A welcome return to the Grishaverse, but a bit meandering and disjointed in parts
Beoordeeld in het Verenigd Koninkrijk op 3 maart 2019
I'm a huge fan of Leigh Bardugo and the "Grishaverse". The original Shadow and Bone Trilogy is one of my all time favourite reads, and I really enjoyed Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom too. So I was really looking forward to returning to the world, particularly as this first instalment in a new spinoff series promised a return to Ravka and starring roles for some old favourites from both of the previous series.
Ultimately, I enjoyed this. Bardugo seems to be a naturally talented writer, but has also grown slicker and more polished over time. The prose is strong, the world is extremely well-developed, and the characters really come to life. The plot is nicely executed with plenty of twists and turns and a good mix of dramatic and more reflective moments, and of scary, funny, and romantic scenes. So there was certainly nothing to really complain about and plenty to be impressed by.
All that said, I didn't adore and devour this to quite the extent I was hoping and expecting. I think the main reasons were the POV character choices, the disconnected plot strands, and the lack of clear stakes and narrative drive for large swathes of the book.
Character-wise, it's narrated by three people: Nikolai and Zoya from the original trilogy plus Nina from SoC.
Nina is one of my favourites from the later series, so I was really happy to see her back. I'm not sure she works quite so well as a standalone character (which she basically was here) instead of as part of an ensemble. Still, no real quibbles with her point of view.
I know Nikolai tends to be a bit of a fan favourite, so I'm probably going against the grain here, but I was never a huge fan of him as a character and while he's undoubtedly had some good scenes in both prior series, I think he works better in small doses. Bardugo is absolutely amazing at characters treading a fine line between fairly villainous protagonists (Kaz) and fairly charismatic and sympathetic villains (The Darkling) and compared to them I find Nikolai a little bland and overly perfect. Attempts here to suggest an inner darkness and conflict just didn't come off for me.
Zoya was the one who left me really conflicted. I hated her in Shadow and Bone, even after she was fairly thoroughly redeemed, because she was just so pointlessly cruel to Alina in particular and to people in general in the first book. I usually like unlikeable female characters, and she certainly provided some of the moral ambiguity I've suggested Nikolai was lacking. But someone who's previously been horrible to a character you already have an emotional attachment to feels different to a ruthless character you're coming to cold. It was undoubtedly interesting to get some insight into her background and her psyche and her chapters ended up being some of the stronger ones as a result, but I just couldn't bring myself to root for her. And I struggled even more to get behind the hints of a possible developing relationship between her and Nikolai.
Plotwise, the Nikolai and Zoya strands are generally covering the same ground as each other, focused on Nikolai's attempts to get used to being a king, repair and modernise Ravka after the civil war, form alliances and see off threats from other countries, potentially find a wife - and defeat the demon that lives inside him thanks to one of the Darkling's last acts. So there's a lot of interesting stuff going on there, which made for some very interesting individual scenes. But until quite far into the book, there wasn't much urgency to any of it or any one aim that was really driving him. Towards the end, it's the demon aspect that starts to dominate proceedings, and this certainly leads to some real tension and high stakes as well as some intriguing revelations.
The Nina chapters are completely disconnected from the rest of the story. They could genuinely have been a separate book. She's in Fjerda, rather than Ravka, for a start, and no characters cross from one to the other. Her plot has more of a SoC feel, with scheming and trickery and what amounts to a mini heist, as opposed to the Shadow and Bone vibe of the other two thirds of the book, with its politics and magic and war. I can't decide whether this made for a great best of all worlds combination or too much of a disjointed feel. I'd have liked at least some crossover and ideally, for the two plots to affect each other and/or converge at the end, which wasn't really the case. Her story also took quite a while to get going, with no real sense of urgency or of what she was trying to achieve until quite close to the end, at which point it burst into life. Points to this segment too for introducing probably the one standout new character of the book, Hanne, who was great, both as an individual and in combination with Nina.
As I've said above, in the last third or so, the slightly meandering plots really burst into life on both sides. And then, in literally the last few chapters, some absolutely amazing elements were suddenly thrown into the mix, which made me simultaneously frustrated that there hadn't been more of either angle earlier on and unbearably impatient for the next instalment, which I suspect might just address most of my concerns above...
To be clear, I'd definitely recommend this to fans of either or both prior series. It's a great read, it just didn't, for me at least, hit quite the heights of either of its predecessors or my own high expectations. Depending on what you like about other Grisha books, you may enjoy this a lot more or a lot less than me, but either way, there's enough objectively good stuff that it's got to be worth picking up.
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