I’m pretty sure I thought this book and The Book of Blood and Shadow were the same for a long time. Oops.
SO! There's a story, and it's not that one! Alina is an orphan and a soldier in the Border Wars army, along with her best friend Mal who, of course, never notices that she’s a girl with feeeeeeelings. Specifically, feelings for him. Men!
There’s this thing in their homeland called The Fold, and it’s basically a wide piece of hell full of darkness and scary harpy-like creatures that have been known on occasion – every occasion – to try to kill anything human that tries to cross it. Alina’s division tries this journey because the coast is on the other side and it’s not really clear why, but during the battle Mal gets hurt and Alina’s long-hidden power presents itself: she can push back the darkness, possibly eventually enough to destroy The Fold and reunite the country. Hurrah! But she is only a teenager and already behind in her studies of... magic stuff... because she's been busy kicking ass instead.
And then The Darkling, whose very TITLE screams BAD GUY but does anyone notice? NO, takes her to his little palace to help her learn how to use her power at something like a school for magic people, but since she’s the only one of her kind and he’s the only one of his kind, she falls for him a little right before Alina realizes that The Darkling is an anagram for King Lard (not really but it is) and runs away because he wants to control her. Seriously, MEN! Always trying to make the ladies put their lights under bushels!
Alina runs away and meets up with Mal in the woods, there’s a bit about a stag with magical antlers, and then the end happens which I won’t spoil for you because I’m nice.
The front of this book trumpets, “Unlike anything I’ve ever read.” – Veronica Roth, Author of Divergent. On the flip side, if goodreads is to be believed Bardugo did about .35 hours of research into Russian Naming Conventions and Onion Domes before basing her world squarely in Mother Russia + Magicland. Here’s the thing: if Ms. Roth hasn’t ever read anything remotely like this before, then she doesn’t read enough, although that seems to have worked out pretty well for her own writing since she's wicked popular and all (MORE ON THAT LATER...). A second thing is: goodreads people are ridiculous. It’s a fantasy world, and while it may be based on Slavic culture, it’s pretty much the prerogative of the author to change things as she sees fit. Regular WASPy people wouldn’t be throwing a fit if the author had co-opted some Traditionally Western Stuff for her setting, so if you’re either 1) basing your knowledge of Russian culture on a fantasy novel or 2) not smart enough to figure out that this is FICTION, then you have bigger problems and should probably read a nonfiction book or Wikipedia or something.
Anyway, this was interesting and the world was, for my money, very prettily realized and richly populated. I will pick up book 2 when the Internet starts jumping up and down about it, and I will hope for the best.