I went into Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo cautiously — I liked Six of Crows, disliked Crooked Kingdom — I had been warned that Shadow and Bone wasn't as good as Crooked Kingdom. But I wasn't expecting it to be as bad as it was. In this blog post, I've tried to cover as much as I can (or dare). Here are my top gripes with this book.
Tropes and more tropes
Bardugo just loves using tropes in this book. Some gems include:
falling in love with the handsome dark stranger you only just met
handsome dark stranger turns out to be the sadistic villain
there is now a love triangle between handsome dark stranger and childhood friend
pretty-but-thinks-she-is-plain protagonist who is also powerful (both in magic and hand-to-hand combat), likeable, kind and funny...wait... where are her flaws?
pretty-but-thinks-she-is-plain protagonist realises she loves her childhood friend all along instead of sadistic villain
pretty-but-thinks-she-is-plain protagonist discovers her secret power within which will save the world
go to boarding school and get a makeover and deal with petty rivalries
bitchy girls gang up on protagonist at school because they're jealous of how much everyone likes her.
In almost every circumstance, Bardugo prefers to use a terrible cliché instead of telling us what actually is going on; rather than tell us Aline is nervous, Bardugo will tell us she has "knots in her stomach".
Some gems include:
"I felt a chill creep over me"
"I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass above the basin"
"He put me over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes"
"After what felt like an eternity"
This (below) page is probably the worst offender. The whole book is similar in the way it constantly shoves clichés in your face.
You can read more about how to avoid cliches here.
Now, I know Bardugo said that the book was "inspired" by Russian culture. When you're not familiar with another country's culture or language, the flaws here don't seem like a big deal.
Chances are, you didn't even notice. But, imagine if you're familiar with Russian culture, and you're reading this book... it would be the equivalent of this:
....Imagine if a Russian writer wrote a book about a fictional country called 'Straya, based off present day Australia. The head of the country is called the Prime Minister, and all his personal security team are call Colonialists. Everyone in the country drinks an alcoholic drink called Coke'a'Cola and everyone always get drunk because people in 'Straya are just drunks. In 'Straya People with no magical talents are called Rejects. The main character of the book is a girl called Barry who grows up under the care of a Housekeeper called Fuc Kit. Barry discovers she has special powers, and she goes to magical school run by powerful enchanters called Tim. At magic school, the school system is supposed to feel like it in 'Straya but it reads exactly like a Russian school... there is also a girl called Frank and someone has a grandfather called Jane.
*This analogy is similar to an analogy I read by a Goodreads user, if you know who they are please let me know so I can give them credit.
Russian (like many other Slavic languages) don't use "Mrs" and "Mr" before someone's name, instead, they have masculine and feminine ways to spell a surname (usually this means females will get extra letter/s put on the end of their name(. Think of the famous Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova and her father and coach, Yuri Sharapov. The leader of Russia is called Vladimir Putin, while his (now ex) wife was called Lyudmila Putina. In this way...
Alina Starkov should be Alina Starkova, as Starkov is a masculine version of the surname.
Likewise, Ilya Morozova should be Ilya Morozov.
Ana Kuya, basically the English equivalent would be to call someone "Fuc Kitup" or "Shi Tipo" (try saying those names fast, out loud).
Kavas is based off Kvass, which is classified as a non-alcoholic drink, as the alcohol content from fermentation is typically 0.5–1.0% (soy sauce has around 2% alcoholic content). In the Grisha universe, characters get very drunk off Kavass, in real life, you can not. I understand Bardugo's reasoning for this — it is a young adult book and she didn't want to glorify drinking something more alcoholic like vodka — but she should have just made up a new drink, not transformed something which already exists within a set famework.
Grisha is actually a short form of the male name Grigori. Now, I know that Bardugo picked the name because Grigori means "watchful", but this makes about as much sense as calling your magicians "Tim" because the name "Timothy" means "to honour". The word for non-grisha is taken from the Russian word (roughly) "otkazat'sya", which in Bardugo's interpretation means "The Abandoned." In reality, "otkazat'sya" is a verb which translates into "to refuse."
In all fairness, due to negative reader feedback, Bardugo did a "mea culpa" post which you can read here.
Be specific, precise and knowledgeable
As with not googling basic facts about Russia, it seems as if Bardugo didn't bother to google about anything she was writing. The fight scenes are generic, unimaginative and unrealistic. The descriptions are bland and boring.
See this example: Bardugo writes that the orchestra strikes a "dramatic" chord. There is only one problem: there is no such thing as a dramatic chord. Let me explain: there is such a thing as "dramatic sounding" chords, such as a diminished or suspended chord, or, if you want to go full nerd, a polychord or even a triple polychord can sound very dramatic. As with the example with the misuse of the Russian language, these things only really annoy you if you know about them. Shadow and Bone is full of examples such as this: descriptions which are either so generic they mean nothing, or and just factually incorrect.
Another gripe I have is with the over use of the words "seemed", "sudden" and "suddenly". These are vague words, rarely do things "seem" (for example, your hunger doesn't "seem" to disappear, either it is gone or it is still there). Using these words usually leads to clichés or sloppy, unspecific writing. Here are some examples of Bardugo's use:
"The bit of appetite I'd had seemed to have disappeared"
"Dinner seemed to last forever"
"Ivan emerged...seemingly oblivious to the stares of other Grisha"
"I suddenly missed my dirty old coat"
.... on a side note, Bardugo writes: "I cringed back into my chair" (what does this even mean?)
While I read the book, I kept on wondering why the descriptions never jumped out at me; I wondered why they never felt real. And then it occurred to me: it's because Bardugo's descriptions merely telling what is rather than what it feels.
Take this description for example:
What I highlighted in yellow is description. What I highlighted in blue is reaction. When describing an environment, it is important to note the character reaction and thoughts on what they can see. Most of the time, there isn't very many unique ways to describe a castle or a tree or flower — what makes it unique is your character's reaction. I talk more about this concept in my blog post "how to avoid writing generic descriptions".
Alina Starkov is one of the dullest, uninteresting, uninspiring female YA characters written; she's the typical pretty-but-thinks-she's-plain girl, while being powerful, likeable, kind and with no faults at all. She's got no fire or passion in her — the only things which she's really motivated about is gaining the affections of Mal or the Darkling. Why would I want to read about a character who only cares about boys?
All the other characters are just as dull, stereotypical and unimaginative.
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo reads like that book you wrote when you were seventeen that you thought was good — and everybody encouraged you because they didn't know any better or didn't want to crush your dreams. I've read Six of Crows and it is clear Bardugo has grown as a writer in between books — she's still not a good writer, but she's not terrible anymore. Shadow and Bone could have benefited from another draft or two, giving time for Bardugo to polish her craft and find the good story/novel which was hiding inside Shadow and Bone.
You can read more on this topic in my blog post "To the inexperienced writer: why you should wait".