***Note: This review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: a somewhat sagging middle-book of a trilogy, keeping us busy until the final installment, rather than Ms. Bardugo telling a story that she couldn't hold inside.
Leigh Bardugo has more cleverness in her pinky nail than most authors have in their whole bodies. Many things are wonderful in this novel: Sturmhond's witty banter, the whaling-ship scenes, the heartrender twins who treat Grisha powers like just another weapon in an otherwise human arsenal, the way a squaller can effortlessly lift David's grenade exactly where it needs to go, the orange flower that acts as snuff and chew and cannabis, all rolled into one, the flying ship. There are moments when Alina's snarky personality from Shadow & Bone shines through and she says something hilarious.
But there isn't enough plot in this book. Nor are the interpersonal relationships developed as much as we crave (other than truly fun, His-Girl-Friday, rapid-fire repartee between Alina and Sturmhond, which, though ridiculously amusing, doesn't add depth). A key character, Vasily, the heir to the throne of Ravka, is nothing more than a cutout, a caricature, a plot device, which is unfortunate. And Alina's growing darkness and hunger for power--which is intended to be the major change in her character in this installment--often manifests itself as dull brooding and repetitious internal monologuing.
What did we get in this book, for our investment? We got Alina becoming darker with the addition of the Sea Whip fetter, and her hunger for more power; we acquired the knowledge that a third amplifier exists, a firebird, which she's going to have to kill (note that she and Mal only pay lip service to the travesty of the deaths of these one-of-a-kind mythical creatures, more on that below); and we met Nikolai. But all the preparations to confront the Darkling went up, *poof*, with Vasily's arrogant mistake at Nikolai's birthday party. At that moment we discover that Vasily is the Jar Jar Binks of the interminable Imperial Senate scenes that we've sat through in this book. And all that governing bureaucracy we endured comes to naught after a sudden bloodbath, where Bardugo kills off most of the supporting characters. It feels like not enough plot content for 432 pages; I found myself wanting the book to be tighter.
Messages about beauty and power. I was disheartened in Shadow and Bone that using magic makes Alina more attractive. Even though Bardugo was careful to comment sort of negatively on it in that first book, the stronger fact remained for readers that the most beautiful characters (the Grisha) are the most powerful. And the more they use their powers, the more beautiful they become. In Book One, Alina went from plain to beautiful as she became more powerful. In Book Two she's plain in the beginning because she has not used her powers for a while. I think Bardugo wanted to say that it's almost as if Alina becomes sick or malnourished when she doesn't use her power--that using her power is like feeding her and making her healthy again. But the rules of the game she has created are what they are at this point (Grisha get stronger and more beautiful when they use their power), and they're still problematic for me.
In general I struggle with the message of physical beauty in young literature. As much as possible, I prefer it when beauty is left out entirely. Yes, it's an important issue for teens, but it's important for all the wrong reasons, and that makes me wish more authors removed it from the equation--that they created worlds in books where it's truly "the content of your character" that matters, and where players are deemed beautiful and desirable because of how they act. I don't mean authors should omit describing the features of a character, or what they look like, but unless an author is delving into the issue of the stereotypes of beauty in culture, I think it would be cool if they stopped talking with any hint of judgment about a character's beauty, or perfection, or hotness. By the same token, plainness or ugliness should become unlinked with "bad personality" (note that the Apparat has black gums, for instance). Alina's jealousy of Zoya's beauty, her fixation on Genya's beauty, and Nikolai/Sturmhond's habit of calling Alina "Lovely" as a proper noun are all examples of hidden, unwanted messages for teens.
Bardugo's writing is uneven. Occasionally it soars. But often it sounds like something from a Hollywood movie, or like she completed her 1,000 words for the day and then didn't comb through later to refine and remove cliches. Here are a few examples:
I shot him a sour look.
"More's the pity," he said, sauntering past.
He spun on his heel.
I straightened my spine and tried to steady my heart.
I glared at him in disbelief.
Sound descriptions are an area where Bardugo could slow down and think a little more lyrically: objects hit the deck with a "thump;" people let out exultant "shouts;" victims go "oof" when they receive a blow. The visuals are also often ordinary--light "glitters" off things...a lot (off water, and knives, and domes). In fact a search of the word "glitter" might not be a bad idea before her manuscripts go to the copyeditor.
Given that many other passages are beautiful, it seems likely to me that this is the frustrating effect of having to produce a series of books in a short amount of time. Keeping up with deadlines means you can't let the project marinate, which is what allows for lovely prose.
The bloat could have been trimmed.
There's a fair amount of repetition: Alina wonders too many times why the Apparat give her the little red book of Saints; she bemoans the fate of all those people "she" killed on the skiff and in the town of Novokribirsk, "just to save herself and Mal" (without any acknowledgment of her and Mal's critical importance as players in this war, and too little analysis of the fact that she was also trying to kill the Darkling on that skiff, which would have saved
people); we hear a dozen times that "like calls to like;" she turns over and over in her head the Darkling's warning that Mal is becoming afraid of her; she repeats poignant messages and training mantras that Bagra has given her. With smart readers, once is enough.
There is even unnecessary repetition of names in dialogue. There's so much "Mal!" and "Alina!" and people using each other's names in too many sentences: "Alina, you know you want me" "Don't leave me, Mal" (I just made those two up). Alina calls Mal's name so often, I was reminded of Rose in The Titanic, calling "Jack, Jack, Jack!" until I couldn't stand it anymore.
The punch. I don't find it humorous or endearing that Alina punches Sturmhond when she discovers he's really Prince Nikolai. That's another Hollywood trope that is so cliche we've stopped thinking about what it means (and how, in its old-fashioned-ness, it's actually highly sexist). Why should anyone be able to punch anyone, in anything but an act of self-defense?
Dragging plot. There were some moments that I felt I was waiting through, that contributed to the sense of spinning wheels in a middle book: Alina not telling Mal, over and over again, that the Darkling seemed to be visiting her (because she worried she was "crazy") is a prime example. I could see the hand of the author and it was distracting. It made no sense that she wouldn't trust Mal with this information, which is so vital. And it flies in the face of the close bond they've had since childhood. Moreover, they're plotting a war against the Darkling, and she sees visions of him in locations where, if he's real, he has the opportunity to learn their thoughts and strategies! She herself mentions a possible link--a channel--between the bite of the Volcra and seeing him. That's an important strategic question she should think it's imperative to have answered. In fact, so much of this book is written as "I wanted to say [or do] X, but I didn't." The trope where characters who care about each other hide information from each other should be used in moderation.
Other examples of "plot dragging" were unnecessary scenes like the fortune-telling party. It's much too long for the payoff, which is that later we know the Apparat used tunnels to gain access to Alina at the party--the tunnels that they escape in at the end-- and to add a not-so-satisfying "twist" that the twins are double agents. (This twist is sort of flat, because Alina's relationship with the twins doesn't change materially after discovering their mild betrayal.)
The lead-in to the climax wasn't written subtly enough. Mal says "Why didn't you tell me what you were planning?" regarding Alina's attempt on the Darkling's life. Alina replies that she wanted to free him, and to end things with the Darkling. But on close examination of the text, Alina seems to be actually giving in to the Darkling at first, and then realizing that she can take over his power after they embrace. The language leading up to Alina's agreement to capitulate needed more subtlety. We readers should be able to go back and re-read that passage and say, "Aha! Alina is agreeing, but her choice of words shows that she has something up her sleeve." But on a re-read, the language was unambiguous: Alina does in fact appear to be defeated, right up until she triumphantly says, "My power is yours. And your power is mine."
Why is she complicit with her sainthood in the end? Why does Alina allow the Apparat to use her in the end, and to propagate his plan to followers of having a Ravka "with no king, no tyrants" and "based on righteousness"? Does Bardugo really want Alina to seem complicit with the goal of theocracy? Are we meant to think she's too weak to disagree? Or is she allowing the image of sainthood because she wants more power? Why doesn't she tell the followers right then and there, "Stop calling me Sankta Alina or I'll have your tongues cut out," the way she forbade them from calling Genya "The Ruined"?
Mal and Alina. I disagree with Wendy Darling that "So many YA books revert to tired old machinations to separate love interests, but the tension and difficulty between these two feel urgent and real." For me, the tension seemed fabricated by Bardugo with an out-of-character lack of forthrightness on Alina's part, and a failure to confide in her friend and ally for unbelievable reasons. I found myself rolling my eyes, rather than feeling anxious. Also, can I just say the lack of sex between anyone in this book is a mite unbelievable? Bardugo jumps through hoops to keep Alina and Mal from sleeping together (the multi-bed room they share in the hostile before they're captured, for instance). It's fine to keep a book wholesome, but the combination of mooning without any sexual urgency in an otherwise gritty, political, adult confrontation-with-evil feels oddly puritanical. I want to at least sense that they want to have sex. (The only moment of real desire happens when the Darkling is pretending to be Mal, and lies on top of her in her bed.)
Killing mythical creatures. Alina showed a lot of remorse with the stag in Shadow and Bone, but I seem to recall there was something more that Bardugo was hinting at in that scene: Alina's mercy in granting the stag his life created a bond between them that conferred (or had the potential to confer) a different sort of power (and then the Darkling came in and summarily killed it). Did I imagine that bond? It has been a while since I read it. In any case, I was expecting the same dynamic here with the Sea Whip. It would have been nice if we could have seen with this second creature what alternative Alina missed, in terms of magic, by killing the stag. The Darkling was offstage, and mercy could have been an option (in terms of plotting), if Bardugo hadn't mortally wounded the whip (which I believe she did so that the audience would understand there was no alternative, and think of death as the only remaining mercy.) Also, does Bardugo mean to have Alina losing track of her merciful feelings in her hunger for the firebird? If so, she shouldn't toss in the relatively weak, offhanded afterthoughts, "I won't think about having to kill it until the time comes." If you're going dark, just go. Shock us that Alina has genuinely stopped caring. Otherwise we begin to feel that these aren't living animals, they're props in a story, and the tidbits of remorse are there purely so that we won't dislike the main characters.
In sum. This is a clever series, and a delight to consume. It's not a standout in terms of prose, but the writing is quite serviceable and the story highly entertaining. I agree with one reviewer who said that this was the rare literary case where she can imagine the movies being better than the books. Much of the viscosity of this second book will likely be heated up in order to flow better in the movies, I'm sure.