Saturday, 13 August 2016

Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo

The Darkling has won a stunning victory, seizing control of Ravka and the Grisha. His agents now hunt the land for Alina Starkov and her band of rebels. But Alina has one chance to win back victory: she alone knows the location of the third amplifier, which will grant her the power to destroy the Shadow Fold and the Darkling both. But her growing power also threatens to overwhelm her morality and judgement. Saving Ravka may mean losing herself...

Ruin and Rising brings the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo to a close. This fantasy young adult series, riffing off YA and epic fantasy tropes and filtered through a Russian-inspired naming convention, has been engaging and energetic and this concluding volume continues along that path.

It continues the theme from the previous novel of Alina being torn between using her power to save her country and her friends, but worried that doing so will corrupt her absolutely. It's a powerful theme (if arguably overplayed in fantasy) but it's a little bit weakened here by the fact that it's clear Alina never would do anything so outright evil and the fact that defeating the Darkling is so important. Otherwise the book continues in a similar vein from the previous one, save that Alina and her friends are now on the run rather than working from the heart of Ravka's power.

The novel looses up a little and we have some stronger characterisation in the form of Alina's former arch-nemesis turned close associate Zoya, who has somehow convincingly become a friend and ally despite not really changing her character from a spoiled, overconfident aristocrat. This is a clever piece of character work that the author pulls off quite well. There's also more offbeat character tics, like the slightly demented Harsha (a fire Grisha who's a little too fond of fire) and his feline companion, Oncat. These add a bit more character and spark to proceedings.

There's also a nice twist where the spine of the novel, the search for the third amplifier, takes an abrupt turn that feels predictable in retrospect (it's well foreshadowed from earlier novels) but took me by surprise anyway. There's also the grand finale, which feels like it is riffing off the ending to a major late 1990s TV fantasy show, which I always thought was an excellent an unconventional way of ending a fantasy series about a Chosen One but hadn't seen replicated in literature until now. It certainly gives rise to a neat and suitable ending.

Some of the complaints about the series from the earlier novels remain in force. Sometimes things happen far too fast without proper appreciation for the consequences, travel time and distances are all over the place (Alina seems to allow her team maybe three days maximum to explore a whole, massive mountain range for a creature with no knowledge of its location) and the Russian influence seems to be limited solely to the names with little evocation of actual Russian history or culture: on that basis Peter Higgins's Wolfhound Century trilogy is altogether more successful in creating a faux-Russian atmosphere. Mal, although a bit more likable in this novel, also remains an unengaging and sometimes wooden protagonist.

But overall, Ruin and Rising (***½) is a fine and readable conclusion to what has been an entertaining and diverting trilogy, but it does feel like there is some unfulfilled potential here. It is available now in the UK and USA.

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