Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review: The Grisha Trilogy


Before reading a word of Leigh Bardugo’s The Grisha trilogy (comprised of Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising), I was left bemused by the endorsement from Stylist Magazine that was blazoned across the cover of the second instalment:

A New York Times bestseller, it’s like The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter meets Twilight meets Lord of the Rings meets Game of Thrones; basically epic magical fantasy but completely for grown-ups.

Wow, that’s... quite a list of comparisons. Technically all those books fall within the very broad spectrum of the fantasy genre, but to use them all at once is rather like comparing a meal of lamb chops to beef, bacon and venison. I mean, they’re all meat, right?

But just for the sake of it, let’s sift through Stylist’s chosen comparisons (and add a few more).

The Grisha trilogy is set predominantly in the country of Ravka, which has spent the last hundred years waging war with its neighbours: Fjerda to the north and Shu Han to the south. Severely undermining Ravka’s ability to defend itself is the extensive tract of land known as the Shadow Fold; a swath of darkness populated by monstrous creatures known as the volcra, which divides the country in two and effectively cuts off central Ravka from its port cities.

Dangerous missions to cross the Fold and keep the supply lines open are regularly undertaken by members of the First Army, crossings which necessitate the involvement of the Grisha.

The Grisha are powerful practitioners of what’s known as the Small Science, an innate gift that allows them to manipulate natural forces on a microcosmic level. They are insistent on this terminology, rejecting the term “magic” and defining what they do as scientific, comparable to autumn leaves changing colour or skin healing after an injury:

Everything in the world could be broken down into the same small parts. What looked like magic was really the Grisha manipulating matter at its most fundamental levels. Marie did not make fire, she summoned combustible elements in the air around us, and she still needed a flint to make the spark that would burn that fuel. Grisha steel wasn’t endowed with magic, but by the skill of Fabrikators, who did not need heat or crude tools to manipulate metal.

It is their collective skill at forging weapons, summoning fire or winds, and healing wounds that make their presence so essential when it comes to traversing the Shadow Fold.

But our protagonist Alina Starkov is not Grisha; only a lowly mapmaker in Ravka’s First Army, deployed along with her regiment to oversee the latest journey through the Shadow Fold. Halfway through their convoy is attacked by volcra, though it’s not until her best friend’s life is threatened that Alina unleashes a dormant power she never even knew existed – a bright and beautiful light that identifies her not only as Grisha, but as a rare Sun Summoner. She’s instantly whisked away from the military to begin training at the Little Palace, soon realizing that she alone has the potential to dispel the Shadow Fold and restore Ravka to its former greatness.


It’s easy enough to recognise the parallels between this premise and Stylist’s list of comparisons. Like Twilight and The Hunger Games, the books are narrated by their young female protagonist. The powerful Grisha and the mundane otkazat'sya are the rough equivalent of Harry Potter’s wizards and Muggles. The presence of political intrigue and a Deadly Decadent Court no doubt led to the Game of Thrones correlation, and at a stretch I suppose the Shadow Fold is analogous to The Lord of the Ring’s Mordor. There’s even the requisite love triangle, currently considered a staple part of any YA novel, though it’s mercifully underplayed here.

But perhaps the main reason why Stylist namedropped so many titles is due to the abundance of fantasy tropes utilized throughout the trilogy. While reading I found myself anticipating and then nodding at the expected beats of the story as they occurred:

An orphan with power that’s unique even amongst the elite. An ordinary girl who becomes the most important person in the kingdom. A childhood friend who doesn’t notice her romantic interest in him. An unexpected familial connection between two characters. The sudden but inevitable betrayal. A hunt for magical objects that will provide increased power. A promise extracted from a loved one for a mercy kill if things don’t go as planned. The internal conflict between responsibility and ambition. A protagonist and villain psychically linked to each other, each drawing on the other’s thoughts and abilities. A twist in the established world-building that allows for the hero to Take a Third Option in resolving a problem and by doing so demonstrate the fundamental differences between herself and the villain.

It’s all the fault of that Stylistic quote, but as I was reading more comparisons sprung to mind. The use of Small Science was rather like the bending arts of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The search for magical creatures to amplify Alina’s powers reminded me of a Pokémon hunt. And the resolution to the climactic battle seems to have been lifted straight from the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Yet this is not to denigrate Bardugo’s story. Even if the trilogy didn’t include plenty of original components, the lack of them would not entail an absence of quality. Bardugo writes with crisp, clear prose, and has a good eye for detail when it comes to crafting her Russian-inspired world. Her dialogue is witty without sounding contrived (too many YA writers construct their conversations around the delivery of snappy one-liners) and the plot flows at a brisk pace that still allows for moments of quiet introspection. Most importantly, Bardugo understands how a trilogy should be structured, with each book building on the one before in terms of scope, characterization, and ever-rising stakes.

But it’s in managing the complexities of Ravka’s political, social and cultural landscape that Bardugo really excels. To infuse a system of magic with a degree of scientific theory automatically removes any trace of The Magic Versus Technology War. Instead the tension is found between the powers of the Grisha and the existence of widespread religious faith; an underlying friction that lies at the centre of the trilogy's plot.

Unlike many fantasy novels, religion is soaked deeply into the world-building of the trilogy. Though there’s no explicit mention of God or Christ, the Saints are a prevalent part of day-to-day life, and Ravka’s geography is filled with churches, convents, monasteries, pilgrimage sites and holy places. Speech is littered with phrases such as “thank the Saints” or “Saints receive them” or simply “Saints!” as a curse word.

Within the story's backdrop of folklore and religion, it doesn’t take much for a reader to recognize that these legendary Saints, so revered by the common folk, were almost certainly Grisha, the truth of their preternatural powers warping over the centuries to become miracles. This is especially blatant when you consider the grisly deaths accorded to the Saints (beheadings, stonings, flaming arrows, drowning) and their link with the contemporary discrimination faced by Grisha across the world.

And yet by Alina’s time there is a sharp distinction made between Grisha and Saints, and any implication that they might have been one and the same is considered heresy: “Some people believe that all the first Saints were Grisha – enough people that their leaders were excommunicated. Some were even burned at the stake.” This insistence in separating the two groups is partially explained by a religious leader known as the Apparat: “Peasants love their Saints. They hunger for the miraculous. And yet, the do not love the Grisha. Why’d you think that is? I think is because the Grisha do not suffer the way the Saints suffer, the way people suffer.”

The Grisha largely dismiss stories of the Saints as peasant superstition, and as you’d expect from innately powerful individuals who can do anything from retaining the outward appearance of youth to cutting people in half with a gesture, they are held in fearful regard by those without such abilities. We learn that Grisha are executed as witches in Fjerdan and vivisected for science in Shu Han, and despite their privileged lifestyle in Ravka, it’s clear that this is a relatively new development within the country’s history. For some, it remains within living memory a time when Grisha: “moved from place to place ... saw the way our people lived, the way they were mistrusted, the lives they were forced to eke out in secrecy and fear.”

Now all the children in the kingdom undergo mandatory testing, and those identified as Grisha are afforded every advantage in exchange for loyalty and service to the King, to be trained in his Little Palace and eventually drafted into his Second Army, distinguished from the common soldiers by their protective kefta of coloured silk. Here they serve under the Darkling, described as “second in power only to the King,” a type of Grisha who can control the movement of darkness and shadows.

Despite their power and prestige, their position is still tenuous; the general attitude toward them still one of resentment and suspicion. The common folk regard them as witches and demons, and in return the Muggles of this world are referred to by the Grisha as the otkazat'sya, or “the abandoned”, a term that does little in quelling hostilities.

Yet a more contemporary reason exists as to why such animosity is held toward this elite group. As Alina soon discovers, a Grisha was responsible for the creation of the Shadow Fold, an individual given the significant moniker of the Black Heretic. The current Darkling is the great, great, great grandfather of the Black Heretic, whose goal is to right the wrongs of his ancestor and destroy the Shadow Fold, finding in Alina the complimentary abilities that will allow him to destroy it forever. 

As you might expect, Alina is drawn to the dark and mysterious Darkling, who offers support and companionship in her new environment. And yet it’s abundantly clear that the Shadow Fold is as valuable to the Grisha in maintaining their power (being the only ones who can ensure passage through it) as it is a threat to the rest of the country, particularly when taking into account the rise of muskets, rifles and other weapons that level the odds between Grisha and otkazat'sya. A constant refrain from the Darkling is: “Grisha power is coming to an end.”

Hopefully it won’t come as too much of a spoiler to reveal that the Darkling does not plan to destroy the Fold at all, but to wield it as a weapon of mass destruction against opposing nations. He needs only to harness Alina’s abilities as a Sun Summoner to subdue the volcra, after which he’ll have complete control in manipulating the Fold whichever way he desires.

So with the Small Science headed by a megalomaniac, does the narrative then turn to the humble faith of the otkazat'sya to provide us with a belief system we can root for? Not exactly. Just as the Darkling serves as a figurehead for the Grisha, it is the man known only as the Apparat who represents the nationwide worship of the Saints.

Much like Katniss Everdeen, Alina is recognized by both the Darkling and the Apparat as a powerful ideological symbol; unlike Katniss, Alina has innate power to be utilized in practical ways. Already her demonstrations in calling up light have been described in the text as something akin to a religious experience:

Light flooded the throne room, drenching us in warmth and shattering the darkness like black glass. The court erupted into applause. People were weeping and hugging one another. A woman fainted. The King was clapping the loudest, rising from his throne and applauding furiously, his expression exultant... [later] one woman had tears in her eyes and asked me to bless her.

As such, it’s not a surprise when the Apparat begins to herald Alina as a Saint, bridging the distinction between Grisha and Saint by claiming that she has died and been reborn with holy powers. Alina is appalled to learn that people are building shrines and alters to her, that relics of her bones are being sold to pilgrims, and that a cult is forming around her worship.
But unlike the Darkling, the Apparat is described in unappealing terms, with creepy brown eyes, black gums like a wolf, and a smell “of mildew and incense.” His followers aren’t much better:

I thought I’d grown used to all the attention, even being pawed at by strangers, but this felt different. I didn’t like being called “Saint” and there was something hungry in their faces that set my nerves on edge. The pilgrim’s expressions terrified me. As far as they were concerned, I’d come to liberate Ravka from its enemies, from the Shadow Fold, from the Darkling, from poverty, from hunger, from sore feet and mosquitos and anything else that might trouble them.

When she’s forced to seek shelter with them in deep underground tunnels known as the White Cathedral, the environment reflects the clammy neediness and suffocating routine of those that worship there:

I hated every inch of it. The moisture that seeped through the walls, dripped from the ceilings, clustered in beads on my skin. The chill that couldn’t be dispelled. The toadstools and night flowers that bloomed in cracks and crevices. I hated the way we marked time: morning services, afternoon prayer, evening services, Saints’ days, days for fasting and half fasting.

So if Science represents progress and ambition, then Religion signifies inertia and fanaticism, built on the propaganda and lies perpetuated by the Apparat to convince people to give up their homes and families and stake their faith in the Sun Saint as a “fix-all” solution to their problems. Just like the Darkling before him, the Apparat seeks to make Alina a tool that he can wield in his control of others, one that Alina has to escape just as surely as she did the Darkling.

It is therefore Alina’s task to find a path between these two extremities, and the progress of her character arc is marked by her growing ability to shape herself into whatever persona is needed to handle any given scenario.

In fact, the trilogy is full of characters that can modify their behaviour and even change their physical appearance to suit the changing circumstances. A beauty regime is one of the first things forced on Alina when she arrives at the Little Palace, something she initially rejects before Genya, the Grisha tasked with the responsibility to improve Alina’s appearance, points out that no one will take her seriously as the salvation of all Ravka unless she looks the part. Likewise, a lot of emphasis is placed on the symbolic significance of what colour kefta Alina should be wearing, and how such a thing projects her position in the Grisha hierarchy.

Likewise, the important supporting character of Prince Nikolai is first introduced under a false name and wearing a disguise that modifies his facial features. Throughout the trilogy Alina is struck by how he manages to adapt to any given situation:

He’d transitioned effortlessly from the role of glib adventurer to arrogant prince, and now he became a beloved commander, a soldier who laughed easily with his companions and knew each commoner’s name, ... He always seemed to know what people wanted from him, when to be the laughing boy, the golden prince, the weary soldier.

These characters provide Alina’s first lessons in the art of mutability and showmanship, and by the third book she’s figured out how to use her own powers to best effect, exploiting the beliefs of the pilgrims around her:

I summoned the light, letting it blaze in a glorious halo around be. A cheap trick, but a good one. ... Part of me hated what I was about to do. Can’t I just make him sign something? Give a blood oath? Make me a really firm promise? But I had to be stronger than that. This boy and his comrades had taken up arms against me. I couldn’t let that happen again, and this was the language of Saints and suffering, the language they understood. “Open your shirt,” I commanded. Not a loving mother now, but a different kind of Saint, a warrior wielding holy fire.

As a perceived Saint and a powerful Grisha, Alina can bridge the otherwise insurmountable gap between the Small Science and the worship of Saints, using the contacts and influence that each side gives her to explore the melting pot of history and folklore of both traditions. Building on the theory that stories of the Saints originated in the lives of Grisha, Alina explores the possibility that the historical Ilya Morozova, one of the first recorded Grishas, and the revered Saint Ilya, who brought a boy back to life before his martyrdom, were in fact one and the same.

Along with material found in the trilogy itself, Burdugo’s supplementary short stories (all of which are written as folklore that is known throughout Ravka) compliments the world-building by establishing an oral history that’s been distorted over time; a wealth of information that Alina can only interpret rather than glean clear answers from:

The details were hopelessly muddled. Sometimes Ilya was a farmer, sometimes a mason or a woodworker. He had two daughters or one son or no children at all. A hundred different villages claimed to be the site of his martyrdom.

In the interests of keeping this review as spoiler-free as possible, suffice to say that Alina eventually discovers a contemporary of Ilya Morozova who can reconcile the incompatible versions of Ilya as both a Grisha and a Saint. It’s in this reconciled portrait of the man that Alina finds a way to defeat the Darkling. Bardugo wisely keeps Morozova’s true nature and personality an enigma, leaving enough ambiguity for the figure to reflect both the Darkling’s ambition and Alina’s empathy; just as Alina wonders of him: "A Grisha Saint? Or a greedy fool who couldn't resist the temptation of power?" the Darkling comments: “Morozova was a strange man. He was a bit like you, drawn to the ordinary and the weak.”

It is reconciliation then that is the key to victory. It’s quite clear from the very start of Shadow and Bone that Ravka is a world of opposing sects and hierarchies. The Shadow Fold is just one division among many that already exist between rich and poor, Grisha and Saints, the First and Second Army, and even within the ranks of the Grisha themselves, divided up according to their skill sets and delineated by the multi-coloured kefta they wear. It’s significant that one of Alina’s first orders in taking control of the Second Army is to make them eat their meals together, and that her final divisive act in the conflict against the Darkling is to – well, like I’ve said, it’s very much like what Buffy did in her own season finale.

And though the figureheads of Science and Religion are portrayed as corrupt – the Darkling representing the total acquisition of power and the Apparat demanding absolute subjugation of one’s own identity to his cult – Bardugo ensures there are “spokespeople” within each sect, those who adopt Alina’s values without discarding their own beliefs or background. For the Small Science it is Genya and Zoya, two women who are initially depicted as flighty and bitchy respectively, but who demonstrate their mettle when the need arises. For Religion it is the twins Tolya and Tamar, raised in the church and in league with the Apparat, who nevertheless become Alina’s most loyal bodyguards (and in a subversive twist, it’s established that Tamar is in a relationship with another woman).

And thirdly, though secular power initially resides with the King, characterized as a lecherous old goat with an equally debauched heir, the throne eventually falls to his second son Prince Nikolai (rumoured to be a bastard just to further remove any correlations with his father) who is fascinated by new technology that requires the skills of both Grisha and otkazat'sya to achieve its aims. As Alina realizes:

I thought of what the Darkling had said to me so long ago. The age of Grisha power is coming to an end. His answer had been to turn the Fold into a weapon. But what if Grisha power could be transformed by men like [Nikolai]? I looked over the deck of the Hummingbird, at the sailors and Grisha working side by side...

As the Stylist recommendation suggests, there are a lot of recognizable components to The Grisha trilogy regarding its plot, characterization and themes, and ultimately there are no particularly innovative conclusions to be drawn from it. Ambition is evil. Religion is creepy. Love is all-powerful. Teamwork is important. These are the usual edicts to be found in most YA fantasy fiction – but the last thing I want is for this to come across as a lukewarm review.

As I’ve said on a number of occasions, the best fantasy is (generally; there are always exceptions) comprised of plot, character and world-building – not as separate components, but working in tandem to achieve a fully-realized novel. Bardugo’s grasp of plot and character is solid, but it’s in her rich setting, one that isn’t based on yet another rendition of medieval West Europe, that The Grisha trilogy distinguishes itself.

It’s a world with enough depth that the plot itself is shaped by its unique magical system and religious faith; across all three books is exploration into how each one operates, why they are at odds with each other, and how they each impact the cultural and social milieu that Alina must navigate.

I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before Bardugo’s work is adapted into a film franchise, and when that happens it’ll be a mixed bag – on the one hand, there’ll be plenty of eye-candy to behold regarding the landscapes and edifices that Bardugo describes; on the other it will be well-nigh impossible to capture the history of beliefs and traditions that lie behind Alina’s story, and which provide the context for the trilogy’s overarching plot.

It’s this dense backdrop of “fictional history” with all its discrepancies and contractions that defies Stylist’s litany of comparisons, and it’s what elevates intriguing material told in elegant prose containing the usual themes of true love and teamwork into something that’s genuinely worth exploring. So by all means, do so.

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