"Holy Guacamole, Batman, this is derivative! And yet, I'm devouring it like a box of Oreos. Have I been dropped on my head recently?" ~Me, at the 60-percent point in Shadow and Bone
I haz teh confuzzled. This book is everything I love to flay--shred, shred, shred, bits of book skin everywhere--and I read the hell out of it.
So there's Alina, an orphan who grew up in the household of a Duke, in a country with little cultural flavor outside of a preponderance of Russian sounding names. Her best buddy in orphan-y misery is Mal.
Alina's skinny and pale and ugly. Or so she says. (Interesting how "skinny and pale," the gold standard of hot in Hollywood, is unattractive here.) But that's okay, because she has Mal, and even as the years progress and he grows into a hottie, he's still her BFF. Except, he's got a host of girlfriends and they aren't Alina. Cue Taylor Swift singing "Teardrops on My Guitar."
When they are very young, both were tested for Grisha power, which is apparently not-Russian for "magic." Both were muggles, so fast-forward several years, and the pair is now in the army, and headed for a crossing of the Fold or Unsea. The Fold is a wasteland created by magic, populated with human-eating monsters, and a geographical inconvenience that cuts the country off from the real sea. Getting people and stuff across the blackness of the Fold requires armed expeditions with flame-throwing Grisha and other lethal magical folk. And even then, death happens on the journey.
Alina is terrified of the journey, and with good reason, since their caravan is almost instantly attacked by monsters. In the chaos, Alina is almost eaten, but saved by Mal. Then, just as both are about to become a monster snack, Alina's latent power--the ability to channel sunlight--awakens.
Her power is--of course--very rare and transforms her into an instant celebrity, the savior of the country, the one who will banish the Fold, etc., etc. Because she's special, The Darkling, the Grisha mage with the mostest power, instantly gloms onto her and whisks her away to world of opulence and glamour. Goes without saying that he is inexplicably attracted to her, because dirty old men in cute boy's bodies with a thing for girl-children are a requirement of the genre.
Alina will learn to used her power; discover that the glittery world of the Grisha has a dark side; find true love and fry the baddies with her supernova power. Because...special.
In addition to the shit-ton of tropes, there's the pseudo-Russian setting. My grandfather was Russian, but alas, he died before I got to know him, so I know little about that part of my heritage. Even so, the flavor of the novel doesn't feel authentically Russian, but instead like an excuse to give people names like Ivan and have them drink tea from samovars.
And yet, this was me, unable to put down this novel. I was like totally into the love triangle and preferring the moody-broody, pedo-hunk, The Darkling*, because...moody-broody, bad boy. I was simultaneously glad that Alina didn't get so caught up in being The Darkling's toy that she forgot about Mal. I liked Mal and was all, "Aw," when he finally gets around to admitting he loves Alina. Even though, somewhere in my head, a voice was yelling, "Of course, he loves her! Everybody loves a Mary Sue!"
Funny. I don't remember going for a ride and my horse bucking me off, and me landing on my head. But that's the only explanation for why I found this so bloody entertaining. Note to self: Always wear your helmet when riding 1200-pound monster with a mind of its own.
*I'm sorely tempted to read the sequel just to find out if The Darkling has a real name. Like...Bob.