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Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone and the Appeal of the Fantasy Genre

Although it’s been on shelves for almost nine years, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo reclaimed the spotlight due to its constant presence on Booktok. Now, with the release of the Netflix show on April 23, the Grishaverse world is expanding to more people. I finally picked it up less than five days from the TV show launch to understand the hype and why the genre is gaining traction.

Just a note: I wrote this before the show’s release, and it has now been out for a week. While I absolutely love the show (more like I'm obsessed with it), I chose to only reference the book within this article. Some plots of the book will vary from the plot of the show.

The book series is classified as dark young adult fantasy, released at the height of the young adult dystopian and fantasy kick. Shadow and Bone was Bardugo’s debut—and the first in the Grisha trilogy—published by Macmillan. Despite the cliché young adult character tropes, the book is perfect for a magical escape into a dark, unique world.

The book follows orphaned teen Alina as she discovers magic deep within that could help destroy the Shadow Fold—a magical darkness filled with monsters that threatens to destroy Ravka, a land ruled by a monarchy. Once her magic appears, Alina is whisked away from her only friend and secret crush, Mal, to train with the Grisha, humans who can manipulate matter, known as the study of Small Science.

Throughout the novel, Alina struggles to understand her new Grisha power—the ability to control light as the only Sun Summoner. Under the watch of the Darkling, a powerful Shadow Summoner and the strongest Grisha in Ravka, Alina is trained to develop her abilities as the chosen Grisha to defeat the Fold. As she begins to understand her abilities and the secrets of the Grisha, she will have to make choices that could affect the entire kingdom.

Alina stumbles through her training and experiences crippling self-doubt. She questions, “Was I really going to be a Grisha? It didn’t seem possible.” Finally, a breakthrough moment where she realizes she can claim her powers. After that turning point, Alina begins to gain confidence. I have hope that Alina develops further, which could be a point of contention in the later books. Alina says, “I wasn’t sure I wanted to let [the power] go.” This intriguing line plays into the dark fantasy, helping Alina stand out from the tropes because there’s a potential for corruption and greed because of her powers.

There’s also the presence of the love triangle as most young adult fantasy novels rely on. Mal is the perfectly ordinary childhood best friend who “changed for the better. He’d gotten handsomer, braver, cockier” and doesn’t notice the girl in front of him until someone else has her. Then, there’s the Darkling. He has a “sharp, beautiful face, a shock of thick, black hair, and clear gray eyes that shimmered like quartz” and saves Alina from imminent death—because of course people want to kill her—and guides her through Grisha training.

When the first-person narration isn’t filled with the thoughts of love or insecurities, the incredible world-building takes over. The reader, alongside Alina, slowly learns about the world of the Grisha. While it may seem confusing at first since Alina doesn’t understand the Grisha world, the book begins to develop the magic well. Grisha are divided into three orders—Corporalki, Etherealki and Materialki—determined by the elements or matter they bend and then further classified by their specialty. The setting, Ravka, is inspired by Imperial Russia, with noticeable differences in classes, vain nobles, arrogant Grisha and poor peasants. There’s shimmering robes, or keftas, and magical amplifiers.

There will always be a market for good fantasy books, and that’s evident in the book’s continuous success after almost nine years. This is also probably why fantasy series are being scooped up by media to turn into movies or shows, such as The Selection and We Hunt the Flame. It also explains the popularity of shows like The Witcher and Fate: The Winx Saga, which are both getting a season two.

It’s also important to note that Netflix’s Shadow and Bone also brings to life other characters in Bardugo’s universe—specifically from her Six of Crows series, which doesn’t occur until two years after the final Shadow and Bone book. The show creates backstories for the popular Crows that coincide with events from Alina’s story, which is a unique take that I’m excited to see (note: LOVED when I watched it!). Obviously, creative liberties have been taken to heighten the fantastical elements and bring more characters to the screen. So, why are people so obsessed with fantasy?

Shadow and Bone is perfect for teen readers with its clean, straightforward writing and coming-of-age tale of self-discovery and love. Alina becomes a reflection of the person people hope to become—an ordinary girl who suddenly becomes special and sought-after. The cliché moments may be too much for some, but already knowing these helps readers understand the setting and Grisha world. The complex magic system can also draw in older fans who yearn for a gripping fantasy tale.

Fantasy may have unrealistic magical elements, but it can also be relatable. There are real lessons people can learn from fantasy. For example, Harry Potter teaches the importance of friendship. Shadow and Bone begins to explore the sacrifices one must make. Most importantly, it allows people to use their imagination.

Fantasy is often the best genre for readers to escape everyday life. Most children begin with hearing, reading, or watching fairy tales. These start with unique worlds and interesting characters who need to adapt and change. This foundation provides the basis for young adults to seek more of the stories they’re comfortable with and enjoy.

When these giant fantasy series become movies or shows, it allows more people into this magical world. If one considers the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 United States presidential election, resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to police brutality, January Capitol Riots and so many more events that have and still are occurring, people want to escape. Many need to escape, and that’s okay. Fantasy is here to help people do just that.

It’s only a wonder how the rest of the world will react to the Grishaverse on Netflix (because I absolutely love the show, but that’s not the point). The Shadow and Bone book (and the rest of the trilogy) has lived up to the hype, and I encourage people to explore other popular fantasy books—starting with Six of Crows of course!

Rebecca was the Campus Correspondent for Her Campus at Geneseo. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in English (Creative Writing) and Communication. Rebecca was also the Copy Editor for the student newspaper The Lamron, Co-Managing Editor of Gandy Dancer, a Career Peer Mentor in the Department of Career Development, a Reader for The Masters Review, and a member of OGX dance club on campus. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @Becca_Willie04!
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