Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Alina Starkov has never felt like she belonged. Orphaned and adopted by a duke, Alina meets an equally parentless boy named Mal. The two are inseparable, referred to by the duke's servants as melenchki, little ghosts, as they giggle throughout the vast house. Of course, such things cannot always stay the same.
Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo, is set in an alternate version of pre-revolution Russia. In this nation, known as Ravka, the new world is starting to infringe on the old. It used to be the Grisha who maintained order. The Grisha are powerful beings who can manipulate living things, the elements, and metals as if using magic. New weaponry and a multiple-front war are changing all of that though.
Even more pressing is the Unsea, a barren, dark wasteland that has split the country down the middle. Rumor is that a powerful Grisha created it centuries ago in a quest for absolute leadership, but all it has led to is misery and death as hideous winged demons called volcra ravage the land.
Alina and Mal are now young members of Ravka's army. Alina is an apprentice mapmaker and still feels like she is out of place. Mal, on the other hand, has found his calling as a master tracker. Along with these changes, Alina is afraid to reveal her true feelings to Mal.
When the army marches into the Unsea in an attempt to take it back, the blood-chilling volcra start their attack and Alina just barely saves Mal's life. The thing is, she cannot remember what happened. All witnesses swear that she did something magical, shooting beams of light from her hands and frightening the creatures. Alina is about to find out that she has powers that no other Grisha has had for a long, long time.
Alina must now train to better her skills. The most powerful Grisha, known as the Darkling, thinks that she could be the savior to the nation. This handsome and mysterious leader takes Alina to Ravka's capital. First, she will have to get used to palace life after years spent as an orphan peasant. Next, she must hone the powers she never knew she had, and learn to fight without them as well. But what of Mal? Is he all right after the volcra strike? Will Alina ever see him again?
Leigh Bardugo has written about a thoroughly complex world and culture that still remains accessible. Maps and a reference guide in the front help explain Ravka's geography and the order of the Grisha. A couple pieces of advice that you can either take or leave: reading the characters dialogue with a Russian accent helped my understanding of the novel a bit more. Also, I found that listening to Russian composer Tchaikovsky also helped to set the mood and heighten the story's drama, and just we happen to have a lot of his music in our collection.
The alternate history puts me in mind of Scott Westerfeld's take on World War I in the Leviathan trilogy, though I think I like this book more. Shadow and Bone is an exciting middle grade novel with twists, turns, and a great likelihood for a thrilling sequel!