Why I picked it up: I bought the first three books in this series in a used book store while on vacation more than three years ago. They've languishedWhy I picked it up: I bought the first three books in this series in a used book store while on vacation more than three years ago. They've languished on my shelf ever since, and they are my first books read for project "Read the Books We Have Instead of Buying New Ones." Also, I was in the mood for some gritty fantasy with burglars, big cities, a stratified society, and big magic.
Review in a nutshell: Engaging read with strong characters and a nice portrayal of friendship and loyalty under adverse circumstances. Not perfect in terms of world building, but still good enough that I thoroughly enjoyed it and will most certainly read the other books.
The two viewpoint characters, Mildmay and Felix, were both clearly drawn with distinct voices. Mildmay the cat burglar was especially fun to read. Felix was less fun, mostly because he spends most of the novel being driven insane by the magic that was worked through him against his will. That being said, Felix's sections were disturbing in a way that inspired empathy.
And while those two characters were very strong, I didn't feel like any of the other side characters really grabbed me, and as a lover of side characters, I was disappointed by this. One character that really should have grabbed me and didn't was Shannon, Felix's lover. Though we see him through Felix's eyes before he's driven mad, I never really got a sense of who he was, and because one of the other reasons I picked up this book is that I remembered one of the protagonists was gay, and so having the gay character's lover be so underdeveloped was a bit of a let down. But then again, Mildmay's girl Ginerva isn't terribly well developed either.
I also really wanted more about Malkar. He's a horrible person and the catalyst for the entire adventure, and within the first fifty pages of the book he'd bolted to the top of my "I hate you and there is nothing you can do to redeem yourself" list, which isn't a very long list of fictional characters. I think what I'm trying to say is that because we don't get much background about Malkar and Felix and their past before we're narratively required to hate Malkar, and as his actions drive the plot forward, not having any context for why he would do what he did was frustrating. (spoiler alert that's not really a spoiler, but more of a trigger warning: (view spoiler)[Malkar rapes Felix, and we get to be in Felix's head while it happens. It's not exploitatively graphic, but it's still rough). (hide spoiler)]
This is one of the places where this book is lacking. I could FEEL a really interesting world lurking in here. The city of Melusine was well described, and I feel like I could imagine the Mirador and the Lower City and the graveyard of Boneprince really well. It was when the story expanded beyond just the city that I got frustrated. I'm usually pretty good at putting together history and geography of places by paying attention. I AM a lifelong reader of fantasy, after all. Even when there's not map, I know what clues to look for. So the fact that I still can't quite tell whether Melusine is the capital of an entire kingdom, the seat of government for a duchy or some portion of a larger political entity or WHAT drove me up a wall. We know there are other cities. We know there are other types of wizards with conflicting ideas, some of whom post a threat to Melusine and the Mirador, some of whom are allies, but exactly how all of this shook out was never clear. I know the author wanted to avoid info-dumping, but the thing was, when she did give a bit of backstory for a place that was important, like Mildmay's brief history of the Boneprince, it was engaging and well done. I just wanted her to do that for the structure of the world at large.
The other thing this book does that made me sigh a bit is use naming conventions that are heavily rooted in European history without any explanation of how those conventions apply in the universe of the book. Example: the last names ruling families of Melusine all sound Roman, and the characters follow Roman conventions (at least I'm pretty sure that's what they are) when thinking about entire families vs. individuals, and there are saints and cathedrals, but only very thin references to structured religion to go along with them.
There were other things I wanted to know more about - obviously wizards are important to the structure of the society, what with them having an honored place at the Mirador, and the way characters talk about other schools of magic, and obviously necromancy exists, but I had only a vague idea of what was possible and what wasn't, so it made some sections (I'm thinking the part with the maze and the ghosts) lack the weight they needed because I didn't get HOW this event or use of magic fit in with what was normal.
The story is a bit jumpy at times. (view spoiler)[The first half of the book is definitely better. Felix getting committed to the asylum because of his "crime" of breaking the Virtu, Mildmay doing the job for Ginerva and ending up in the Boneprince... all of that moved. Once both of them get outside the city and Felix decides he has to trek across a continent to find the people who will help him regain his sanity and Mildmay goes with him... that part is where it started jumping around. I feel like that section went from adventure to adventure without a lot of rhyme or reason. I mean, they stumble upon this ruin of a city we've really never heard mentioned before, and suddenly Felix has to help all of these ghosts pass over, and that was creepy, but it was also just... hanging out there, not really tied in to the rest of the story, except as a demonstration of what the madness is doing to Felix and how Mildmay reacts to the supernatural.
Then, there are smugglers, and a shipwreck, and a society of people who look like Felix and Mildmay and know their mom... and all of this moves pretty briskly, but it felt like too much that was important was glossed over. (hide spoiler)]
But this was a first novel. And so I'm more than willing to give the series time to develop because when it's good, this novel is exactly what I like about this kind of fantasy: dark and gritty and creepy, but still very human. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
**spoiler alert** Why I picked it up: I read the first two books in this YA trilogy (Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm) last year, and I liked the w**spoiler alert** Why I picked it up: I read the first two books in this YA trilogy (Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm) last year, and I liked the world building. The magical system is unique, and there are a lot of really fun secondary characters. I was anxious to see how Bardugo was going to wrap it up.
I was completely satisfied with how everything shook out in the end. Though I felt like the pacing was a bit off, in hindsight Alina and her group’s escape from the Apparat and the search for the firebird were quite important in terms of Things Alina Needed to Figure Out. (She needed to learn how not to be used by people in power and that the Firebird wasn’t the third amplifier.)
I continued to really like Nikolai, and his time as a creature touched by the Darkling’s power was really interesting. I didn’t see that coming, and I think that the fact that he managed to keep parts of himself even as that was happening speaks to a whole lot of inner strength and self-possession. He’s going to be a decent King, I have a feeling.
I had suspected the thing about Mal somehow being another amplifier (though I had no idea he was going to take the Firebird’s place…), so it was nice to be right. I think Mal and Alina’s reaction to that, and the question of what she’ll do to get access to power, even if it is power she thinks she needs to defeat the Darkling, was well done.
The relationship between Morozova, the Darkling, and Mal was another thing I didn’t see coming. I liked how the mystery was revealed slowly – we find out who The Darkling really is in the first book, then who his mother is, and then finally how all of them are connected to the man who figured out amplifiers in the first place, and to Mal… I also was really intrigued by the idea of the power being passed down in Morozova’s “normal” daughter’s descendants’ bones. (Now there’s a story I’d like to read… that’s one of the things that I really liked about this series. There’s a lot of potential for exploration and there are other unexplored corners to be poked around in.)
I was a bit worried when I was within fifty pages of the end and Alina was just going to confront the Darkling and save the students she had stashed away at the orphanage, I was worried it was going to feel rushed, but it didn’t. (And I love that he didn’t actually bring the kids into the Fold… he just told her he had because he knew she’d believe it. Doesn’t make him Man of the Year, but tells you where his priorities are.) In the end, I like that Alina had to come to that moment of truth make her choice, make her sacrifice, but that Mal didn’t have to pay for an accident of birth with his life. (I also really liked that the two of them grappled with “were we friends because of destiny or because of US,” and the answer they arrived at was, “Nope, it was US.”)
Anyway, it was a nice ending to a fun little series.
Now, let’s talk about SHIPPING. Because I read these in isolation, without a community of readers, I was surprised to find that there are some REALLY passionate shipping opinions about this book, as well as a lot of gorgeous graphics that will be showing up on my tumblr soon.
Full disclosure: I don’t really ship anything strongly in this series. I thought that Alina and the Darkling were right up my alley for about fifty pages in the first book, but after the reveal of who he really was, I couldn’t wish that on her any more. She and Mal were sweet, but not something I was rabidly pulling for, and I wanted dear, resourceful Nikolai to end up with a girl who was wild about him, so Alina/Nikolai was right out.
That being said… this book confused the heck out of me when it came to shipping because the thing that I SHOULD want, based on previous pairings I’ve loved, lost me quite early. And that pairing (Alina and the Darkling) is one that a lot of other reviewers are FURIOUS about because it wasn’t end game. And by all rights, I SHOULD have been one of those angry people. (And what follows it not me telling them they shouldn’t be angry, but my attempt to work out why I’m NOT angry right along with them.)
Like I said, I find myself in an odd position as I read other reviews of this book. Because I love bad boys. Some of my very favorite characters are bad, or at the least morally ambiguous characters. I’m a Guy/Marian shipper in the Robin Hood BBC fandom. I wept for days when Guy killed her, and they are still on my list of top five OTPs of all time. I love Jaime Lannister from ASoIaF. I know. He pushed a kid out a window once. He had his reasons. He sleeps with his sister and is kind of a horrible mess on the inside. But he is witty and funny and a broken idealist on the inside, too, and I love him to pieces and flail about him on tumblr a lot. I also love Theon, my sad excuse for a lonely failed Kraken Prince. I was on the Buffy/Spike side of the great B/S vs. B/A shipwar in BtVS because… SPIKE. More recently, I prefer Damon/Elena to Stefan/Elena by miles and miles.
So, when I say I’m usually on the Team Bad Boy when it comes to male characters in general and love triangles specifically… I have some pretty hefty credentials.
So it feels very strange to be reading all of the reviews throwing fits over the Darkling’s end in this novel, and all I can summon up (hahaha Summon… didn’t mean to do that, but it’s funny…) is a moment of melancholy, reverential silence before I go back to feeling WARM AND FUZZY inside over the very solidly Alina/Mal ending. (For those of you who know me from Robin Hood, this would be like Robin and Marian getting a truly happy ending, and me going, “Awww….” Instead of grumbling in a corner about Guy/Marian.) It’s enough to make me scratch my head and ask, “WHAT is happening to me?”
Because I thought the Darkling was a great character. Dark and complicated and terribly sad… but did I want him to end up with Alina? Maybe for a while when I read the first book, but as the series went on, my answer became an emphatic NO. All of that “I need you to balance me out and maybe that will keep me from doing awful things” read to me not as romantic, but as something Alina was right to RUN in the other direction from. She didn’t need that kind of responsibility, and though I think his desire to have someone redeem him was sincere… are we going to forget about what he’s done? He’s a practically immortal Summoner who is responsible for thousands, if not several million deaths. And this is coming from someone who TOTALLY SHIPS a “she’s going to redeem me if I can just get her to love me” pairing like it’s her job. Just… the scale of what The Darkling did is too large for my normal, “Oh, but maybe he can come back from that…” reaction to kick into gear. I think that the moment that Alina realized that his darkness and his pain were bottomless, and he was just going to keep falling into them forever was a moment of wisdom. It wasn’t her responsibility to fix him, and what she did was mercy. The Darkling knew at the end that the Fold was disappearing, he knew she’d managed to bring it down, if not in the way either of them expected (And I fully believe he wanted the Fold to come down for the good of the country, just like she did…), and even if he’d lived, do you think that an entire ARMY of Sun Summoners wouldn’t have been able to bring him down and make him stand trial? I think they would have managed it easily, and Alina spared him that.
And I thought that Alina’s reaction to the Darkling’s death and finding out his real name and insisting on his body being burned next to her decoy’s was bittersweet and fitting. She remembers him in a way no one else does any more – as a lonely boy who was set apart by his power and didn’t know how to handle it.
I didn’t always love Mal, but after what he did for Alina? After he was willing to die so that she could come into her power and save all of them? After he grew into a person who was a good leader and willing to give her up because he thinks she is destined to be more… I was convinced he was a keeper.
And darn it, I liked the sweetness of the Alina/Mal ending. And for all of the people who are upset that she was left without her power… I think they’re missing a rather major point that the series is making. Alina doesn’t need power in order to do extraordinary things. She never wanted to rule. Wishing that on her is rather out of character. The divide between Grisha and “normal” people is a PROBLEM, one that Alina desperately want to FIX… and so to say that she is somehow less because she lost her power (a power that frightened her as much as it exhilarated her, a power that would have made her outlive all the people she loved and might have turned her into someone just as bitter as The Darkling given a few centuries…) seems to be wishing something on her she is happier without. And I don’t see it as “giving up her power,” I see it as “empowering a whole bunch of “normal” people to save Ravka and heal the Fold. In fact, I LOVED that it wasn’t JUST Alina who fixed the Unsea. It was ordinary people, suddenly given the power of Sun Summoning, working together to fix what ONE man did. Honestly, it reminded me of the end of Buffy where EVERY potential Slayer is activated at once, which was a moment I always thought was really empowering.
And as for Alina and Mal having “ordinary” lives back where they started the orphanage… I loved it. The two of them were orphans, too, and so the idea that they would go back to the place where they lived and make it somewhere that homeless kids can grow up loved and have better experiences that Alina and Mal did when they were growing up, in a country that’s changing for the better because of what the two of them did… that’s powerful, and it felt right to me. Not cliché, not like Alina gave up “something better” to be with Mal, but RIGHT....more