YA Review: ‘Ruin and Rising’ by Leigh Bardugo

You know my friends; I really had high hopes for this series. Shadow and Bone wasn’t Ruin and Rising (The Grisha, #3)perfect, but as a first book it was one of the better YA books I had read in a while. I look back and should have seen through it, some smoke and mirrors must have been in use. Why? Because at its core it was about a young orphan who learns she has magical powers, goes to school to learn how to use it, and becomes the HERO OF DESTINY.

But I liked it. At this early junction Alina was intriguing enough, Mal wasn’t too stereotypical in his role as eventual love interest, and The Darkling was actually a pretty damn cool character despite his silly name. More importantly Bardugo had built a world I wanted to know about.   A class of magic users with fairly strict segregation, a faux Russia set up, and THE FOLD. Oh, if I have to be honest, this was a series in which the world grabbed me more than the characters. Still, after reading book 1, there was no doubt in my mind that I would be moving on. And as a little time passed I somehow built this start to a series as being a bit better than it really was.

Then book two came. Siege and Storm took middle book syndrome up to eleven. Long pointless passages dealing with travelling? Yep.   An almost exact repeat of the main quest from the first book? Of course, because everything important in fantasy should be scattered all over the world. And damn it if we are going to have a love triangle in book one then OF COURSE we should upgrade it to a love quadrilateral in book two. Mal was going to be a love interest, that was a no brainer. And SPOILER ALERT, so was The Darkling. So really is one more sexy man going to break this story? Of course not, the more the merrier, all courting Alina for different reasons.

But I was still excited. Just let me get past the video game quest and let Alina get over at least ONE of the damn suitors and let’s get to the payoff shall we?

Shouldn’t have bothered. Ruin and Rising is the most disappointing series ender I have read since, I don’t know, ever? I just…wow.

It starts of bad, with Alina stuck in confines that I just don’t buy. I don’t believe she could be held in a gilded cage so easily. So when the escape comes there is no excitement. Because it was inevitable and there to act as a minor side quest.  All it brought was relief and a hope that the once intriguing and now boring character holding and using Alina won’t be seen again.

It gets worse. Book two had its share of travel, book three took it further. Travel through caves, over mountains, just keep travelling. If someone reads this after me feel free to tell me what happens in the middle third of the book; I am pretty sure I dozed off for the entire run.

I am finding myself unimpressed. And I was kind of bored. And I have realized that while I have not read a lot of books with love triangles in them I REALLY hate love triangles (quadrilaterals, whatever). But at least this book is building for some heartbreak, a dark ending to go with the books dark premise. It may have dissolved into a video game with lots of travel and a few large quest items to retrieve, but there is still some hope here, right?

Perhaps this is the most discouraging thing about the end of the series, and this may constituted a minor spoiler. Or a major one. You know what? Just consider everything beyond this point to be a POSSIBLE SPOILER. But Siege and Storm decided to have cake and eat it too. An early tragedy takes a fairly major character and has some interesting future implications. A late realization will make for a heartbreaking final choice in this battle. Alina may still get to be a hero, she may save the land and even be able to destroy the monsters that inhabit it, but she won’t be able to get through it unscathed.

Or maybe she will, because she is a sun summoner and all it takes is magic light to make everything better. La de da, candy and rainbows for everyone, complete with a sickly melancholy epilog that puts Rowling’s disappointing ending to shame in its message of ‘everything is just all right.’ Except Alina is still going to mope a bit in it, because ya know, why change now that you have everything?

I really had high hopes for this series. But I honestly can’t recommend it past the first book.

2 Stars

 

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Fantasy Review: ‘Siege and Storm’ by Leigh Bardugo

Another strong outing, but perhaps not quite up to the first in the series.  Alina and Mal finished the last book on the run, which amazingly is where this outing starts.  While they start off in hiding, very quickly their location is discovered and the next round of plotting begins.

The Darkling survived the fight in the Fold at the end of book one, but he lost his political power.  No longer at the head of the army, he is reduced to keeping mercenaries on hand to hold Alina and Mal once they were found.  Not much is known about his plans, but it is clear that they continue to rely heavily on Alana and her Sun powers.  Already having killed a mythical stag to amplify her power, the group is off to the seas to find another one, this time a sea serpent of some kind.  From there comes betrayals, double crossings, a minor war, some politicking, and a bit of teenage angst (though mercifully much better handled and in my mind, more realistic, than much of the YA I have read previously).

The biggest improvement over the first book came from dropping some of the YA trappings that I felt hindered some of my enjoyment of book one.  Specifically I wondered why a group of powerful adults acted like they were in junior high cliques.  Much less of that here, and in fact at one point Alina uses some of her new power to force integration of the different sects of Grisha.  There are also homages to strategy planning sessions, logistics and the like, though obviously simplified to a few lines due to the YA nature of the work.  So we were TOLD there was a strategy session, rather than let in on any details of it.  Still, as the first book was mostly training and posturing for popularity, it was a welcome change for me.

The book also offered up an awesome new character in the form of Stormhund.  A chameleon of sorts, it is unclear whether or not even he knows his true personality at this point; as much of a master manipulator as the Darkling was in the first book, but twice as much fun.  In my mind he carried the book and could possibly take over the series.  Alina is actually still fairly endearing; her thirst for power and regret of it is a nice progression from the fairly weak but learning her potential girl in the previous outing.

Some areas of the book didn’t work as well for me though.  I loved the Darkling first time around, dumb name and all.  He was complex, manipulative and fell into “probably a villain but maybe is a bit misunderstood.  This time around he was a generic dark bad guy, super powerful and evil evil EVIL.  A natural progression due to events from the first book, but still a bit boring.

There is also a bit of a video game quest introduced, where it turns out there are three mythical creatures Alina needs to find her power.  It was a bit too gamey, a bit too Harry Potter (it was even hidden in plain sight in children’s’ stories), and ultimately confusing.  How did some ancient saint have access to these supposedly one of a kind creatures?  There were a whole lot of places I was hoping the story would take me, but I am not sure this is one of them.

Don’t get me wrong though, it was still a fun read, and I will be eagerly seeking out the sequel.  Just didn’t quite live up to the promise of the first one I guess.

3 Stars

Fantasy Review: ‘Shadow and Bone’ by Leigh Bardugo

Awesome set up, immensely readable, and a book that left me begging for a sequel.  I think this book just rocketed into my top five YA fantasy books, there was so much good in it.  But oh that damn YA structure, this book could have been a whole lot more.

Young orphan Alina struggles through military life in faux-Russia.  The country is cut in half by “the fold,” a magically made pitch black area full of nasties that not even the lands Grisha (mages) can contain.  In order to bring supplies in from the coast stealth runs through the fold are mounted by the military.  During one of these runs nasties attack convoy, and Alina passes out when attacked, only to wake up and learn she saved the day!  Yeah, hidden powers and chosen one storyline to follow!  She is a sun summoner and might be the answer to destroying the fold.

Oh don’t get me wrong I love the set up.  For once a logical explanation is given to way the slightly awkward turns out to be powerful, why the main characters are all beautiful, and why the evil baddie is doing evil bad things.  Several clichés are turned around throughout the book; always a plus.  The magical system has some potential and is leaked to the reader gradually, avoiding boring info dumps.

The Darkling, a man who heads all the Grisha and holds power unique to him was easily the most compelling part of the book.  Is he evil, misunderstood, or even a bit immature?  He seems to be whatever he needs to be to get to his goals, his near immortality giving him insight into other people others only dream of.  He actually feels like a real power, weaving people’s emotions and expectations as well as showing truly impressive feats of magic.

There is also a tender friendship between Alina and fellow orphan Mal.  Once again the author makes it authentic; the heartache of a secret crush, the longing, the fights and the joy.  Written well enough that I would believe it ending in either love or abandonment, without so much foreshadowing that one or the other seem like a foregone conclusion.

But oh that damn YA.  Why are the Grisha, the most powerful humans in the land, playing dress up in court and acting like high school gossip queens?  (And if the Grisha check every child in the country for talent why do they all acted like silver spoon aristocracy, with only Alina thinking to buck the system?) Every major male character save one is a love interest for someone (which to be fair is the reverse of a lot of fantasy out there).  Is Alina going to be the most powerful Grisha around or will she moon over the men in her life the whole time?  And my hopes of a more in depth look at so many of the interesting aspects of this new world just wouldn’t fit the YA structure.

Oh well, an entertaining read, decently tied up at the end but with obvious need for a sequel (that is already out).  I can nitpick, but I really want to read the next book so that is what really matters.

3 ½ stars