The year I lived in Germany, I thought I’d try to learn a language that I couldn’t learn back home in the states. I picked Czech. (I’ve since regretted not taking Mittelhochdeutsch, or medieval German, which would have been useful for my early music performing.) I didn’t make much headway with Czech, though I made some of my best friends there in that class and enjoyed our field trip to Prague. I remember a handful of things: that the nouns have four genders; that “r” is considered a vowel; the lovely onomotopic word “sprcha,” which means “shower” and sounds like it; and how to introduce myself. I learned that the suffix “ova” is added to the end of every female’s last name, even mine as a foreigner. And while Czech isn’t Russian, I’m fairly sure that the same holds true for Russian. That’s why it bothered me every time I read the name “Alina Starkov” in this book. Clearly, Bardugo did a lot of research on Russian history and culture, and it isn’t really supposed be Russia, but a similar fantasy nation, so I feel a little bad about harping on this one thing. And yet, it threw me out of the story every time I encountered it, even as I mentally renamed our heroine “Alina Starkova”.
Our story takes us to the realm of Ravka, which feels like late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century Russia (without Russian folk tale motives). It’s a world that’s been at war for decades. Not only is it threatened by the neighboring kingdoms, but there is the large area of permanent magical darkness known as the Fold. What used to be rich farmland is now barren desert filled with man-eating monsters that make it very dangerous to cross. Our heroine, Alina Starkov, was orphaned in the war and taken in by a wealthy landowner. Her best friend since then is Mal. Now they are in the army together – Alina working as a (not very good) cartographer, while Mal is the Best Tracker Ever, and popular with the opposite sex to boot. On their way through the Fold, they are attacked by Volcra. They are about to rip Mal away when Alina, desperately trying to cover him with her body, summons a sun-bright flare of light that drives the Volcra off. Mal and the rest of the people on board the land ship are saved, but Alina’s life is about to become much more complicated. She’d always been wary of the magic-users, or Grisha, who form their own separate division of the military, headed by the truly frightening Darkling. Now she is summoned to meet with the Darkling in person. He tells her that she is a Sun Summoner, whose powers when trained could destroy the darkness of the Fold. She’s rushed to the capital to train with other Grisha, where she’s both envied for her closeness to the Darkling and despised for her difficulty using her powers, since all the other Grisha have been training since childhood. And while the Darkling is making every effort to smooth her way and to make himself likeable, it’s also clear that he’s an experienced politician as well as a powerful magician, willing and able to do whatever it takes to keep the Tsar under his control and the Grisha the most powerful force in the nation. There is a creepy Apparat, some kind of high priest, who distrusts the Grisha and keeps following Alina around trying to give her warnings, but she never listened to enough of these for me as a reader to know whether she should have listened more or less. The story went along, went along, and then suddenly – flip, flip, flip – it was all wrapped up and done and looking completely different as a finished story than it had along the way, like Elizabeth Zimmerman’s famous Baby Surprise Jacket. I could see the plot going either of two ways – which I can’t really elaborate on without complete spoilerage – and it zipped off in a third direction, leaving me feeling a little stunned with the speed of it all. I’m not sure if something about the book didn’t quite work for me, or if it would work for me if I read it again and thought about it some more. However, I quite liked both the setting and Alina as a character. For teens and up who like somewhat historical fantasy, this is a good choice.