Alina, an orphan turned military cartographer, has her life changed forever when her military unit attempts a crossing of the Fold, a mysterious, flesh-eating monster-filled swath of darkness that cuts her home country off from vital sea trade. The army’s shock force are the Grisha, magic users (all of whom serve in the army and are heaped with perqs for their troubles). They are divided into orders based on how they manipulate reality through the “small science,” the Corporalki (heartrenders and healers manipulating the body), Etherealki (manipulating elements, e.g. Inferni), and Materialki (Fabrikators). The ability is in-born, and other talents are rarer. They remind me both in abilities and organization of the Latents from Myke Cole’s military urban fantasy Shadow Ops: Control Point. Events in the Fold quickly land Alina at the center of court, and Grisha, politics.
Shadow and Bone is told entirely in the first person from Alina’s POV. This works for a few reasons. She is firmly at the center of the story and a considerable amount of its tension springs from her inability to know who or what to believe. It emphasizes Alina’s dry, macabre outlook on life (injecting more than a little humor into the story). And it emphasizes her naiveté. YA fiction in particular seems well suited to 1st person (the Hunger Games is another example).
Shadow and Bone is in many ways a traditional Hero’s Journey (albeit with a heroine). The departures are subtle, but all the more delicious for their subtlety.
I know the hardcover is listed as 368 pages (I read Shadow and Bone on my Kindle), but it is an extremely quick and easy read. Maybe too quick and easy. All of my complaints could have been addressed with (and would have required) a higher word count. Characterization for all but a few characters is light (Mal, in particular, deserved to be better fleshed-out). World-building is scant (I would have especially liked to learn more about the Grisha).
Shadow and Bone has a distinctly Russian/Slavic flavor (and, for obvious reasons, The Wall Around the World is a well-worn trope in Soviet-era science fiction). It reminds me in many ways of another recently released (in English, at least), excellent fantasy title, The Scar by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko. Both books feature a setting with a heavy Slavic flavor and share certain themes.
Shadow and Bone is set in a post-medieval setting (the soldiers carry rifles), a welcome change from the medieval and contemporary settings that dominate fantasy.