Review: The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo (Spoiler Free)

For once, this is actually going to be a spoiler free series review. Unless you count names and descriptions of people to be spoilers in which case, just don’t read past the first paragraph.

The Grisha Trilogy represents the debut work of author Leigh Bardugo. It’s a young-adult fantasy series that explores a common motif: the discovery of hidden strength and untapped potential. Over the course of the three novels the main character and narrator, Alina Starkov, uncovers the truth about herself, her country’s past, and taps into latent magical powers in order to protect the people she loves.

Alina was orphaned by war and brought up on the charity estate of a minor Ravkan noble along with her best friend, Mal. Tested as children for the rare magical ability that would destine them for the Grisha – elite magician soldiers in Ravka’s “Second Army” – Alina and Mal were deemed commoners and conscripted with their peers into the “First Army.” She grows up as an unremarkable girl, all but friendless except for Mal whose outgoing personality makes him out to be Alina’s complete opposite from the outset. Then one day their regiment is sent to cross the Shadow Fold, “a swath of nearly impenetrable darkness that grew with every passing year and crawled with horrors.” It was the legacy of Grisha magic gone bad, a vast void that split Ravka in two and forced perilous crossings. So who else but Alina should be destined to change the fate of this divided country? Acting on pure instinct, Alina summons sunlight when her regiment is attacked during their crossing. From there, everything changes.

The series is set in the fictional country of Ravka, but based on the sprinkling of Russian words used and the descriptions of the characters’ attire, I picture this country to look a lot like Russia in the early 1900s – samovars and sleighs included – with a little steampunk innovation mixed into the later books. That imagery is also reflected on the covers. Robed magicians summon the elements and  heal bodily injuries, fabled creatures inspire legends and fairytales, and the great palaces of Ravka channel the lavishness of Russian tsars. Bardugo’s world is intriguing as a setting without being confusing and I found that I really enjoyed the blend of real and imagined.

As for the characters, I genuinely liked them. I thought that they were exactly as Bardugo intended them to be – complex, motivated, and relatable. Mal was everyone’s older brother, high spirited and charming; the twins, Tolya and Tamar, were protective, but honest; and the Darkling played the part of a villain more complex than he appeared. My favorite character was Nikolai, the princely privateer with an ingenious mind. Though he didn’t appear until the beginning of the second book, he definitely added layers to the story and more than a dose of humor. Alina too was relatable without being watered-down. She showed strength and determination when it was required, fear when she had a right to be, and relied on her friends for things she couldn’t manage alone. No one could fault her for those traits; she is only human, not a saint.

I would have to say that the plot followed through well, too. It lagged a bit in the second book, as most middle installments are want to do, but bounced back in time for a strong conclusion to the series. It ended genuinely as I thought it should – with a mix of hope, sadness, and unresolved feelings. If only more books reflected life as accurately as that.

In general I don’t think that I could say that there was anything I didn’t like about this series. The writing was simple and elegantly stated if not exactly indicative of traditional high fantasy books, the characters were solid, and the plot well developed. It wasn’t a challenging read by any stretch, but any enjoyable one nonetheless. A solid 4 out of 5 Goodreads stars from me if anyone is interested in my opinion, which you must be since you just read all the way through this. Enjoy!

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