Alina Starkov came from nowhere, an orphan on the wars raised on the charity of a duke’s estate and trained as an army cartographer. The only thing that makes her anything, at least in her mind, is her friendship with Mal, skilled tracker and ladies’ man extraordinaire. Until the Fold, until the attack, until the blaze of light that comes from her and marks her as a rare form of Grisha. Then she’s whisked away, the hope of an entire nation, and taught to use her unfamiliar magic, lost within a world of luxury and beauty every bit as dangerous as the Fold, for where there’s hope, there’s also despair and expectation, and there are always those who try to use power to their own advantage. Alina will not only have to learn to use her strange new skills, but decide who she can trust.
Being the hope of all of Ravka? Kind of sucks.
Oh, guys. GUYS. This is such an amazing book. It immediately transports you into a world that’s alien and familiar at once, a pseudo-Russian setting that comes alive around you in so many ways. Clothing, architecture, language, food, it all wraps around you and just immerses you in this rich, atmospheric land. It’s detailed but not a slavish reproduction; it’s an homage that’s accessible and relatable and recognizable, but also stands easily on its own. It’s a Russia that’s still steeped in magic, but it’s also a time of significant change, as the old ways are fading before the new.
I love Alina. She’s a fantastic character, strong and achingly vulnerable, prickly and passionate, fiercely loyal to people who are often less than loyal to her in return. She’s got this deep well of inner strength that gives her the fortitude to weather deep pains, as well as the courage to face them again. This is a girl accustomed to being abandoned, but who faces that with minimal bitterness. Minimal- she’s too intelligent to forget the wrongs done her, too practical to hold a grudge, and too sharp not to make at least a few withering comments about it. She knows her place, has had it reinforced over and over and over again in her life, but she’s not discontent in that- it’s comforting in a way, because at least that one thing is a reliable foundation. She’s sometimes a little passive, letting others pull her this way and that, but it’s never in a way that’s disconcerting or irritating. It always fits the circumstances. And I mean, come on, if we were under those conditions- overwhelmed, hunted, confused, and with minimal training, how well would any of us do?
I think what I may love best about Alina is her stubbornness. She has to be dragged kicking and screaming into anything she doesn’t want to do, but once she’s in there, she’ll do her best to stay afloat. She doesn’t forgive easily and she’s not above taking a certain petty satisfaction in the discomfort of those who give her trouble. Which, let’s face it, is really appealing to me. I like a certain amount of snarly.
The Darkling, the uber-powerful and uber-attractive head of the Grisha is a a supremely interesting character. I frickin’ love him. He’s complex and contradictory, he’s menacing even at his most open and relaxed, and consistently enigmatic. He understands people very, very well and doesn’t hesitate to use that knowledge, and despite how alluring he can be, despite the draw of his power and physical beauty, there’s never a moment when we don’t know he’s dangerous. He is the ultimate mystery in a world that Alina doesn’t fully understand. That danger, that edge of the unknown, underscores everything he does. We never learn his name and his history, while vital, comes to us in tiny increments that don’t so much illuminate as obfuscate.
The Grisha are the magic-users, born not made, and they come from every class of Ravka society. Once they’re tested and found, however, they become something else entirely, separated from their well-compensated families. Grisha are a rank apart from the rest of society, but they have their own heirarchy. At its head is the Darkling, as good as a king within his own domain, but things break down from there into several broad categories, broken down further into specifics. They’re regarded with a high degree of superstition by the common folk, so Alina starts out knowing very little about the realities of the Grisha. She has to learn the truth and their history along the way, which lets us learn it at the same time without either her or the audience looking like idiots. They’re a fascinating group and there was a part of me that was desperate to know more- to know about their history and all the details of the different subsets and the way they work within the heirarchy- but I was also very grateful that it wasn’t there because this story was so well-paced that I didn’t want to worry about the distractions. (maybe a compendium? maybe? maybe?- this is me begging, if it’s not obvious)
This story get such a fantastic balance of danger in the midst of luxury, ugliness as an inherent part of beauty, and mercy in the midst of savagery. Some of these dangers sometimes seem a little underdeveloped and uneven, but there are two other installments to follow- while many of the threads come closer to resolution, some have to stay open for the future books. I love that very frequently, luxury and beauty feel like an active threat, a danger. It seems like it should be something everyone wants, but to those accustomed to a certain starkness (starkness? Starkov? Ha! I see what you did there!) it’s every bit as unsettling as the sudden lack would be to anyone else.
And if you get hooked on this one (fabulous book- you will), keep an eye out for Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising.
Until next time~