Steph Su's Reviews > Shadow and Bone

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
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2010935
People have been throwing 4 and 5 stars at this book left and right, and I wonder what I missed. I was prepared to give this book 2 stars, maybe even 3 if I was feeling generous on the day I wrote the review, but as I pushed myself through the first half of this book, I encountered increasingly more things that irritated me, until the one that pushed me over the edge and convinced me that I’d be okay with not ever finishing SHADOW AND BONE.

It started out strong: atmospheric and engrossing. Past the prologue, however, when the book switches into first-person narration, it was downhill for me. I simply could not get behind Alina as the narrator. Instead of a strong and self-reliant young woman, we get a clueless and un-self-confident weakling who enters “damsel in distress” mode the second things start going crazy, never mind the unique abilities she supposedly possesses. She’s in the habit of saying things along the lines of “But I can’t possibly be special!” every time anyone tries to talk to her about her abilities. Even better is her reasoning behind why she can’t be special: because the grisha—of whom she is now one—are all beautiful women, and she is plain.

Really, now?

SHADOW AND BONE’s strange obsession with the significance of beauty continues as Alina enters court and promptly receives a magical makeover. This is a very important step to her character development, peoples! Right. Alina’s closest confidante at court is this magical makeover artist who—obviously—is the most beautiful woman ever, and—obviously—is hated by nearly everyone at court.

If that doesn’t make me roll my eyes enough, there’s the additional grievance that Bardugo apparently underestimates the intelligence of her YA audience. There are constantly “telling” statements when characters, locations, and/or events are introduced that forcibly “guide” readers into thinking a certain way about that character, location, and/or event. For instance:
The Grisha seemed obsessed with emulating serf ways, right down to the clothes we wore beneath our kefta. But there was something a little silly about eating “hearty peasant fare” off porcelain plates, beneath a dome inlaid with real gold. And what peasant wouldn’t pick pastry over pickled fish? The Little Palace was a storybook version of serf life, no more like the real Ravka than the glitter and gilt of the royal court.

Wouldn’t it be better to, I don’t know, show this gradually through depictions of court vs. common life, instead of dumping this theme on us within a few pages of introducing us to the court?

And when the queen is introduced:
The Queen was beautiful, with smooth blond hair in a perfect coiffure, her delicate features cold and lovely. But there was also something a little odd about her face. Her irises seemed a little too blue, her hair too yellow, her skin too smooth. I wondered just how much work Genya had done on her.

On the magical makeup artist’s crush on a regular guy:
Genya’s voice was light, but it had a funny little edge to it, and when I glanced at her, I saw that there were bright spots of color on her perfect cheekbones. I looked back through the windows to where I could still see David’s bony shoulders and messy brown hair. I smiled. If a creature as gorgeous as Genya could fall for a skinny, studious Fabrikator, there might be hope for me yet.

That passage would’ve been so much stronger without that last sentence, which is not only over-the-top obvious, but also, once again, unnecessarily and annoyingly, brings up Alina’s lack of self-confidence.

And so on and so forth. The Inner Editor in me was busy slashing out entire pages of words and mentally ordering the author to rewrite nearly everything.

Other reviewers do a much better job of talking about SHADOW AND BONE’s lack of research into Russian culture. My knowledge of Russian culture and history is woefully lacking, so I’ll let them talk about that. But I will mention the thing that got me so mad that when I read it, I actually screamed out loud and immediately turned off the Kindle, knowing that this book had no more chances of getting me to read onwards.

Writing a “Russian-flavored” fantasy with hardly any research into Russian culture is bad enough—but then there was the TRULY AWFUL use of Asian stereotypes that had me fuming.
Our instructor, Botkin Yul-Erdene, wasn’t Grisha; he was a former Shu Han mercenary who had fought in wars on every continent for any army that could afford his particular gift for violence.

Shu Han is clearly the SHADOW AND BONE-world equivalent of the Chinese race, taking its name from the ancient Han Dynasty, but with the unfortunate connection to the stereotype of hulking, dangerous-looking, surly, war-happy Asian soldiers-for-hire. (In pop culture, you can see this stereotype in the Disney movie Mulan, where they are known as Huns, which is another name for the Xiongnu, a nomadic military-centric tribe located in present-day Mongolia and coexisting—not necessarily peaceably—with the Han Dynasty. And this is all stuff you can glean off of Wikipedia, which makes it entirely inadequate for academic essays and fictions claiming to draw their influences from real-world histories and cultures.)
“Is this what they teach in First Army?” he sneered in his heavy Shu accent as I stumbled up a hill...

“Block!” he shouted, knocking me backward. “Faster! Maybe little girl likes to be hit?”...

But before we were out the door, [Botkin] called, “Tomorrow, little girl comes early, trains with Botkin.”

Why, for the love of any religion’s god(s), must Botkin sound like a campy version of an Asian instructor who would appear in movies the likes of The Karate Kid??!!??!!

That was it. I was done. I’m fine with authors reimagining ancient or contemporary cultures into similar cultures in their speculative fiction. But when all evidence points to research that extends no further than cursorily watching the type of bad kung fu or propagandist Cold War-era movies that are the staples of fratty college sports teams’ bus entertainment (and I make this comparison from experience), I reserve the right to be pissed off and not finish reading your travesty of a misappropriation of rich cultures and condemn your perpetuation of hurtful stereotypes.

The only thing that tempted to read onwards is more mention of the Darkling, he of the tall, silent, and powerful. But he’s kind of a YA trope as well, and ultimately, my unfounded crush on the mysterious man was not enough to overcome my frustration with the elementary writing no-nos peppering the book. Feel free to give this a try if it intrigues you, but know what you’re getting yourself into.
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Reading Progress

04/20/2012
13.0% "The writing is kind of simplistic, and it's seeming to rely on quite a number of YA tropes and adolescent melodrama. But hmmm, this Darkling character intrigues me..."
04/22/2012
21.0% "Oh NO. Not another Mary Sue protagonist who's being all, "How could I possibly be special? Look at me, I'm so plain!" as if BEAUTY represents a female's worth. Shut up about it already. And all the dialogue feels wincingly forced, the "action-packed" scenes like they come straight out of the slo-mo section of a bad sitcom. Please...stop and be more awesome." 3 comments
04/22/2012
32.0% "Okay. They're in the palace. It's getting slightly better. But the events occurring in the palace are so cliched, because... *drumroll*... SHE GOT A MAKEOVER. And she still thinks she's unattractive. And we're being hit over the head with clearly polarizing descriptions about characters and the palace. Look, I think I can figure out by myself whether a character is good or bad, thanks." 1 comment
04/23/2012
34.0% ""The Grisha seemed obsessed with emulating serf ways....But there was something a little silly about eating 'hearty peasant fare' off porcelain plates...The Little Palace was a storybook version of serf life, no more like the real Ravka than the glitter and gilt of the royal court." Premature moralizing is like premature ejaculation: easier to do when you're less conscientious of your partner."
04/23/2012
40.0% "Oh, you did NOT just use an Oriental stereotype. Wait--yep, you did. I should've stopped reading you a long time ago, but now we're truly done. Why would I read on when the only research you seem to have done is watch Cold War Era anti-Communist propaganda and corny kung fu movies? Goodbye, truly extraordinarily sloppy storytelling." 4 comments

Comments (showing 1-34)




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Gabrielle Carolina So many faults, but I haven't stopped thinking about Alina, Mal, the Darkling or Ravka since I put it down! : )


Steph Su Gabrielle Carolina wrote: "So many faults, but I haven't stopped thinking about Alina, Mal, the Darkling or Ravka since I put it down! : )"

Hmm, interesting. Really want to read this now!


Gabrielle Carolina Steph Su wrote: "Gabrielle Carolina wrote: "So many faults, but I haven't stopped thinking about Alina, Mal, the Darkling or Ravka since I put it down! : )"

Hmm, interesting. Really want to read this now!"


It was compulsively readable, even at its weaker moments. Some lack of world building initially, at first Alina was an odd girl with her snappy comebacks and her frail Mary-Sueness (there is a point in the end.) By the end I was reading the book outloud, which rarely happens.


Steph Su Gabrielle Carolina wrote: "Steph Su wrote: "Gabrielle Carolina wrote: "So many faults, but I haven't stopped thinking about Alina, Mal, the Darkling or Ravka since I put it down! : )"

Hmm, interesting. Really want to read t..."


Not sure what to expect after that collection of descriptions. :)


Gabrielle Carolina Steph Su wrote: "Gabrielle Carolina wrote: "Steph Su wrote: "Gabrielle Carolina wrote: "So many faults, but I haven't stopped thinking about Alina, Mal, the Darkling or Ravka since I put it down! : )"

Hmm, interes..."


That's a good thing, it is a mish-mash.


Gabrielle Carolina Can't wait to see if you like this one.


Nafiza I liked this a bit better than you but let me tell you this in lieu of a spoiler - it's good that you stopped reading where you did because the Darkling, as awesome as his creation was, goes nowhere. Wasted. Love the review.


Steph Su Hahaha, thanks for letting me know, Nafiza. I totally don't feel bad about not finishing this book.


Nafiza No problem! ^__^


Gabrielle Carolina Nafiza wrote: "I liked this a bit better than you but let me tell you this in lieu of a spoiler - it's good that you stopped reading where you did because the Darkling, as awesome as his creation was, goes nowher..."

Agree with the Darkling comment. That was annoying.


message 24: by [deleted user] (new)

Wow - I don't know if I have read many reviews that really made me NOT want to read a book. But the things you mentioned sound like aspects that would really annoy me and make it not enjoyable!


Steph Su Caitie wrote: "Wow - I don't know if I have read many reviews that really made me NOT want to read a book. But the things you mentioned sound like aspects that would really annoy me and make it not enjoyable!"

The best thing is always to give it a try yourself... but yeah. This one totally did not work for me.


Elizabeth Hmm I think you're being a bit harsh with regard to the Chinese stereotype. A lot of my relatives actually sound like that :P and it's like how in Game of Thrones there's this swordsman from 'Braavos' who has this Spanish accent to compliment his skill set: it lends a type of definition to the character. Not saying it was done as smoothly as in GoT as in Shadow and Bone, but at least she didn't use 'Engrish'? Haha.


Oh, the Kelley! I guess I'm the only one who interpreted Botkin's speech with a Russian accent... (Not that that makes it better, but I didn't really read Asian stereotypes into this book.)

Call me naive, but I thought it was inspired by the Russian language, not necessarily the culture. Shrug.


Gabrielle Carolina Kelley wrote: "I guess I'm the only one who interpreted Botkin's speech with a Russian accent... (Not that that makes it better, but I didn't really read Asian stereotypes into this book.)

Call me naive, but I t..."


I thought that too, Kelley.


Steph Su @Elizabeth: Well, I suppose we can just agree to disagree on that point. None of my relatives sound like that when they talk. There's something a bit off about the dialect structure in the text, to me.

@Silver Iris: Yeah, I encourage you to give it a try if it intrigues you, to see if it's your cup of tea or not.


message 18: by Sparrowlicious (new)

Sparrowlicious I thought about giving this book a try bout your review convinced me that I'd rather not. /: 'Everyone's beautiful but me' is not something I want to read over and over again from the view point of a female protagonist. Also, when it comes to russian culture I do prefer reading something from a russian author about it. :') (Lukanyenko for example is a guy who always comes up with stuff about his culture and it's always fun to read.)


message 17: by EJ (new)

EJ MACK may be you need a audio verison of the book. I know some books can't be read in your head.. they need to be spoken by someone else.


message 16: by Cat (new) - rated it 3 stars

Cat I was really worried when I started reading this book because of your review. I often agree fully with you and totally respect your opinions on books, but I was happy to find that I enjoyed it. Perhaps I wasn't expecting much and therefore liked it better than if I was expecting epic-ness. :) I totally get where you're coming from though and all your points are vaild, but for some reason this one didn't push my own buttons. ;)


Steph Su @Cat - Yay, glad you liked! I never want someone to dislike a book in the way that I did, so I'm glad you were able to enjoy it. I've often felt that lowering my expectations for a largely hyped book seems to help the reading experience as well. Also, I must've been in a bad mood when I read and reviewed this book, heh. :P


message 14: by S.C. (new) - added it

S.C. Langgle I'm so glad I read this review, b/c while reading the book I somehow missed the part where it says Botkin is a Shu Han...so the whole way through I was thinking, ugh, why is he talking in this weird broken language! I definitely find it offensive, especially after reading your review. I also think there wasn't enough care taken to language in general in the book--there were "okays" and reference to people as "guys" that really took me out of the period setting. Even one of the quotes in your review--the queen having "work done"--sounds like a modern woman having plastic surgery. Maybe that was an intentional comparison but I found it quite irritating, since it brought me out of this world I was having a hard time believing in the first place.


Steph Su S.C. wrote: "I'm so glad I read this review, b/c while reading the book I somehow missed the part where it says Botkin is a Shu Han...so the whole way through I was thinking, ugh, why is he talking in this weir..."

S.C., yes, I absolutely know what you mean about the language in this book. I felt like my strong reaction to Botkin's accent was a personal one, as others have told me that they simply felt Botkin was "foreign" in a Syrio-the-Dancing-Master (from Game of Thrones) kind of way, not specifically of probable Asian descent. But either way you look at it, I was disappointed that this book tried to pass itself off as high fantasy when it paid so little attention to believable language.


message 12: by S.C. (new) - added it

S.C. Langgle Steph Su wrote: "S.C. wrote: "I'm so glad I read this review, b/c while reading the book I somehow missed the part where it says Botkin is a Shu Han...so the whole way through I was thinking, ugh, why is he talking..."

Mmm, I don't think it's just personal--I'm not Asian and I thought it was offensive once I realized he was Shu Han. Even before I realized that I thought it was odd and not very realistic--often when characters speak in a "broken" way it seems overdone or unrealistic, in my opinion. Although I guess it would take a lot of work to convey someone from a particular background speaking ESL realistically. Amy Tan and Sandra Cisneros do it well, think.


Amber at Fall Into Books I agree. I kind of freaking hated this book intensely. Couldn't even finish it.


Amber at Fall Into Books And don't even care that I didn't finish it *


Reina ahh, good point about the Asian stereotype. Didn't catch that. But glad you found this book insufferable. I honestly don't know why so many are fawning over the pages of slob.


Steph Su Reina wrote: "ahh, good point about the Asian stereotype. Didn't catch that. But glad you found this book insufferable. I honestly don't know why so many are fawning over the pages of slob."

Well, if I were being nice on a particular day, I'd say that maybe it's because the premise sounds good and they like books that are theoretically set in fantastical worlds based on "exotic" cultures of our own...

I think I'm the only one who saw an Asian stereotype there. Most others didn't, which makes me think I might've just been having a bad day when I got to that point in the book. Guess I'm especially sensitive to that kind of stuff!


message 7: by Kailia (new) - added it

Kailia I will be honest: everything else about this book would make me very unhappy but nothing more than the Asian stereotypes. I always feel like people over look Asian stereotypes and I have seen it happen in so many positive reviews. I know a little bit of Russian culture because I've had a friend from there who told me a lot. I will probably still read this book so I can aee how I like it. but thanks for bringing up the Asian stereotypes. I might be Indian, but it still pisses me off.


message 6: by Amy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Amy Yeah, I really disliked the beauty obsessions and the stereotyping as well.


Mizuki Shu Han = Chinese?
Does the author knows anything about the Romance Of The Three Kingdoms?


Gianna To be fair, in the audiobook Botkin has a stereotypically Russian accent. That being said, the book is terrible and you were saved a lot of misery when you didn't finish it.


message 3: by Ian (new) - rated it 1 star

Ian Wood Great review. Thanks for the details. I only just started reading this and already I'm thinking it was a bad choice.


Bria Great review! Covers all the parts that I hated about the book too. It was so tired reading about a not confident main charavter


Nicole Agh!!! I agree so much! With everything you said! I only read it because pretty much everyone I knew was saying it was amazing and perfect! Thank you for putting my frustrations into words better than myself!


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