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Leigh Bardugo

REVIEW:  Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

REVIEW: Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

READERS PLEASE NOTE: Since Siege and Storm is the second book in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, the review of this book below will by necessity include spoilers for the first book, Shadow and Bone. My spoiler free review of Shadow and Bone can be found here.

Dear Ms. Bardugo,

Shadow and Bone, the first book in your YA fantasy trilogy, had many things going for it and except for in one or two places in the story, I was enthralled until around the two-thirds mark. That was when one of the heroine’s love interests (and for my money, the more dynamic and fascinating one) was revealed to be a villain of such proportions that I consider him irredeemable. The story was still interesting after that, but to a lesser degree, and I was not sure what to expect of book two.

SiegeandStormNow comes Siege and Storm, book two of the Grisha trilogy. Siege and Storm begins with Mal and Alina crossing the ocean from their home country of Ravka (which is very loosely inspired by Russia) to the western continent of Novyi Zem. For the moment the two are free, but the evil and powerful Darkling, once Alina’s suitor, and the Grisha working for him, all invested with magical powers of their own, are in hot pursuit.

For Alina is the Sun Summoner, the only person who could perhaps heal Ravka by ridding it of the Fold, the dark rift that the Darkling, unbeknownst to most people, created centuries earlier. Once a normal section of Ravka, the Fold is now pitch dark and populated by flying monsters called volcra. As the only person ever born in Ravka who possesses the ability to summon light, Alina is also Ravka’s only hope. The Darkling, however, wants to use her power to expand the Fold.

Having escaped the Darkling, Alina and her childhood friend-turned-boyfriend Mal arrive in the city of Cofton. Alina cannot use her power for fear of revealing her identity, but not using it leaves her wan and weak. Meanwhile Mal, with his talent for hunting and tracking, is as strong and competent as ever. Though she loves him, Alina feels like no match for him, and it’s clear the local girls don’t see her as one, either.

Despite her frailty it is Alina who senses something is wrong when, one night two weeks after their arrival in Cofton, she and Mal return to the boardinghouse where they have been staying.
But by the time they discover the Darkling’s ambush, it is too late to do more than try to defend themselves. During this confrontation, the Darkling reveals a new power, the ability to create creatures from darkness.

The nichevo’ya, as these beings are known, are the gift Alina gave him, the Darkling tells her. When she abandoned the Darkling to the volcras’ tender mercies on the Fold, he learned to create them. Alina uses her own weapon, the Cut, to slice the creatures in half with light, but eventually one of them manages to reach her and bite her. Alina passes out as she and Mal are taken captive.

The coming days pass in a haze for Alina, who has been drugged. When she comes to, she is on board a ship. The Darkling is in control of the situation, with several of the Grisha who are loyal to him assisting him. Among them is Ivan, who despises Alina, and Genya, whom Alina once considered a true friend.

Alina soon learns that the ship is headed north in search of the sea whip, a mythical creature whose scales would make a powerful amplifier.

Like the stag whose horns Alina now wears around her neck to amplify her power, the sea whip is one of the legendary Morozova’s creatures. Like the stag, it is imbued with magic. And as he did with the stag, the Darkling intends to kill the sea whip and turn it into an amplifier for Alina to wear, although no Grisha should ever have more than one amplifier.

For this the Darkling needs Mal alive, since Mal can hunt and track like no other man. Neither Mal nor Alina wants to hunt the sea whip, but the Darkling threatens to harm Alina unless Mal cooperates, or to harm Mal unless Alina does.

Also on the ship is its owner, the pirate or privateer, Sturmhond, a scourge of the seas which surround Ravka. Present as well are Sturmhond’s crewmembers, which include Tolya and Tamar, twins who can fight and hold their own against any Grisha, as a confrontation between the two of them and Ivan reveals.

While Tamar and Tolya seem to feel some compassion for Alina, Sturmhond refuses to consider her pleas for help from him and his crew. The Darkling is paying him handsomely to ignore Alina and Mal’s captivity.

I don’t want to give away how it happens, but Mal and Alina eventually escape the Darkling’s clutches and return to Ravka. By then Alina wears a fetter made of the sea whip’s scales, and her power has grown beyond her imaginings, yet she hungers for more.

But is Alina truly free? In Ravka, many consider Alina a saint risen from the dead. Pilgrims gather and seek to pay homage to her, and a religious movement develops around her legend. At the same time, the mysterious Prince Nikolai begins to pay her marked attentions, and Mal grows jealous.

Worst of all, as Alina takes control of her destiny, the same circumstances which allow her to do this cause Mal’s own strength and agency to diminish. Both find it difficult to speak about this, and Alina cannot bring herself to tell Mal that she fears the Darkling still holds power over her.

Like a storm on the horizon, the Darkling looms over their lives, and as they prepare for his return, each wonders where the future will take them. For there is a third and final magical creature, the firebird, which could make Alina’s power a true match for the Darkling’s…

Like Shadow and Bone, its predecessor, Siege and Storm engendered mixed feelings in me. I think my ambivalence about this series boils down to this: the reveal two thirds of the way through book one of all the evils the Darkling had perpetrated and the ways he’d manipulated Alina have made him completely irredeemable, yet he’s still the most compelling and fascinating character in these books.

I thought I’d stop caring about him after what he did toward the end of Shadow and Bone, but to my surprise, the Darkling was still multidimensional and interesting (as a villain) in this book, almost as much as he’d been as a potential hero in book one. Still, I don’t see him as a potential love interest for Alina anymore.

Then there is Mal who is basically a good guy, but seems incompatible with Alina to me. The truth is that Alina’s Grisha power removes her from Mal’s sphere, and Mal’s own strengths as a hunter and tracker make life with the Grisha miserable for him.

Yet without her powers, Alina gets frail and weak – clearly hiding her light under a bushel isn’t good for her. If Mal truly loved her, he would accept this and let her go, but instead of encouraging her to use her power, he fears it. This is human enough – for one thing, her power could take her out of his life, and for a second, Alina’s hunger for yet more of it makes her frightening and potentially destructive.

So at one end of the spectrum, we have the Darkling, Alina’s counterpart in potential strength, thirst for power, leadership and destructiveness. On the other we have Mal who doesn’t want Alina to have power and whom she fears losing to such a degree that she spent most of her youth burying her power so as not to acknowledge his incompatibility with her life and her nature.

I can’t root for her to end up with either of these guys.

Alina needs to end up somewhere in the middle, I think, but the only guy who perhaps represents the middle is Prince Nikolai, and while I found him an interesting character in that he was both chameleon-like and charming, I’m not even remotely sold on him as a potential partner for Alina. Like the Darkling, he wants her partly for political reasons. And Nikolai doesn’t bring to the table the childhood love, trust and loyalty that Alina feels with and for Mal, nor does he create the sizzling sexual attraction that Alina feels with and for the Darkling.

So I can’t ship this one either.

Honestly, at this point I’m kind of hoping that Alina ends up alone at the end of book three. That will be sad (especially if Nikolai or Mal die in book three), but it seems best for Alina to wait a few more years and then find a fellow Grisha who has no political interest in her and whose presence in her life doesn’t diminish her.

Enough said about the romantic relationships. As a romantic fantasy this novel didn’t work for me, but as a fantasy about coming of age, it does. What I really liked about this book was that the plot was eventful and the pacing even stronger than in book one. There were twists and turns I did not see coming though I tried to anticipate them and guess ahead, and I was not bored at any point.

Your voice is a strong one, Alina’s first person narration conversational and vivid at once.

I also really liked that after spending most of book one being passive, Alina took charge of her destiny here. I especially liked her action to resolve the situation with the Darkling toward the end of the book.

The non-communication between Alina and Mal was frustrating, especially since Alina’s motives for not telling Mal what was worrying her so much was only revealed toward the end of the book. I think that had the motive been given sooner, Alina’s silence on an important subject would have made sense to me a lot earlier in the book.

Ultimately, I’d say this book was slightly better than the previous one. It was entertaining and interesting, well-paced and different from most of the YA I read. If a reader is looking for a really romantic YA, I advise steering clear of this series, but for someone who’d like to read a solid fantasy/adventure story, this one is worth a try. B-.

Janine

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What Janine is Reading — April and May 2012

What Janine is Reading — April and May 2012

My hot reading streak in February and March turned into a reading slump in April. For a little while there, I couldn’t get more than a few pages into anything I picked up. I couldn’t even tell you guys what I tried to read at that time, because I didn’t make it far into anything and everything seemed forgettable.

Eventually I had enough of that and decided to try to see if I could revive my enthusiasm for reading by rereading books that had been hard to put down in the past. I picked two of my favorite Nalini Singhs, Caressed by Ice and Archangel’s Blade, and while neither one was as enjoyable as they’d been the first time around, they were still fun enough to restore my enthusiasm for reading.

Back in my reading groove, I read the following books:

Rainshadow Road Lisa KleypasRainshadow Road by Lisa Kleypas

This was my first full-length Kleypas in years (I really need to backtrack and read her Travis series sometime). I had read Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor, but before that, nothing since Devil in Winter. Rainshadow Road, the story of a glass artist dumped by her boyfriend for her younger sister and a commitment-shy vintner, was enjoyable and different, though not perfect.

I liked the quirky community in which the story was situated. Details like the bikers and their church, the house being renovated, and the heroine’s brusque innkeeper friend, made this book come alive in a way that many contemporaries don’t manage to do for me. I agree with those who said that the magical realism was not always well-integrated into the story, and I also felt the romance itself was rushed. On the whole though, this book was quite enjoyable. C+/B-

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The Shape of Desire by Sharon ShinnThe Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn

I have a hard time articulating why, but I couldn’t progress more than a chapter or two into this book, and I am a huge fan of Sharon Shinn’s earlier works. This happened to me once before with another of her books, Fortune and Fate. If I had to pin down a reason, I would say it has a lot to do with both the characters, and the lack of a strong plot hook.

The Shape of Desire, Shinn’s first urban fantasy, opens with a reunion between Maria and her boyfriend, the shape-changing Dante. Dante, we learn, has no control over his shape changing and for that reason his life and Maria’s are far from normal. For most of the time Dante roams the wild, and Maria worries about him. He can’t hold a normal job, and she can’t introduce him to her friends. We also see Maria with those friends, discussing relationships.

I liked the friends and their lunchtime away from work milieu, but I didn’t feel a connection to Maria or Dante. They were nice enough people, just not interesting. They had some problems, true, but these were not serious enough to make me feel I should care. According to the back blurb a string of murders would make their problems worse, but there was not enough ominous sense of that in the writing. Maria’s happiness that Dante had resurfaced made it hard for me to feel worried for them or even uneasy, so I put this down unfinished. DNF.

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Gaijin by Remittance GirlGaijin by Remittance Girl

Set in Japan, Gaijin is the story of an English waitress kidnapped and raped by a Japanese mobster. The novella focuses on Jennifer’s captivity and her struggle to survive it. We had an interesting discussion in the comment thread when I reviewed it. Some readers were offended by the idea of such a story, but I felt it examined the fascinating issue of cultural differences and ethnocentrism without in any way justifying or romanticizing rape. Despite feeling more like a slice-of-life vignette than a full-fledged story, Gaijin has stuck with me. Review here.

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This was an enjoyable enough Spice Brief from Harlequin, but it didn’t stay with me. The heroine who works on Wall Street, arrives at the hero’s Mexican resort for a brief getaway. He observes her plagued by the phone, sends her a drink at the bar, and later seduces her, all without saying a word. But why won’t he speak?

It was interesting to read a story with so little dialogue and I could almost hear the silence myself. The characters were sympathetic and likable, the writing lovely at times but awkward at other times. This was nice, but not memorable, especially when compared to Hancock’s post-apocalyptic romance novella Ghost in the Machine. Review here.

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Dancing on the Wind by Mary Jo PutneyDancing on the Wind by Mary Jo Putney

Recently I reread Putney’s Thunder and Roses, and though I didn’t enjoy it, I decided to see if I could reread the rest of the Fallen Angels series. After all, I used to love these books and also, they’ve been rereleased in electronic editions. It would be good to review them, or so I thought.

Dancing on the Wind is the second book in the series, featuring Lucien and Kit, who meet while he is investigating a group called the Hellions (modeled after the Hellfire Club) in search of a traitor and she is doing the same in order to find her sister’s kidnapper.

I’ve been reading this book for a month and so far I’m at the halfway point. The problem is that as Kit keeps disguising herself and Lucien finds her again and again, each time in a new identity, and each time without pinning down how to find her again, so their relationship is proceeding at a glacial pace. On the upside, I like them both better than I liked the protagonists of Thunder and Roses. Review to come when I finish, or give up on finishing.

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Moon Over Soho by Ben AaronovitchMoon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

This is the second book in Aaronovitch’s delightful urban fantasy/police procedural series about Peter Grant, a London constable investigating paranormal crimes. In this one Peter is faced with the death of a string of jazzmen, just as his musician father decides to resume his jazz playing career.

Meanwhile, Peter gets involved with the former girlfriend of one of the dead men, investigates the violent death of a magical practitioner, trades witty quips with his supervisor and makes snarky remarks about London architecture and history. This series is adorable. If you haven’t tried them yet, what are you waiting for? Midnight Riot is the first book. As for Moon Over Soho, the review can be found here.

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Overseas by Beatriz Williams

This time travel was, as Jane has said, nothing if not romantic, but at the same time, it felt like a flight of wish-fulfillment fantasy. The pages turned very quickly as I kept reading to get to the bottom of the mystery of what was keeping the protagonists apart. I had a thoroughly enjoyable time but at the end, was left wishing for a little more substance and grounding in the World War I era.

Part of the problem was that the hero was just too perfect – a viscount, a brilliant student, athletic, gorgeous, chivalrous, a wall street titan, and a poet of literary greatness as well? Where do they make them like this, except in women’s fantasies? With all that going for him, it was difficult to understand why he fell so hard for the heroine. Still, he was lovely, and I like a Cinderella story as much as the next person. The romanticism and sheer fun of this book isn’t to be denied. B.

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Shadow and Bone by Leigh BardugoShadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

This historical fantasy set in an alternate Russia started off wonderfully. Alina, an orphan who was raised with her best friend Mal, is plucked from obscurity when it’s discovered that she is a Sun Summoner – the only person who can free her country from the dark and horrifying rift known as the Shadow Fold.

Separated from Mal and brought to the stronghold of the Grisha, powerful magic users, she is trained in using her abilities, a task made difficult by her own suppression of her gifts. Alina misses Mal horribly, and wonders if he’s forgotten about her, even as she’s drawn to the leader of the Grisha, a fascinating man known as the Darkling.

Bardugo has a very engaging voice and I was loving this book until two thirds of the way through when a turn was taken in the story that sucked a lot of the complexity out of it. I kept reading to the end, but wished this one thing could be undone because it was so disappointing and without it, the book could have been marvelous. Review here.

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Fire by Kristin CashoreFire by Kristin Cashore

Cashore’s follow-up to Graceling was less engaging than its predecessor. Whereas Katsa was an active character with a mission, Fire, the heroine of the novel of the same name, was more passive and aimless. True, she had interesting mental powers tied to her matchless beauty, a good backstory and a great deal of selflessness, but none of that was enough to make me turn the pages as fast as I did with Graceling, and reading the story made me feel melancholy and even morose. Cashore’s writing is lovely, but also has a youthful innocence to it that didn’t fit the subject matter well here. All in all, I could take or leave this one. C.

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Bitterblue by Kristin CashoreBitterblue by Kristin Cashore

This is the third book in the same YA fantasy series and I thought it was better than either Graceling or Fire. It’s the story of an eighteen year old queen trying to take control of her reign and heal her kingdom from the national trauma inflicted by her late father when he was king.

There’s also a romantic subplot — Bitterblue sneaks out at night and befriends two young men while pretending to be a baker girl. One of them is a thief whom she spies stealing one of her castle’s gargoyles. She starts to fall for him, but he doesn’t know who she really is and she doesn’t know if he’s an enemy of hers.

Bitterblue discovers in the process that someone is harming her kingdom’s “truthseekers,” people who want to uncover the truth about her father’s misdeeds, and there’s a mystery over who it is that is trying to suppress the truth and what that person has to hide.

The themes of truth vs. lies, memory vs. moving on, discoveries and concealments, and the healing power of storytelling were so well integrated into this book. The characters were sympathetic yet real and the mystery at the center of the plot was compelling. The melancholy was leavened with humor. It is one of the most impressive YA novels I’ve read. Review to come.

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What are you guys reading? If you’ve read any of the books I mention above, what did you think of them? And when you have reading slumps, what do you do to break out of them?