to the characters Alina Starkov and Malyen Oretsev as young adults. They are in the service of the Czar's armed forces, which are a combination of military personnel and Grisha (Summoners). Alina is a cartographer who struggles with her own awkwardness and Malyen (Mal) is a handsome and charismatic tracker. Alina loves Mal but Mal doesn't return the feelings and sees her as a best friend. It is the eve before their patrol is to cross the Shadow Fold. The Shadow Fold is a place of complete darkness that was created hundreds of years ago by an evil dark-summoning Grisha known as the Black Heretic. The Fold divides the country in two and is filled with Volcra that are winged monsters who were once ordinary peasants that were trapped in the Shadow Fold at its creation.
When it is time to cross the Fold, the transport vessels find themselves surrounded by Volcra. They are attacked, and in a flash of weapons' fire, Alina sees that Mal has been gravely wounded. In her distress, she unleashes her hidden Grisha power – a power that not even she knew she had – and summons a light of such intensity that it breaks through the darkness of the Shadow Fold and overcomes the Volcra.
Alina is taken to the royal palace where she begins training as a Grisha, but she cannot seem to summon her powers unless she has as an amplifier to help her. A dark-summoning Grisha known as the Darkling is the most powerful of all the Grisha and takes special interest in Alina's powers. The Darkling is described to the reader as handsome but unnatural. He looks to be about Alina's age but is clearly older. Alina senses the wrongness of it. The Darkling sends Alina to Baghra for Grisha training and explains that Alina must be strong so that she can help him destroy the Fold.
Alina meets some Grisha friends and acquaintances and begins to feel like she fits in for the first time in her life. Her awkwardness begins to fade as she slowly masters her powers, but she is being pursued by a creepy Rasputin-esque Apparat who wants to spiritually advise her. He is described as unkempt, smelling of incense and mildew and he offers her a leather bound copy of Lives of the Saints. He explains that the only thing that can overcome powerful evil is faith.
In the meantime, the Darkling – whose power is to summon darkness – has befriended Alina. Alina feels a growing attraction to him. On the night of a special celebration for the Czar, Alina and the Darkling put on a brilliant demonstration of their powers which are comingled in a dazzling display. This cements Alina's growing feelings for the Darkling. When alone, he seduces her in an intense love scene and asks if he may come to her room that evening.
The Darkling takes his leave, and Alina runs into Mal who attended the Czar's celebration. She has not seen him in several months and he has greatly changed. He is cold and distant. In addition, he is angry with Alina for so obviously giving herself over to the Darkling. Angry and confused, Alina returns to her room to wait for the Darkling. Instead, she gets a visit from Baghra who reveals that the Darkling is the Black Heretic, that Baghra is his mother and that he intends to control Alina with a special amplifier made from a magical stag's antlers. Once this has been accomplished he will then use her powers to expand the Fold.
Alina makes her escape, runs into Mal and together they pursue the stag. If Alina kills the stag first, then she will control the amplifier. Mal tracks the stag, tells Alina to kill it but she is overcome with mercy for the creature and cannot. The Darkling swoops in, kills the stag, creates a permanent collar made from the antlers and places on Alina. He then controls her power. He takes her and Mal to the Fold along with several diplomats under the pretense of destroying the Fold. The Darkling then shows them that he can expand the fold using Alina's power and explains that he will do so if they don't obey his commands, but Alina suddenly realizes that her act of mercy for the stag provided her ultimate control over the amplifier. She subjugates and abandons the Darkling and his entourage in the Fold and makes her escape with Mal.
Review : This young adult book has earned a Mature Content rating for intense romantic descriptions, violence, extreme paranormal imagery. It receives four stars for story development.
This is a very well written book. The story itself is compelling. The story's characters are well developed. They are convincing and consistent. They display sufficient justification for behaving as the author directs them. The writer is competent. She is able to reach the reader and keep his or her attention throughout the duration of the story. At no time will the reader feel that the writer is inept. Having said that…
So as not to be vague, four out of five stars does not mean I recommend this book. The mature relationship that develops between the main character Alina and the Darkling ought to concern the parents of impressionable children…and actually the parents of unimpressionable children. The relationship is very intense, very adult and deals with the seduction of a young woman by demonic forces.
When an author places her characters in a scene that ends with the young woman's ball gown hoisted and the man rounding third base, it's hard for me to understand how this might be construed as appropriate reading for middle to high school students. I recognize that children are exposed to unambiguous sexuality in books, movies and television frequently, and that one can hardly watch a super bowl halftime without some highly unusual interpretation of relationships being displayed, but that doesn't make it right.
While it is true that an ardent demonstration of attraction is necessary to the development of the story to prove that Alina has been unwittingly manipulated by the Darkling, the sex scene, as it was written, is not necessary. It's completely gratuitous.
Moreover, this story deals with the paranormal. This is not an uncommon theme in stories and I think a lot of people enjoy fantasy in literature as a form of escapism, but let's be clear. There is a preponderance of edgy and troubling new-ageism found in children's literature right now. This book is simply a furtherance of a very dark trend in children's fiction which knowingly or unknowingly blurs the line between fantasy and occultism. We define occultism as the belief in and study of magic, witchcraft or arcane occurrences.
Right. Right-right. I'm just a religious whack job who thinks that Harry Potter is dangerous because it's about witches and broomsticks. A regular Abigail Williams…don't-cha- know. But I'm sorry; Harry Potter is an excellent example of what is problematic about the paranormal trend in children's books.
The Harry Potter mythology was developed over the course of seven volumes and several years. It started out as pretty harmless stuff. It was clever and creative. The characters were likable and believable and very human. The story was compelling. Sure, J.K. Rowling was using Latin invocations that were causing concern in some in religious circles, but you know how those people are…superstitious and old fashioned. Not like the rest of us who are too smart to be taken in by that opiate of the masses hokum. Rowling herself had a good laugh over the hysteria of religious traditionalists and we all kind of brushed off the concerns. Trust me. I did too because Rowling assured us that there was nothing disconcerting about any of it. It's just a story. It's not real.
Seven volumes over the course of several years. We were all pretty invested in those characters, were we not? So when…was it volume four or five that introduced us to the death eaters and soul splitting and channeling and possessions…you know, kind of walked us through how and why one could try to invoke or summon these powerful models, introduced us to levels of malevolence that rational thinkers recognize is not good for impressionable minds…
…but by then you're hooked. You care about what happens to the characters and you need to know how it ends. So even though the books had become very dark in their themes, most people continued to read and the movies just underscored the story's utter bleakness. Harry Potter – as a standalone – was a miserable influence on kids, but that was just the beginning because Rowling inspired a demented and prolific genre that knows no boundaries.
We saw the same thing happen with the Golden Compass. The Golden Compass is a story that is passionately defended by the American Library Association. The taxpayer funded ALA forcefully condemns multiple school and community libraries for their unwillingness to have the series on their bookshelves. Philip Pullman draws the young reader in with highly readable fantasy and then kills what is Pullman's "god" character in his final installment. Because of this, some small-minded Christian types won't stock the book because they disapprove of this manipulation of their children. How provincial.
I'm not suggesting that this is where Leigh Bardugo intends to go in her own book series…Shadow and Bones is only volume one. I honestly couldn't tell you what kind of politics she's peddling, but we have a character – a young woman with self-esteem issues who suddenly discovers that she can summon nature to do her bidding. Having found this power to be at her command, she literally grows more beautiful as her power grows. Her figure develops. Her hair becomes glossier. Her skin is radiant. She then develops a sexually charged relationship with a handsome, desirable and purely evil man. She lives in a fictionalized version of a very real and bloody revolution that brought about a totalitarianism that the world still struggles to overcome. It's not some fantasyland. It's the Romanov dynasty.
Shadow and Bones may receive four out of five stars for story development, but it is not a book that I would encourage my own child to read because it undermines what I want my child to understand regarding history, relationships, the seen and the unseen. And when we expand our focus and look at Shadow and Bones as a brick in the New Age wall, we begin to see a big picture develop. That picture is the effort to undermine Judeo-Christian values and this point returns us to the original emphasis of this book review series. There should be a meaningful rating system on books that will allow parents to quickly assess whether a particular work of literature is appropriate for their own children or whether it undermines their own teachings to the furtherance of a progressive agenda.