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#225. LEIGH BARDUGO.   Like stocks and bonds, literary genres boom and bust.  When John Grisham showed up in 1989 with A Time to Kill, the legal thriller went through a growth spurt, now long subsided.  On the other hand, if you had invested your week’s allowance in the adult fantasy genre when Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings, you could probably now buy and finance a small Balkan state.  The mystery genre survived by subdividing in a somewhat amoebic way, so that its title lists can now contain frivolities such as The Cat Who Ran Bananas, the Nordic noir of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the heavier flexing of The Name of the Rose.  Stephenie Meyer pumped new blood (pardon the phrase) into the teen romance by populating it with vampires; gone the days when the heroine’s most vexing choice was picking a prom dress.   Considering the enormous mixed blessing now of the young adult section in any bookshop, you have to wonder if it was a case of publishers recognizing a literary gap or a financial opportunity.  I can’t for a moment expect or hope that the genre has escaped Sturgeon’s Law, but it has on the other hand branched out into topics—the Holocaust, teenage pregnancy, discrimination of every conceivable cast—about which children’s books were formerly ordered to keep cheerfully mum.  Let’s give due.

        No reader is happier than one who’s discovered a prolific genre writer they like; it’s like discovering a good place for pizza or Chinese.  I rely for genre reading mostly on mysteries, but have momentarily caught up on my favorites, so I was pleased to happen onto the YA fantasy novels by Leigh Bardugo, seven so far, with more promised.  The storytelling is brisk and inventive, the plot twists often surprising, and the dialogue has a nice streak of the deadpan to it.  The series proposes the Grisha, people who have gifts for manipulating the elements, both for healing and aggression.  The imagined country, Ravka, which has a nice Russian tang about it (Bardugo’s editor christened it “tsarpunk”), schools the Grisha and enlists them as soldiers; in Fjerda to the north, the Grisha are hunted as witches; in Shu Han to the South (in effect, Bardugo’s China, sort of) they are experimented on medically.  One of Bardugo’s recurring themes is the danger of power: how do you use it if you have it, how do you escape its corruption, what do you do when your weapons fall into enemy hands? 

       In the first set of three books, the Shadow and Bone trilogy, Alina and Mal, two orphans, are sweethearts who can’t get past the borders of friendship.  Alina—and as it ironically turns out, Mal—both have the promise of table-turning power, and become cogs in Ravka’s court politics.  The country has been plagued for years by a dark zone that cuts them off from their ports, and become a garrison state.  We eventually meet the Darkling, the villain responsible for all this, with whom Alina does emotional and magical battle.  Like Moriarty and Voldemort, like all master villains really, the Darkling is just the tiniest bit of a bore, and there’s a fair amount of him (Conan Doyle had the sense to play the Moriarty card only once).  Shadow and Bone, her first work, has stretches of conventionality, but also a lot of ingenuity, sustained pace, an interesting and amusing supporting cast, and some charming repartee; no complaints.

       The next pair of novels (or duology—dreadful word), Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, is based in Kerch, a small and very rich island near Ravka—picture sort of the Netherlands but with disaster capitalism.  The books are set in Ketterdam, Kerch’s capitol, itself divided into a rich section and a malodorously lively slum called the Barrel, and inhabited by, among others, a small group of castoffs variously entangled by loyalty, self-interest, unrequited love and a variety of larcenous skills.  Its head is Kaz Brekker, undoubtedly Bardugo’s best character, whose scowling presence and whose long-term plans for vengeance on the man who caused the death of Brekker’s brother is the engine of the story.  This is also where Bardugo gets onto her best storytelling trick:  the central consciousness of the chapters shifts around, giving the tale a variety of viewpoints and a cinematic mobility.  As characters, Alina and Mal suffer somewhat from their constant nobility; Kaz Brekker and his gang—they’re called the Dregs—do not have this issue.  For my money the Six of Crows duology is best in show of the three.

      The final pair, King of Scars and Rule of Wolves, reintroduces Nikolai Lantsov, the heir to the Ravkan throne, and Zoya Nazyalensky, his Grisha right-hand wizardess, and is set back in Ravka as the border-country politics come to a boil.  Nikolai is a devoted king and a determined charmer—from his mouth comes some of the better conversational piffle since the days of Noel Coward and Lord Peter Wimsey.  Zoya’s powers and sense of responsibility have instead turned her into walking barbed wire.  A separate plot strand, set up in the icelands of Fjerda, follows Nina Zenik, who is a mix of guts and heartbreak and no hater of a good pile of waffles.  Nikolai works with several inconveniences: his rumored (and genuine) illegitimacy, and, in the second book—well, no spoilers, but it’s a whopper.  Everything goes politically and militarily to hell in various handbaskets and Bardugo shows considerable skill in balancing the ricocheting plot.  Towards the end she comes within an ace of shivering the whole thing to pieces—a death—and then pulls it all out of the hat, and gets her huge plot to a settling place.  All told it’s a nice piece of world-building (to use the current term) and a pretty satisfying read.  At the very end, too, there’s a promise—which I will hold her to—of bringing back Kaz Brekker.  My response: oh, goody.



The Shadow and Bone trilogy: Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, Ruin and Rising.

The Six of Crows duology: Six of Crows, Crooked Kingdom.

The King of Scars duology: King of Scars, Rule of Wolves.

      All from Square Fish Publishing.






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