Disclaimer: This review is not spoiler free!
The First Steps into the Grisha World
I don’t judge a book by its cover, but by its first chapter. I don’t really need anything to happen there, no big entries or action scenes, I just need the words to lure me in. I’ve always connected to Michael Ende’s The NeverEnding Story not only because it’s a magical world he created for us purely out of our own fantasy, but also because Bastian is drawn into a book. That’s how it’s supposed to be. If I’m two chapters in and I still can focus on anything around me, I usually put the book aside.
Smoke and Bone made it hard for me. Of course, you enter the Grisha Verse and the picture the book paints for you is beautiful. An orphanage with children you automatically want to protect and grown-ups you don’t really trust. It would have been my kind of book from the get go if I hadn’t been so incredibly confused.
The thing with world building in High Fantasy – and sometimes even Urban Fantasy – is that the writer knows the place and all its laws, but the reader doesn’t. So you either bore your audience to death with explanations before the story starts or you throw them in and hope they won’t get lost along the way. There are books, for example A Darker Shade of Magic or even Harry Potter, that deal with that sort of problem in a pretty smart way. You simply put one character above all others so that he has to constantly explain everything to the people around him – and inform the reader along the way – or you put one character below all others and let the world inform them. Rambling into my ADSOM obsession again, Schwab’s book does both. Because you have Kell who has very unique powers as well as Lila who knows nothing at all. Plenty of excuse to explain things.
Back to Shadow and Bone. The story almost lost me due to the lack of that particular story telling tool. There were Trackers and Grishas and keftas and I had no idea what was even going on. Truth to be told, I’ve already started the book a couple weeks ago with a reading sample and put it aside. I only picked it up again because of Hannah who is probably my favorite bookstagram user and was in love with Six of Crows. I’ve heard before that SoC has some spoilers for the Grisha books and after thinking back and forth I picked Shadow and Bone up again once more and struggled through the first couple of chapters.
And what can I say? It was worth it. Even though the confusion carries on through almost a hundred pages, Alina is relatable enough as a protagonist to connect to her after two or three chapters and soon enough I just ignored the fact that I had no clue what she was talking about.
When she finally discovers her powers, the books really discovers its own strength which is a heroine struggling with a world full of power humming all around her that leaves her feeling vulnerable and helpless while she discovers that her own power is as strong as it is useless to her situation. That’s the moment I was really pulled into the book and the story and oh boy, am I glad I kept reading.
Tiresome Triangles with a Twist
I have to say that after really getting into the book, it completely broke my heart. I loved to see Alina struggle with her powers, struggle to find her place and to follow her growth felt like the real adventure of the book. I loved that in the palace we finally were introduced to the world because suddenly Alina wasn’t really part of her own world anymore. She had to learn things about Grisha and we got a few explanations that made it easier to stay focused on the story. I fell in love with her friendship with Genya. It was one of the most precious female relationships I’ve ever read about. I loved the rivalry with other Grisha. I loved the darker and more brooding characters she met along the way.
And yes, I loved the Darkling. Still do, by the way. And Shadow and Bone could not have destroyed me more than it did when the revelation came and it turned out that the Darkling is the bad guy and Genya was part of his plan all along. It absolutely broke my heart.
Maybe, just maybe, I should have seen it coming. Like calls to like. It should have been so obvious that a Summoner who can control darkness is not someone you should trust. But just like Alina, I was lured in. You have this eloquent, handsome dark hero who claims he wants to save the world. Adding the pull Alina feels around him, you barely stand a chance to be fascinated by him.
And this is exactly what I think the weakness was for me. You slowly find a way into this world and you slowly fall for the characters you get to know alongside Alina. You keep hoping that he already existing love for Mal won’t turn everything into a boring triangle which of course is exactly what happens only to reveal the books biggest twist. The Darkling is the bad guy and Alina has to run. The problem is – Mal wasn’t the good guy. Not emotionally at least. He was the absent hero who Alina felt a loyalty towards that I could understand but not really connect to. He treated her horribly when they finally saw each other again and to make things worse the cute guy I might have fallen for at the beginning of the book was replaced by someone really hard and distant.
So the reader is supposed to be completely shocked that the Darkling is the bad guy and immediately follow Alina’s response that Mal has always been her home and the only person she could really count on. But we don’t know enough about that part of her. We have glimpses of it, but the chapter of her life that we’ve lived through with her is the one that was defined by the characters we suddenly should see as traitors all of a sudden.
I’m not sure how this problem could have been avoided. It was meant to come as a shock and it did. I feared the triangle and then it was there and suddenly it was gone again, but it happened so, so fast and it didn’t leave any time to really catch up to Alina who of course didn’t have the same struggles of loyalty the reader has.
Unfolding New Connections
The strength and the weakness of the book to me is that you are bound to follow a heroine’s narrative that you have to grow into. The second part of the book was mostly defined by my very desperate attempt to change my point of view and suddenly hate the Darkling and love Mal. That was hard. But it finally was achieved when Mal stole some cheese and Alina could finally let loose for a few moments and just laugh and be happy. Then a little while later – the second defining moment of the book – the Darkness shows his true face when he kills the stag and enslave the girl I was really rooting for. Yes, that finally managed to make me hate him and it’s also the point of the story where it turns into a very classic fantasy novel that leaves me a little bit unsatisfied.
I loved the book the way I love all classic high fantasy stories. Magical worlds appeal to me just the way classic hero tropes do. That the heroine is a woman helps tremendously.
But – and it’s a pretty huge but – Smoke and Bone didn’t pull me in the way my real favorites do. I love Aline and her story, but the books has a problem with pace. It’s too fast in the beginning and two slow in the end. The twists are real twists and caught me by surprise, but they aren’t really dealt with either and it takes some real effort to stick to the story afterwards.
Let me tell you a thing about me – I never fall for the villain. It doesn’t happen. I’m always rooting for the good guys. And don’t get me wrong, I’m still on Alina’s side. But if you write a book that makes me feel for the bad guy more than it makes me feel for the hero you place next to your heroine, then you did something wrong. Or, which I’m secretly hoping for, it was your intention to make me feel that way which will be revealed in the other two books of the trilogy.
As it is right now though, as a standalone and just looking at Smoke and Bone from my current perspective it’s a 6 out of 10. The world is gorgeous, the characters relatable and lovable, but the narrative problems of the book are too much a struggle to really fall in love with it.