Review – Shadow and Bone Trilogy

Castle with antlers


Synopsis The Shadow and Bone Trilogy takes place in the kingdom of Ravka. It is a world at war inhabited by Grisha, people who have the ability to manipulate elements such as fire and wind at the atomic level. The trilogy follows Alina Starkov as she discovers she is a rare Sun Summoner, destined to bring down the Shadow Fold, a band of living darkness dividing Ravka. Treachery and danger wait at every turn, and Alina must use all of her wits and power to stop those who would use the Fold as a weapon.

Author Leigh Bardugo
Genre Fantasy, YA

Length 400-500 pages each

Release Date 2011 (Shadow and Bone)

The Shadow and Bone trilogy has become a phenomenon with a vast and dedicated fan base. Leigh Bardugo has created a complex and well-formed world spanning seven total novels and two supporting books of in-universe fairy tales and religious texts. It’s somewhat standard Young Adult fare, but with a darker edge and more gory violence than younger readers are perhaps ready for.

Content Guide

Violence: Ravka is a nation at war, and Alina and her companions experience this firsthand. Characters are shot, maimed, killed, stabbed, sliced in two, and literally ripped to pieces. While the author doesn’t linger too long on these moments, some of them are a bit gruesome and disturbing.  

Sexual Content: There are no explicit sex scenes. A lone scene in the third book is described in fairly scant detail. There’s some occasional kissing that stops short of anything graphic. Characters run the gauntlet of sexual orientations, and while casual sex is not taboo (it’s called “tumbling” in the books), there is a heavier emphasis placed on committed relationships. There is also a subplot involving the king forcing himself repeatedly on a servant. This is never described in detail, but the trauma and repercussions are present nonetheless.

Drug/Alcohol Use: The legal drinking age in Ravka seems to be very young. Our seventeen and eighteen year-old protagonists frequently drink. In the second book, there is a stimulant leaf characters chew called Jurda that seems to be caffeinated tobacco.

Spiritual Content: Religion plays a key element in the story, but is absent of any true spirituality. It’s presented as a means of comfort or a tool of manipulation. The predominant religion in Ravka is the worship of the Saints, loosely based on Orthodox Christianity or Catholicism, but without a central God or Christ figure. Instead, the Saints are martyred humans (often Grisha) who performed wonders and are now revered and prayed to for assistance. Alina finds herself the unwitting object of devotion, as the common folk believe her Sun Summoning powers make her a living Saint. She has to wrestle with this identity throughout the books.

Language/Crude Humor: Several of the characters use mild language such as a**, h*** or d**n. There is also occasional talk of sexual escapades, though this stops short of anything truly vulgar. The term “tumbled” is used to indicate one character has bedded another.

Other Negative Content:  A key component of the story is that magic is an abomination, something unnatural that takes from the user. The Grisha are sometimes accused of being witches, due to their powers. They are quick to point out that they are not practicing witchcraft but something they call the Small Science. Some Grisha can summon wind, fire, light, or even darkness. Others can manipulate matter, heal the human body, or stop a heart. A key distinction is that magic is different from the Small Science and an abomination. *SPOILER* A key plot point toward the end is Alina’s use of magic to try and defeat The Darkling, who is also using magic. The “Bone” in the title refers to the use of bones to amplify a Grisha’s powers. To do this, a Grisha must kill a living thing to take its power, and then its bones can be forged into a piece of jewelry to amplify the Grisha’s powers. Alina searches for three powerful amplifiers to give her enough power to defeat The Darkling. In the end, one of these is a human being. It ends up being handled in a way that is almost allegorically Christ-like (more on that later), but it’s still creepy.

Positive Themes: Right is right, and wrong is wrong. Evil actions cost those who do them. Those who practice the abomination of magic pay an awful price, including the heroine. The bad guys get their comeuppance by the end and our heroes remain heroic to the end and (mostly) get their reward. *SPOILER* One character, realizing he is the third amplifier lays down his life to save the world from the darkness of the Fold.


Teen girl wields ball of fire between outstretched fingertips
Book One: Shadow and Bone

Alina Starkov is a mapmaker and soldier, along with her childhood best friend, Mal. Alina and Mal are orphans from a place of no importance, resigned to simple lives as soldiers and somewhat envious of the Grisha. The Grisha are an elite army of individuals with seemingly magical powers. Some summon wind, water, or fire while others can manipulate metal or the human body. Alina and Mal are assigned to a skiff crossing the Shadow Fold, a band of living darkness inhabited by monsters called Volcra. During the crossing, Alina and Mal’s skiff is attacked by the Volcra, and Alina suddenly manifests the ability to summon light, frightening the Volcra away.

No ordinary Grisha, Alina turns out to be a Sun Summoner, whose powers can rival The Darkling himself.  

The discovery of Alina’s Grisha powers separates her from Mal. Sun Summoners were thought to be mythical, and her powers mean she can keep the Volcra at bay and perhaps even collapse the Fold itself. She is taken from her life as a soldier and mapmaker to the capital of Ravka, to train in the glittering and privileged world of the Grisha.

The Darkling who leads the Grisha introduces himself as a Shadow Summoner and the descendant of the Black Heretic, a Shadow Summoner who created the Fold. His descendants have each taken up the effort to collapse the Fold, but with no success after hundreds of years. Each takes up the title of Darkling and leads and trains the Grisha, ensuring their welfare. In the nations surrounding Ravka, Grisha are hunted as witches or murdered so their body parts can be used in medicine. Ravka, where Grisha are revered, has become a haven for them.

Alina initially struggles to use her powers. She should have manifested them as a child, but only seems to be able to use them with the help of The Darkling. In an effort to awaken them fully, The Darkling suggests crafting an amplifier for her, the bones of a mythical stag to magnify her powers.

All is not as it seems, and Alina soon discovers the world of the Grisha hides horrifying secrets.

Large white stag on a background of snow
Book Two: Siege and Storm

*The next sections will contain SPOILERS for previous books*

The Darkling is the Black Heretic, surprise! After surviving his attempt to take her power, Alina and Mal are on the run. While she has one amplifier, it turns out there are three in total, meant to work together. With all three, she might be strong enough to bring down The Fold and defeat The Darkling who is bent on using it as a weapon.

The Darkling has grown more powerful, too. he has dabbled in merzost, the Ravkan word for magic and abomination. In doing so he has siphoned off pieces of himself to create a nearly indestructible shadow army. Alina’s greatly enhanced powers are no match for this horde, and she enlists the aid of a privateer and his crew to help her escape the Darkling once more and find the second amplifier.

Girl on horseback rides toward darkness
Book Three: Ruin and Rising

Well, that didn’t work either. The Darkling is more powerful than ever and has claimed the throne of Ravka. The royal family is in hiding with the privateer who turns out to be Prince Nikolai, heir to the Ravkan throne after the events of the previous book.

Alina is being worshipped as a Saint for her powers. She herself dabbled in merzost at the end of the previous book, which left her weak and nearly powerless. Now hiding with a flock of devoted refugees, she is also under the thumb of a maniacal priest. Hidden far below ground, she cannot summon the light to heal herself or escape the priest’s clutches. She must find a means of escape, collect the third amplifier, and face the Darkling in a final showdown.

She will discover that magic has a price, and a terrible sacrifice will be required to free Ravka once and for all.


Map of Ravka
A Map of Ravka

Thankfully, I discovered Shadow and Bone just before the television series came out. If I’d read it when it first came out ten years ago, I would have had to sit through the agony that is waiting for the next book in a series. I was also spared wondering how a film adaptation would handle a universe I very much enjoyed. The books are insanely popular, and it’s easy to see why. Leigh Bardugo’s fantasy is immersive and engaging, her world complex, and her writing the special kind that keeps you turning pages into the wee hours of the night. As rich as it is, this is not for everyone. Younger readers may be too sensitive for the dark places Bardugo takes the story before bringing it back to the light.

This is Young Adult fiction, and the plot twists and betrayals aren’t necessarily that surprising. That doesn’t mean it’s any less fun watching it all unfold.

Bardugo has done an admirable job of creating a rich, believable world. Complete with its own religion, mythologies, and diverse cultures. There is something both foreign and familiar about it. That said, there are times the story drags and gets bogged done with YA tropes. Thankfully, these moments are brief.

Alina and Mal are both besotted with each other, yet the universe and the author work wonders to keep them apart. Tiringly, the story descends into trope-laden melodrama midway through the second book. Mal and Alina argue and have misunderstandings about petty, silly things and then decide to do petty, silly things to get back at each other. Thankfully, this stops before the end of the second book and doesn’t carry into the third.

What is YA without a love triangle? How about a quadrangle? Alina is a much coveted prize. Mal is in love with her because they’ve grown up together. The Darkling wants her for her powers, but also maybe for some tumbling and is super conflicted about it. Nikolai wants her as a political alliance. Marrying the Sun Summoner will secure his place on the throne of Ravka. All three of them are written as extremely attractive, even The Darkling, who is centuries old but looks nineteen. There are lots of references to smoldering good looks and muscular bodies. Most baffling is that Alina wants all three of them at some point during the course of the story, even The Darkling, after he kills innocent people and tries to enslave her. Thankfully, it is not the crux of the story. As the book’s target audience is teenagers, this will likely go over differently with the intended audience. Personally, I rolled my eyes more than once, but I kept reading.

Bardugo does weave a good yarn, with plenty of action and twists and turns. I appreciated that her characters’ abilities were natural talents, and that magic and witchcraft were something unnatural that seemed to literally pick apart the souls of those who dared to use it. That said, when it serves her purposes, Alina dabbles in it herself and is sucked into the possibilities it presents.

As previously mentioned one creepy element is the amplifiers. *SPOILERS* Centuries ago, a Grisha Saint named Ilya used his powers to forge a triad of amplifiers. He did this by killing and reanimating three mythical creatures: a stag, a sea dragon, and a firebird. By killing each of these, Alina gains their power to enhance her own. I found this concept incredibly sad. Alina is reluctant, but in the end hungers for the power more. With the Stag she initially gains its power from sparing its life. She soon overcomes her qualms about the lives of the Dragon and the Firebird and actively seeks to gain more power. Thankfully, another character in the story expresses her own sorrow at this, lamenting that Alina is robbing ancient creatures of their life. The ends try to justify the means – she needs all that extra power to stop The Darkling and his Shadow army. However, it is still one of the hardest parts of the story to swallow.

*HUGE SPOILER* Most disturbing is the revelation that Ilya was unable to use his powers on the Firebird to create the third amplifier. Instead, he had to use them to resurrect his own daughter; thus, she and her descendants became the third amplifier. Mal, as it turns out, is one of her descendants. In order to gain all the power she needs, Alina has to kill Mal. This is a disturbing twist, and Bardugo works more twists and turns to make this happen without Alina seeming like a monster. It does illustrate the warnings she receives early in the story – that merzost and the quest for power will cost her more than she can know and turn her into the Darkling. In the end, Bardugo works this plot element into a happy ending of sorts for Alina, Mal, and all of Ravka; but it’s not an easy ride to the finish line.

In the end, the series is engaging, and the knowledge of its happy ending makes some of the darker elements palatable. There are wonderful themes of redemption and heroism. Even as the events turn darker, the proverbial and literal light shines through all the more. The darker elements of death, violence and dark magic might be too much for younger readers, and it is certainly worth a discussion about journeying into the proverbial darkness with our actions and deeds. However, the redemptive elements and the victory of light over darkness, love and sacrifice, make for some wonderful discussion about the One who laid down his life for all of us, to bring us into marvelous light.

Dragons flying in fog


+ Rich, complex world
+ Engaging and relatable characters
+ Mostly free of sexual content or harsh language


- Dark plot elements and bloody violence
- Occasional YA tropes that bog down an otherwise clever tale

The Bottom Line

The Shadow and Bone Trilogy kept me turning pages. While it’s mostly clean and relatable enough for teen audiences, it’s also complex and engaging enough for adult readers. The author succeeds in the best of speculative fiction endeavors – creating a world you want to escape into.


Story/Plot 8

Writing 9

Editing 9


Timothy Taylor

Timothy Taylor is a lifelong creative, nerd and story teller. He spent more time reading and drawing as a kid than being outside. He is an artist, a teacher and a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and the occasional play. He continues to devour books, plays tabletop games and video games, and obsesses over the minutiae of made up worlds, including his own.

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