Alina Starkov has never been anything special. An orphan among many orphans, and a fairly unattractive one at that, the only thing she’s ever really had going for her is her friendship with Mal, a fellow orphan who is the light to Alina’s dark. Alina and Mal are inhabitants of Ravka, a land inhabited by the normal and by the Grisha. The Grisha are those with the ability to manipulate the elements and are set apart from the general populace, led by the strange Darkling and coveted by the King. They are also at the heart of the Unsea, a Shadow Fold of darkness, inhabited by strange and terrifying birdlike beings, that separates Ravka from its own coast. Created by the long dead Black Heretic, the Unsea is stifling the land and with neighbours of varying friendliness the land is reaching boiling point. Come of age, Alina and Mal find themselves in the King’s Army, accompanying a faction of Grisha across the Unsea, when they are attacked by the birdlike Volcra. Despite having shown no Grisha tendencies in her childhood, Alina finds herself exhibiting a skill so rare as to put her in great danger – one that could save the whole country but which will, in all likelihood, move her out of Mal’s world forever.
The Gathering Dark carries a very plot that twists and turns its way through the pages, never becoming remotely predictable (well, not after the first few pages, anyway). The idea of a land divided is not a new one, but the Unsea is a fabulously original creation – not to mention a very frightening one. Again, while the idea of people being able to manipulate elements may have been seen before, the Grisha most certainly have not and The Darkling’s power is truly sinister, particularly when you see its full potential. The first in a series (of course), the book ends rather beautifully, resolving the initial storyline to an extent but leaving the protagonist in a position that is incredibly perilous, in danger from both outer and inner factors.
High fantasy is a tricky genre but when it works, it works and when working it’s largely due to the author’s ability to create a believable world, which in turn comes down to the writing at the heart of their story. The writing in The Gathering Dark is extremely accomplished. The prose is simple yet incredibly evocative with the lush world of the Grisha gorgeously contrasted with the poverty of Ravka and the desolation of the Shadow Fold. Leigh Bardugo also subtly asks readers to consider the fine line between duty, obligation, free will and slavery and the characters and factions in her story all inhabit the grey moral area that one might expect in a society such as Ravka – it’s all very clever. Additionally, the story is bookended by oddly fairytale-esque chapters which are quiet, beautiful and moving.
This review was brought to you by Splendibird who, for the record, really quite enjoyed The Wheel of Time. The Gathering Dark is available now.