Desert Isle Keeper
Shadow and Bone
I love finding great new YA authors. Since the genre is currently saturated with paranormal novels, it is rare that the books offer anything new or different. The great news is that this tale of the Grisha magicians is new and different. It brings some variety to a market becoming glutted with similarity.
Long ago a powerful magician created the Shadow Fold, a section of land covered in near impenetrable darkness populated by the volcra, flying monsters who feast on human flesh. The Fold splits the nation of Ravka in half, leaving the bulk of the population cut off from the ports which bring the imports that are, if not the life blood of the nation, an important part of its economy. The dark wasteland can only be crossed on sandskiffs, sleds rigged with enormous sails that let them glide soundlessly across the dead sands of this dead land. But the journey across those lands is perilous, and many die trying to attempt it.
Alina Starkov is skinny, sickly and tired. She is just tough enough to be cartographer in the king’s army, although right this minute that doesn’t seem like good fortune. Her unit is about to enter the Fold. The plus is that her best friend Mal is serving in one of the fighting units that will be accompanying them. Mal and Alina grew up together, orphans of the border war, in an orphanage run by Duke Keramsov on his great estate. Close as brother and sister, they had never let anything part them. Now Alina mourns that adulthood is likely to do the parting in a gradual manner. Handsome Mal is going places that plain Alina can’t.
Then comes the crossing; When Mal is about to be captured by a volcra, Alina wishes desperately to save him. She does save him, though she has no clue as to how. The Grisha magicians on the sandskiff with her whisk her away immediately to be seen by the Darkling, the most powerful magician in the land. He determines that Alina is something they have been waiting centuries for – a Sun Summoner. Immediately, Alina is sent off in a coach to see the king. Along the way she gets an inkling of just how important she is; there is an assassination attempt almost immediately. There she beholds the Darkling’s power as she watches him slice a man in half – from quite a distance away.
Once they reach the palace it is time for Alina to begin her training. It is not easy – she has been unaware of her magic for so long it is not eager to come when summoned. The other apprentices are jealous, gossipy, back stabbing, and willing to use their magic unfairly to climb to the top of the heap. Her only friend seems to be Genya, a girl with the ability to make others beautiful. It is not the kind of gift that inspires awe in the power hungry Grisha apprentices, but Alina appreciates her kindness. Her only ally, oddly enough, seems to be the powerful Darkling. His patience with her surprises her, and his kindness is a balm against the struggles of training and cruelty of some of the apprentices. But is he being kind to her or to her power? Are his plans for friendship or control?
Alina is a wonderful heroine for this High Fantasy tale. She is humble but resilient. Untrained but eager to learn. She is also smart and moral. As she navigates the world of power hungry Grisha and nobles, she remembers who she is and what she values. I liked that she had sympathy for those less fortunate throughout the tale and that she was able to forgive some people along the way who were less than perfect to her. I also like how she owned her power once it began to develop – it was hers; she would decide how best to utilize it.
The Darkling is another terrific character. He is ambiguous enough that we never quite know what he is. The kind man who is an ally to Alina? The power hungry politician who stands behind the throne of a childish king? The mighty magician who seems limitless in power? The ruthless man with a nasty reputation throughout the kingdom? What I do know is he is fascinating; he steals any scene he is in. I hope we get a great deal more of him – not just his machinations, but who he is – and more depth on his background and emotions.
Mal doesn’t spend much time in the novel, but he is a very important part of Alina’s world. She loves him, though she has kept that secret for many years. He is honorable, sacrificial, loyal, and heroic. I liked him and am glad that it seems we will get to know him better in the next book.
The world building here is great. It has the typical High Fantasy kingdom, with the royalty that implies. But the ranks of the Grisha add some original flavor as does the Shadow Fold. The story has a great balance between the mystery and its resolution. The book has clarity without devolving into simplicity. The author’s style is clear and direct.
I’ve read quite a few YA novels, so I feel I know something of the market. This one was a real pleasure to peruse. I felt that the author had taken the time to simmer her tale to perfection, and that I could then take the time to savor it (all though technically I gobbled it up, then went back and savored). I am happy to recommend this novel to fantasy fans of all ages. I would especially recommend to fans of Maria V. Snyder’s books; the worlds are dissimilar but something about the styling of the book made me think of the Snyder books while reading it.