I liked Shadow and Bone enough that I wanted to wait for the third book to come out so I could read the second and third book one after the other. This was one of the smartest things I could have done. I know that had I read Siege and Storm immediately after it released I would have been immeasurably miserable. As it was, I loved Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising. They were thoroughly entertaining with more than a healthy dose of nail-biting suspense.
When I started reading Siege and Storm, there was a bit of disconnect because I had read the first book quite a long time ago, so it took me sometime before I got completely immersed in the book. But that wasn’t hard. Book 2 starts with this almost false sense of safety for Alina and Mal. I suppose it wasn’t much of a surprise when they were soon caught by the Darkling and were back under his thumb (or so it seemed)
Very often, the second book in a trilogy often only works towards setting up the final book and the big battle and in a lot of ways Siege was that, but it was also a whole lot more. There were new (and fascinating) characters plus some old ones that I was happy to see return. The last two books are actually best read back to back because they are so close, in terms of the events that take place and they work exceptionally well in building up the tension (I was having heart palpitations close to the end)
Siege and Storm was all about Alina and Mal trying to get away from Darkling and perhaps find allies of their own. They accomplished both tasks with the help of the privateer Sturmhond and his crew. Of course, we later find out that Sturmhond is none other than Prince Nickolai (the younger son of the Ravkan King) In the beginning it seems that he’s the latest person getting in line to possibly use Alina for his own personal agenda and forward his ambitions. And while that may be the case, Nickolai is not like the Darkling and nor is he like the Apparat who don’t care about Alina at all, only her power. They head back to the Ravkan capital and Alina, with Nickolai’s help, finds herself leading the Second Army (though with some opposition) and they begin to ready themselves to attack the Darkling and bring him down. Obviously things don’t go as planned and all their plans are foiled and they must retreat and regroup. And that is how Alina finds herself in the clutches of the Apparat.
The beginning of Ruin and Rising is about Alina trying to get away from Apparat and free the Grisha who are also stuck there. After getting out of there, Alina and her crew (including Genya, who the Darkling severely punished for letting Alina in Siege) go on a hunt for the third Amplifier: the Firebird. Most of Ruin is about the hunt for the Firebird while once again plotting to bring down the Darkling. The part of the hunt could have easily gotten tedious and dull but it didn’t because as the reader, you just could not afford to get complacent. Just when things seemed to get settled, something horrible would happen and you were once again worried about whether the characters you care about, will survive or not.
Siege and Ruin were truly intense and so well written that it was painful for me to put away the books for even a little while and I found myself getting anxious and irritated when I did have to stop reading. Bardugo built tension so well that, especially towards the latter half of Ruin, I was literally feeling as jittery as the characters in the book. I wanted to skip forward while also at the same time, try to keep myself from peeking. It was a herculean task, and so tempting, but somehow I managed to keep myself in check.
The strength of the books lies in the masterful world building and the amazing characters. The world Bardugo created only got more real and rich as the books progressed with it’s different and varied landscapes (my personal favourite were the Cera Hua) They were so beautifully described and with such detail that they felt very real.
The characters in this series were absolutely amazing from Alina to Baghra. They were beautifully realised and like real people they were continually shaped by the curve-balls life threw at them. There were characters we met last in the first book and they changed radically through the course of the series (I probably would have appreciated these changes more if I had reread Shadow and Bone recently)
Alina was interesting as the protagonist because she wasn’t like most typical YA heroines. She was stubborn to a fault, she was ambitious, and there was a part of her that wanted the power the Darkling offered to her. There was a good amount of greed for power. But through all of this, she wanted to make the right decisions. She didn’t want to lose herself to the Darkling and yet there was a connection between them that even Mal couldn’t come between.
Mal wasn’t my favourite character in the series. He went through the whole, “I am as ass and I shall behave like one for good measure” phase and he did treat Alina unfairly for a while. But he also redeemed himself to an extent by the end of the series. Also, he saw that he had been an ass and didn’t make excuses for himself or his behaviour, which earned him a few brownie points.
There was another problem I had with these two. For two people who are very much in love, there was an awful lot they didn’t tell each other. Alina didn’t tell him when the Darkling started visiting her in Siege and Mal, well, he was feeling unimportant because he had nothing to do, so he was taking out that frustration on Alina.
The other saving grace of the series are the wonderful secondary characters. I probably would have had a tougher time if one of the secondary characters died as opposed to Alina or Mal. I loved Genya in the first book and I was happy to see more of her and have her join Alina. Tamar and Tolya were amazing, even though there was a part in the middle when their loyalty was suspect, I was glad when they came through. Nadia also blossomed from someone who meekly followed Sergei and Marie to someone who made her own choices. Nickolai certainly grew on me, easily becoming one of my favourite characters. His easy and effortless wit and charm were impossible to resist. I was happy to see Baghra as well, and her tough love for Alina (and pretty much everyone around) Besides, I loved her attitude (for some reason she reminds me of Pam from True Blood, (the TV show, not the books)
I liked even Zoya and Hershaw (and his tabby Oncat) What was great about these characters was that nearly none of them had been completely honest about their agendas for aiding Alina and yet they slowly became friends, loyal and steadfast to the end.
Now for the last and most certainly not least, The Darkling was by far my favourite character in the series. He is one of the best villains I have come across. He was so layered, where he genuinely wanted to make the world a better place for the Grisha, but his near insatiable hunger for power perverted that desire. That desire still exists but it is buried deep. And all that loneliness… Being alive for all those years and yet he had no one he could truly trust, or rather, he was unable to due to his own ego. And yet Bardugo didn’t whitewash his crimes (and there are so many) and he was cruel and manipulative. But I couldn’t help but wonder, that had he been honest with Alina from the very beginning, could things have played out differently? I would love to read something from his point of view, maybe bits of his point of view scattered across the three books. What I wouldn’t give to read that! Here’s hoping Leigh Bardugo is reading this… As a character, the Darkling was infinitely more interesting and intriguing than pretty much any other character in the series (I would also perhaps, like to read more about Genya)
Now, we come to the ending and for the most part it was satisfying but I felt that the “happy ending” somehow didn’t fit well with this series and it’s overall tone. Perhaps Alina ruling Ravka alongside Nickolai would have been a better fit. But this isn’t even much of a criticism, it’s just me nit-picking. But this is one of the few series where I have almost no complaints, my only one remains that compared to Nickolai, not to mention The Darkling, Mal seems to pale in comparison. He isn’t nearly as compelling and intriguing as them. But this series is very highly recommended to anyone who likes great story-telling… actually I can’t think of many reasons why someone might not enjoy this series. It is fast-paced and action packed with plenty of character development and world building. Seriously awesome!