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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein
Kiersten White

Ruin and Rising

Ruin and Rising - Leigh Bardugo

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: in tying up loose ends, keeping up a consistent level of writing, and seamlessly weaving fun banter with meaningful dialogue, this book is an accomplishment to be celebrated; but as with the first two books in Leigh Bardugo's series, there is too much cinematic writing (visual tropes, cliched dialogue), repetitive internal monologuing, a touch of poor pacing, and some missed opportunities at fleshing out what promised to be fascinating characters.


All the readers' questions are answered. To a great extent. Technically. We know Baghra's story, we know the Darkling's birth name, we know how and why the amplifiers were created. We even learn the answer to some questions we might not have known we had (but on second thought, of course we want to know), like why Mal is such a good tracker, even though he's Otkazat'sya, and who Prince Nikolai's dad was. But what you won't know is perhaps more important: what has being "alone" for centuries done to Aleksander? Is it really impossible to be a good, eternal being? Why didn't he find any emotional comfort in the long life of his mother? How can someone as power hungry as Alina consistently is in this series give all that up for a quiet country existence? What explains that change? Yes, some answers to these questions are told to us, but we don't feel them in our core. (For example, Alina and Mal each have sullen moments at the old Keramsov estate in the end, occasionally mourning the loss of their powers, but we hear this in a few sentences. Other than Mal wishing Alina's powers away earlier in the series, nothing has caused us to believe this is the outcome either of them would have chosen, for themselves and for the other.) I would have liked to have seen more discussion about some smaller issues, too, like the way Grisha seem to have multiple talents, not just one--and to have seen Nikolai acknowledge and embrace this new information.


How does that work? Why does simply killing the third amplifier, without wearing it, confer power to Alina? Maybe I don't recall the immediate results to her magic after the stag and the sea whip were killed--maybe she acquired their power instantly, and the antlers and scales were just a physical tie to that power, allowing her continued access to it. But I found myself wondering, "Couldn't Mal amputate a hand and make a bracelet of the bones?" "Couldn't he just hold onto her wrist to amplify her power somewhat?" 


I also wasn't quite clear on how exactly Morozova created the amplifiers--he seemed to find living creatures that he infused with power, rather than create them from scratch. This question has a bearing on how Baghra's sister came to be the third amplifier instead of the firebird. Morotzova left a written trail leading to a firebird, which I think means he hadn't successfully found that creature before he was forced to divert the magic into his daughter. 


Mal's death. There was a little hand-waving here. Mal was descended from Baghra's sister's line (Baghra had assumed that her sister drowned in the river). He somehow had two lives inside of him: the one that was supposed to belong to the firebird and the one that belonged to his mortal self. But why wouldn't both lives be intertwined in the one beating (and mortally stabbed) heart? Does this mean the stag and the sea whip could have been revived after giving Alina their amplifier powers? I'm also not sure about the choice of killing a main character--particularly the one who might be responsible for a "happily ever after"--and then reviving him. As readers, we were prepared for the possibility that Mal would have to be sacrificed. It feels a little contrived that we experience the fear that we anticipated, but then have it all "made better."


You don't have to be Team Darkling to feel disappointed. I never really thought a relationship was necessary between Alina and the Darkling, but I did think the Darkling was complicated and interesting enough not to be summarily dismissed with a Disney Bad-Guy death. If Alina's powers can be sucked out of her, and Mal can lose his tracking ability, why not make the literary choice of draining the magic out of the Darkling instead? How much more fascinating would his response be to losing to Alina if his fate was to be "ordinary" and mortal? (At the very least, give him the Darth Vader end: "Tell the Grisha you were riiiiight.") And while I'm on this track, how much more interesting would Alina's choice have been to either assume a role of authority with her power, or to ignore her power and try to live an ordinary life with Mal? Wouldn't she be making the real choice for Mal if she had such possibilities in front of her? And why fake her death? Why shouldn't she stand tall and thoroughly disarm the Sankta Alina myth? Do we really believe that "the masses are better off" if we let them believe in their little miracles? Is that patriarchal message a sign of a healthy government? Why shouldn't Alina put her vocal, visible backing behind Nikolai, to help him start his reign? She's responsible for what she has created; should she take responsibility, including controlling a giant new group of Sun Summoners. (Are we supposed to believe that they'll all be uniformly ethical?) 


Pacing. There's a problem with ending a second book in a series with our heroine in trouble: you're forced to spend the beginning of the third book explaining how she got out of that trouble. This section presents a slow start, because it's not really pertinent to the real action of the rest of the story. Alina is oppressed inside; she's kept out of contact with Mal; she's weak; the Apparat both worships her and confines her; zzzzz; and then we have the breakout, which goes pretty flawlessly, including the Apparat agreeing to all her terms. (A larger complaint about the whole series might be that it really could have been condensed into two books instead of dragged into three: Shadow and Bone, and Ruin and Rising.)


Internal monologuing. We never escape this, because we're always in Alina's head, and Alina is a frustrating re-hasher. She's constantly giving us information we already know--not just magical principles ("like calls to like"), but also everything that has happened to her, and what people have said to her. "[So and so's] words came back to me" is one of her favorite phrases. Perhaps Ms. Bardugo hopes that this will keep us informed in a high-fantasy setting, but the effect is instead to slow the narrative down and add to the pacing issues listed above.


Movie dialogue and tropes. When there's witty banter between characters, Ms. Bardugo can't be beat. But sometimes her dialogue is straight out of a pedestrian screenplay: "Fight me! Let's end this! Now!" Alina shouts at The Darkling. There's also a lot of time for Alina to reflect, when she really should be under attack. When she jumps off the skiff into the darkness and kills Mal, Tolya and Tamar spend a long time trying to revive him, with Alina fretting on the side. Where are the Darkling's forces? There are a few scenes like this, where we get treated to Alina's thoughts and personal observations rather than the action, and the enemy stands at bay waiting for her to finish her internal soliloquy. There are also many repeated phrases: there should be another way to describe the feeling Alina gets when Mal holds her wrist other than "jolt;" darkness can come in forms other than "skeins."


Secondary characters. Ms. Bardugo is top notch at inventing clever characters. In this book she spends time fleshing out Genya and David's relationship, which is nice. She adds Harshaw, but the effect was more of adding a Red Shirt--a guy we could care just enough for that we'd be sorry he was dead, but not so much that we'd miss him. His cat, Oncat, was almost a red herring. I was prepared at any moment for Oncat to be a spy of some sort. But no, in the end the tabby was there to "flesh out" Harshaw, in a classic "save the cat" screenwriting trick. (Except in this case it was "talk to the cat like you're nuts and the audience will love you.")


In sum. This review sounds harsh, but it's not meant to be. This is an intriguing series, and it's a triumph for a new writer to complete it with panache. The Grisha Trilogy has a great premise, interesting, strong characters, and a wonderful flavor all its own. In some respects, it's the good things about it that make Ruin and Rising a slight letdown. How much more interesting would it have been if it had ended in a riskier way? How much more of a classic would it have become if Ms. Bardugo had been allowed to hone the prose? She needed to be given time and editorial input to polish away pacing issues and repetition. But even so, this is a solid addition to the fantasy universe.