The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Shadows Hold Their Breath (Review: The Gathering Dark by Leigh Bardugo

The Gathering Dark (The Grisha, #1)
The Gathering Dark/Shadow and Bone
Leigh Bardugo
Indigo 2012

Alina Starkov has never been anything special.  An orphan among many orphans, and a fairly unattractive one at that, the only thing she’s ever really had going for her is her friendship with Mal, a fellow orphan who is the light to Alina’s dark.  Alina and Mal are inhabitants of Ravka, a land inhabited by the normal and by the Grisha.  The Grisha are those with the ability to manipulate the elements and are set apart from the general populace, led by the strange Darkling and coveted by the King.  They are also at the heart of the Unsea, a Shadow Fold of darkness, inhabited by strange and terrifying birdlike beings, that separates Ravka from its own coast. Created by the long dead Black Heretic, the Unsea is stifling the land and with neighbours of varying friendliness the land is reaching boiling point.  Come of age, Alina and Mal find themselves in the King’s Army, accompanying a faction of Grisha across the Unsea, when they are attacked by the birdlike Volcra.  Despite having shown no Grisha tendencies in her childhood, Alina finds herself exhibiting a skill so rare as to put her in great danger – one that could save the whole country but which will, in all likelihood, move her out of Mal’s world forever.

Alina is a character who at first seems to know herself entirely.  She’s aware that she’s not much to look at and, unlike many female protagonists who seem to think this while actually being horribly attractive to all around the (er, hello, Bella) this seems to be pretty true.  She’s sickly looking and not very strong.  Her strength seems to come largely from her friendship with Mal – a still point in a shifting sea.  However, as she learns more about herself she comes into her own in more ways than one.  While her head is turned by the beauties of the Grisha lifestyle, she remains a fairly shrewd character and her development is interesting and believable.  While at first she seems rather remote, she becomes more and more likable as the story progresses and by the end has won the reader over completely with her bravery and sacrifice.

The Grisha themselves are an interesting lot. It’s hard to tell how genuine even the lovely Genya is, never mind the upper echelons of their society.  Chief among them is The Darkling, whose nameless status cleverly makes him difficult to get a bead on.  He’s a superbly written character and even in his most decisive and transparent moments, readers will find themselves (like Alina) wondering as to his motivation. Mal is another character who is fairly ambiguous.  Seen initially as a rather ebullient child, he morphs into a hormone driven adolescent and then into an embittered young man. He is incredibly well drawn and his friendship with Alina is one of the most believable I’ve read in a long time.  They interact in a way that one might expect lifelong friends to interact, squabbling lovingly and not so lovingly while trying to figure out how to be friends now that they are no longer children.

The Gathering Dark carries a very plot that twists and turns its way through the pages, never becoming remotely predictable (well, not after the first few pages, anyway). The idea of a land divided is not a new one, but the Unsea is a fabulously original creation – not to mention a very frightening one. Again, while the idea of people being able to manipulate elements may have been seen before, the Grisha most certainly have not and The Darkling’s power is truly sinister, particularly when you see its full potential.  The first in a series (of course), the book ends rather beautifully, resolving the initial storyline to an extent but leaving the protagonist in a position that is incredibly perilous, in danger from both outer and inner factors.

High fantasy is a tricky genre but when it works, it works and when working it’s largely due to the author’s ability to create a believable world, which in turn comes down to the writing at the heart of their story.  The writing in The Gathering Dark is extremely accomplished.  The prose is simple yet incredibly evocative with the lush world of the Grisha gorgeously contrasted with the poverty of Ravka and the desolation of the Shadow Fold. Leigh Bardugo also subtly asks readers to consider the fine line between duty, obligation, free will and slavery and the characters and factions in her story all inhabit the grey moral area that one might expect in a society such as Ravka – it’s all very clever.  Additionally, the story is bookended by oddly fairytale-esque chapters which are quiet, beautiful and moving.

Shadow and Bone (The Grisha, #1)If I were to make one criticism of this excellent title it would be regarding the UK marketing, for some reason the striking title and cover of the US edition of this book has not crossed the Atlantic and we seem to have been lumbered with a generic cover and a title that sounds like it should be part of The Wheel of Time series – hardly original.  But don’t let that put you off, Bardugo has the potential to rival Kirsten Cashore and Melina Marchetta as current Queens of Fantasy and The Gathering Dark is most certainly worth a read.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird who, for the record, really quite enjoyed The Wheel of Time. The Gathering Dark is available now. 


Sandy said…
I'm relieved to hear that your own criticism is how the book is packaged. Its insides are glorious however :D

Fantastic review, Sya!
The UK cover looks kind of paranormal to me although I'm not the biggest fan of the US cover either. I didn't love this book at first but the more I've thought about it, the more I found to love and I can't wait for the second book!
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