Hello, readers! If you couldn’t tell from the title, today I’m going to be reviewing The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo. This review is going to be a bit different from past ones because 1. I’m reviewing the whole trilogy in one post and 2. Part of it will contain spoilers. I read this trilogy in the spam of a few days, and ever since finishing, I’ve been unable to forget about it. I need to let out all of my feelings about it, and that’s why there will be spoilers. But don’t worry; if you haven’t read any or all of the books, I’m going to start with a spoiler-free review of the entire trilogy. After, I’ll move into talking about specifics. With all that out of the way, let’s begin the spoiler-free section!
The Grisha Trilogy (spoiler-free)
Quick Synopsis (of Book #1): Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee. Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling. Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.
My Review: Just as the synopsis implies, the Grisha Trilogy is a high-fantasy story about a kingdom set in a world that we can assume is a take on Russia. That’s about all I knew going into the first book. Well, that and apparently there’s some character named the Darkling that everyone seems to be obsessed with. I’d always been intrigued by these books (odd since I’m usually turned off by hype), but I hadn’t read much YA fantasy (Middle Grade and Adult Fantasy? Yeah. YA? No.) so I was slightly hesitant. All I have to say is that I’m extremely glad all three books had already been released, because I don’t know how I would’ve waited otherwise. I flew through this trilogy. It was captivating, unique, addicting, and just fantastic.
I think there was something for every reader: action, politics, supernatural powers, magic, romance, royalty, mythology, the list goes on. Oh, and the Darkling character everyone loves? Turns out he’s the type of character that you hate that you like and route for. One part of you will be gushing at how handsome and mysterious and in-control he is. The other part of you will be like, um, he’s also kind of evil and manipulative and power-hungry. You’ll probably settle somewhere along the lines of, eh, he’s just misunderstood. But the Darkling, leader of the Grisha army, isn’t the only fantastic and complex character. Every single character in this trilogy is superbly written, whether good or bad or in between. I think there were only two characters I actually hated, but even so, they added to the plot. No character felt unnecessary or cheaply written or lacking in development. In fact, one of my new favorite characters of all time makes his first appearance in book two. Hint: He’s the Pirate, the Privateer, the “too-clever fox,” the probable bastard Prince, or simply, Nikolai. Yep. Forget the Darkling. I’ll take this one.
Alright, let’s move onto the plot. In this world, there is a very fine line between Grisha powers and actual magic. The Grisha don’t consider themselves magical because all of their powers come from already-existing elements. They call it the “Small Science.” Manipulating elements, not creating anything new. The Grisha are treated practically like royalty and even have their own “Little Palace” next to the actual palace where the King of Ravka lives, and everything about the Grisha just fascinated me so much. I love the concept of them having a Second Army, separate from the regular army, or First Army. The Grisha seem to be largely accepted members of society. Well, in Ravka, that is. So often in books, the people with the powers or differences are shunned or considered “bad,” but here the King trusts them enough to let the Darkling lead them on his own. The world-building and the mythology in general blew me away. I could see everything, from the Fold, to the palaces, to the small town where Alina and her best friend Mal grew up, so clearly in my mind.
Now, the writing. Oh, the writing. Leigh Bardugo is fantastic. That must be one of the main elements that made the books fly by. Sometimes fantasies, especially high-fantasies, can be difficult to get into because the writing is so intricate to match the intricate worlds. Leigh Bardugo’s writing was simpler, yet it stuck with me. There are lines that I can remember in my mind because I loved them so much. She paces better than almost any fantasy writer I’ve ever read. I never felt that the book moved slowly or dragged at any parts, which is saying a lot. I. Could. Not. Put. These. Books. Down. I read one a day because I couldn’t bare to let a sleep interrupt any of them. I was addicted. I still am. I can’t get these books out of my head. And maybe it’s the pace at which I read them, but when I finished I felt so terribly lost because I didn’t know what to read next. I didn’t want them to end. I almost wished I would have spread them out more, but I just couldn’t.
I only had two problems with the trilogy, which I’ll expand on more in the spoiler-y section. Those two things are the guy that Alina ended up with and the very ending of the third book. These two things weren’t huge enough to make me dislike the last book. I still gave it 5 stars. But something about it just left me a tiny bit sad. I can’t really say much else because of spoilers, but I would have liked to see Alina’s story end slightly differently (aside from who she ends up with).
I give each book 5 stars, and I’m sure you will see them on my end-of-year favorites list! I’m going to talk about spoilers now, but if you haven’t read the Grish Trilogy, I highly recommend you pick it up! There is so much in these books to make the read worth it. The moment I finished, I wanted to start them over again. That doesn’t happen to me often. Just do it. Read them. Please. If you’re not sticking around then have an awesome day, and keep reading and writing!
Alright, I know this post is getting long already. My non-spoiler review was supposed to be a mini one, but it appears I couldn’t shut up. However, I do still really need to discuss/rant about a few things throughout the books. This will probably be way too long, but if you make it through to the end, I applaud you. I’m mainly going to be talking about ships, plot twists, and the ending of Ruin and Rising, so let’s get started.
Ships. Okay. It’s impossible to talk about this trilogy without bringing up ships because, let’s face it, there were several options and possibilities for who Alina would end up with. First, we have Mal. The best friend since childhood. The one who Alina was always in love with but who never noticed her until much, much later. The ship that was painfully made to be endgame. I’ll cut to the chase; I don’t like Mal. At all. In any of the books. And I think most of the online community doesn’t either. In the first book he only notices Alina when she suddenly becomes a Grisha and is being seen in the Darkling’s company quite a lot. But oh, apparently he’s liked her all this time too. Yeah, sure, okay. The scene in Shadow and Bone where he calls Alina out for “being owned” by the Darkling infuriated me to no end. When Mal tells her “He’s all over you” after accusing her of wearing the Darkling’s colors and symbol made me want to slap him. Alina shouldn’t have had to defend herself when Mal was the one who never said a word about how he felt about Alina after all that time. What was it to him what Alina wanted with the Darkling? The entire trilogy he’s just whiny and jealous. My God, he’s so jealous. Any guy Alina talks to practically gets stabbed by Mal. But of course Alina is in love with him because of her childhood dream of being with him. Gross. It’s like the situation with Harry and Ginny except Mal is a piece of crap whereas Harry is perfect. Then, as the books progress, Mal clearly becomes weary of Alina’s powers which made me even angrier. He reminded me of Adam from Shatter Me (whom I hated) because Adam never seemed to appreciate Juliette’s abilities in the same way Mal doesn’t seem to appreciate Alina’s powers. In fact, he seems to despise them. And I thought that Alina, like Juliette, needed someone who would encourage her to learn to improve her powers, not hate that she has them to begin with once he sees what she’s capable of. UGH. The fact that they were endgame, when there were two other better options, made me so sad.
Yep, I said two better options. This trilogy didn’t just involve your typical love triangle. It had a love pentagon. Here, let’s take a look.
I can’t believe I just took the time to make this either. The obsession is real, guys. Okay, I put the good options on top and the sucky ones at the bottom. I already mentioned why I disliked Mal. But Vasily, Nikolai’s older brother, was no charmer either. First in line for the throne, of course he tries to court Alina because he wants her power next to him on the throne. Luckily, Vasily only makes one measly attempt at luring Alina in before his death (woah, did I not see that coming!!!). Now. Let’s get to the only men in this pentagon anyone actually cares about, shall we? Okay, okay, I’ll start with the Darkling since he’s a fan favorite. Not to make another Shatter Me reference, but while I was reading the first book, all I could think was that he must be the Warner character of this trilogy. All I’d ever heard about him was how beautiful yet dangerous and bad he was. I figured he would just start out bad but then, after explaining how misunderstood he is because of daddy issues, he’d be redeemed. I kept waiting. And waiting. And waiting. But as I mentioned before, I guess he wasn’t meant to have a turning point. He didn’t get a redemption, except maybe in Alina’s eyes before she kills him? Maybe? And yet, I still find him to be a better option than Mal because of how similar he and Alina were. Both outcasts because of their extreme power. Both extremely lonely. Both the only ones of their kind. Part of me really wanted Alina to give in to her darker side, give in to her thirst for power, and rule beside the Darkling. It would have been an interesting twist. But I knew it wouldn’t happen. But every time they would visit each other with their linked powers, I would hope. They understood each other. Even if the Darkling was evil, Alina couldn’t help herself from understanding him and from feeling the pull toward him. He, at least, would have let her hone her powers. Granted, he would have wanted her to use them for bad, he still would have encouraged her. There’s this one interaction between them that I really love in Ruin and Rising:
He leaned against the window, and the gilded frame came into sharp focus. “Do you think it would be different with your tracker beside you? With that Lantsov pup?”
“Yes,” I said simply.
“Because you would be the strong one?”
“Because they’re better men than you.”
“You might make me a better man.”
“And you might make me a monster.”
I knew that Alina wouldn’t end up with the Darkling for the sole reason that, even if she understands him, she never wants to turn out like him. And so he never gets his redemption. Though whether or not he actually died at the end remains a point of skepticism for me. Hmm…Either way, the Darkling is one of the most interesting characters I’ve read about in ages.
Annnnnd now. Drum roll, please, for my favorite character in the entire trilogy, Nikolai Lantsov! I’m not going to lie; I shipped Alina with Nikolai so much that it pained me at times. Especially because I knew they wouldn’t end up together. Except, I felt that there were several clues that made me think they stood a chance in the ship game. There’s the kiss he plants on her out of nowhere while he’s showcasing her to help his case as future king. There’s the ring he gave her (I had to read that scene like five times before forcing myself to move on). There’s his promise to propose to her after the war. There’s the whole “I won’t kiss you until you’re thinking of me and not him” bit, and then the “it was less a kiss and more like a promise of one.” That “promise of one” is what really gave me hope. There’s the meteor shower part aka my favorite Nikolai/Alina moment. Can we just take a moment? And of course, all of the parts where he trains Alina to be a leader, and his words and lessons were ingrained in her so much that she would quote him in their conversations, and Nikolai would say, “I love it when you quote me.”
Basically, Nikolai is everything I love in a character. He is a pirate, but he’s also a prince. He’s sarcastic and hilarious and vain, but he cares more about Ravka than anyone else in the books. He’s a natural leader and fair ruler. He’s emotional, but he knows how to be tough. He cares about fashion and his appearance, yet he builds flying ships and embraces his adventurous side. He’s the dearest friend Alina could have. He’s the perfect balance for her. He supports her, but also respects her wishes no matter what. When he’s not around, Alina is lost and finds herself wishing he was around to help. He’s the life and soul of this trilogy. And it kills me when he talks about knowing that his marriage one day will be a political one since Ravka is his first love. It kills me because he’s too good a character to have to settle for a political marriage. And then he says that even if his and Alina’s marriage would be for political reasons (to join the First and Second armies), he thinks they might still be “very happy together.” Ideally, at the end, Alina and Nikolai would be ruling Ravka, Mal would have stayed dead, the Darkling would be dead, and that would be that. But of course it isn’t. Still. I’m just happy that Nikolai gets his wish to rule as king at the very end. Even if he gets turned into a horrible creature monster thing for a time before that happens (I actually cried when that happened). This is one of my favorite passages from book three because it so encapsulates Nikolai:
“When rumors of the Darkling’s death had reached Kribirsk, the military camp had descended into chaos–and in strode Nikolai Lantsov. He installed himself in the royal quarters, began assembling First Army captains and Grisha commanders, and simply started giving orders. He’d mobilized all the remaining units of the army to secure the borders, sent messages to the coast to rally Sturmhond’s fleet, and had apparently managed it all on no sleep and two fractured ribs. No one else would have had the ability, let alone the nerve–certainly not a younger son and rumored bastard. But Nikolai had been training for this his entire life, and I knew he had a gift for the impossible.”
I was basically like, “Yes! You go, Nikolai! You show Ravka the king you can be! Look at you putting the kingdom back together. I’m so proud.” You think I’m joking, but I’m not.
Okay, now let’s move right along to the plot twists. The first major twist I remember freaking out about was when Baghra revealed that the Darkling is actually also the Black Heretic. It was the same Darkling all those years?? Um…wow. Okay then. He created the Fold? Well damn. And speaking of Baghra…she’s the Darkling’s mother? I so did NOT see that one coming, but thinking back I feel like it was maybe obvious? Or maybe not obvious, but definitely a possibility. Then there’s the part about there being more than one amplifier. I swear, these books were plot twist after plot twist, and the single thing I predicted was that Sturmhond ended up being one of the Princes. But I only guessed that in the short amount of time after he reveals his true face and before he tells the guards his titles. Not while they were still on the ship. Probably the biggest plot twist in the trilogy for me was finding out that Mal was the third amplifier and also the backstory with that. I was so confused as to why they couldn’t kill the firebird, and I continued to be confused up until the moment someone actually said explicitly that Mal was the amplifier. At that point, I was like, does that mean Mal is a goner? Not to be rude, but I sort of hoped. Get him out of the way so Alina could rule with Nikolai, am I rite? Yeah, that certainly didn’t happen. Which brings us to the very end of Ruin and Rising.
I couldn’t believe my eyes as I read the part where Alina “killed” Mal. I had a feeling he would be brought back somehow, but I hoped he wouldn’t. And the fact that he does get brought back seemed kind of…meh. Alright, time for me to be serious for a sec. It has nothing to do with me not liking him and everything to do with how his death would have made the story better. It would have been Mal’s last way of protecting Alina. It would have been agonizing for her for a bit, but she would move on, and she would learn to be an amazing ruler. And I swear this has nothing to do with Nikolai. I just don’t like when authors do the whole fake death thing. If you’re going to have them sacrifice themselves, make it an actual sacrifice. Not something they can just jump back up from. Then, to top it all off, Alina loses her powers??!! Fakes her martyrdom??? Hides away with Mal??? Talk about bringing herself back to where she started. Sheesh. This ending made it seem like everything she did to harness her powers was for nothing because she turns back into the powerless girl hiding away with Mal. Full circle? Nah, more like going backwards. It’s like her and Mal could only be together if Alina lost the powers because it would make them equal again. Well, guess what? If Mal couldn’t accept her with her powers, then he could get lost, frankly. Alina’s powers were part of who she was. The only parts that saved the end was seeing Nikolai step up as king, the orphanage, and the possibility that the Darkling once again faked his own death.
I knew the Darkling was going to die, but deep down I hoped he’d live and eventually gain his redemption. Though, as I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m still not convinced that he really did die. At any rate, the openness does leave room for Bardugo to return to that character and world if she ever wanted to. Also related to the Darkling’s death, it actually made me quite sad because I felt bad for him. Sure, he’s pretty much evil, but he was so alone with nobody except Alina to understand where his thirst for power came from. And even though she understood, she still stabbed him without hesitation. Who knows. Maybe she could’ve made him a better man. He’s just such a tragically complex character. When he first gets stabbed, looks at Alina, and says, “Like this?” I found myself quite emotional. And I remained emotional as he asked Alina to be his sole mourner and she actually agrees because, again, they have that understanding of each other. Finally, when he asks her to speak his true name one last time and then says, “Don’t let me be alone,” I may have shed a tear or two. I guess that phrase “You either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” held true for him. His lifespan was too long, and he was too lonely, and I guess his fate as the villain was inevitable. But I couldn’t help but think of how he was just an ordinary boy burdened by eternity. Isn’t that exactly what Baghra says? Or Alina? Someone says that, and it could not be more true. The Darkling was an amazing character.
Alrighty! I guess that finally wraps up this long review. I hope you enjoyed any of these discussion points. If you have any comments to make, please do leave them because I’d love to continue the conversation below! As I’ve mentioned, I’m very much obsessed with this trilogy, the characters, and this world! So much so that I’ve started reading Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. I should have a review of that once I’m finished, so look out for that!
Until next time, keep reading and writing! – Veronica