The capital has fallen. The Darkling rules Ravka from his shadow throne.
Now the nation’s fate rests with a broken Sun Summoner, a disgraced tracker, and the shattered remnants of a once-great magical army.
Deep in an ancient network of tunnels and caverns, a weakened Alina must submit to the dubious protection of the Apparat and the zealots who worship her as a Saint. Yet her plans lie elsewhere, with the hunt for the elusive firebird and the hope that an outlaw prince still survives.
Alina will have to forge new alliances and put aside old rivalries as she and Mal race to find the last of Morozova’s amplifiers. But as she begins to unravel the Darkling’s secrets, she reveals a past that will forever alter her understanding of the bond they share and the power she wields. The firebird is the one thing that stands between Ravka and destruction—and claiming it could cost Alina the very future she’s fighting for.
STOP. Don’t go scrolling through this review. Just stop. I know what you want to know. You want to know if this book was any good. Did it hold up to the precedents set by the previous two novels? Is it worth your time? Will it wow and thrill you? Will it make you cry into your kvas?
Your answers: Yes, yes, yes, HECK yes, and I don’t know since it depends on how easily you cry, so… maybe?
Those are the short answers. The long answer is that Leigh Bardugo knocked this frick-a-frack out of the park. Series enders are HARD, especially when there’s as much anticipation as there was for Ruin and Rising. I, for one, devoured the entire book in five hours, give or take, and then walked in a fogged book hangover for the next twenty-four hours.
And the REALLY, REALLY LONG answer is the following review. For anyone out there who is reading this review after finishing their copy, please come talk to me. I NEED TO TALK! For everyone else, I’m going to break down what I loved so much about Ruin and Rising, but don’t worry, this review is spoiler-free for R&R. As this is a series ender, there will necessarily be spoilers for the other books. (I also live-tweeted my spoiler-free reading experience here.)
Wow. Alina. ALINA STARKOV, ladies and gentlemen. The places Leigh Bardugo takes her main character in this book. Can we just stop for a moment and remember the Alina we first met in the opening chapter of Shadow and Bone? Our little Alina, so stubborn and mouthy even then, but also incredibly insecure and unsure of her place in the world. The transformation she has undergone through the course of the series just astounds me. She goes from being a girl who can barely climb a flight of stairs to the shining hope of Ravka. She started as a manipulated young thing, easily seduced by the Darkling and his silver tongue, to a bold and crafty leader who takes just as much as she is taken from.
She has changed so much. In every aspect, she’s changed. Her power? Not just blinding light and Cuts anymore. The things she can do are insane and yet make sense. (Go Team Science!) Her attitude? Alina is in for the long haul. While she still yearns for a quiet, peaceful life, she has her sights set on a more permanent, dangerous goal. Even her physical appearance has been forever altered, thanks to the closing events of Siege and Storm. We’re warned from the beginning that Alina isn’t the girl we first met. In the customary prologue, her form of address changes. It is no longer a story about “the boy” and “the girl.” Instead, it is the trials of “the Saint.” The places the author takes her in terms of power and mastery in this book… My mind, it was blown. She is a battle blade, tested and honed. Mal taught her perseverance, the Darkling taught her the power of fear and mastery, and Sturmhond taught her subtle trickery and the impact of a grand gesture. Every failure, every lesson, every scrap of advice and wisdom—good or bad or somewhere in the middle—has been coalescing inside of our precious Alina, and she uses them all to great effect in this book.
Best of all, despite everything I just said, the two things I love most about Alina haven’t changed. She is still able to laugh, and she never, ever gives up. Never once does she throw her hands in the air and choose to walk away. She considers it, but she doesn’t. Even when pushing forward means sacrificing the things she holds most dear, she chooses to continue for the sake of Ravka. Who she becomes by the end and what sense of self still remains is something I cannot say (spoilers), but I can promise that each step follows the last so that the end result feels inevitable and right.
Oh Mal. What can I say about Mal? Though I thought his character arc in the last book was logical, he lost some fans in Siege and Storm thanks to his churlish behavior. Happily, the author does not leave him to wallow in his misery. Like Alina, his growth isn’t over. He has a path he must take, a trajectory that keeps him hurtling toward one conclusion. (Which is not to say that Mal doesn’t hold surprises. One surprise in particular left me gaping, while another made me catch my breath.) But watching him continue to remold himself and adapt to his ever-changing life apart from his previous identity as a dutiful soldier and best friend was a genuine treat. Growing up is tough, and this story spares none of the pain, but, as with Alina, Mal’s end feels almost inevitable.
Talk about character growth. The things Leigh Bardugo can do with her villains, uff da. For the first time in the series, Alina and the Darkling battle as equals. They are titans clashing, painting the earth red and spreading destruction in their wake. It makes for a tense, sometimes heart-wrenching story as the Darkling becomes more and more desperate to reign supreme, but this newfound equality also allows us a different view of the Darkling. We were promised the Darkling’s true name, and we receive it, but we also are given so much more.
One of my favorite sayings is that the best antagonists think of themselves as the heroes of their own stories. The Darkling does horrible, unspeakable things in this series, and that trend does not change in Ruin and Rising. Back in Shadow and Bone, he tells Alina to make him her villain, and she does. However, as Alina grows in power, it becomes easier to understand what the Darkling is trying to achieve. His means are vicious and calculating, but the ends he’s trying to accomplish? Even as the Darkling earns his new title of Shadow King, we are reminded that he was, at one time, human. He was a son, a beloved child. And he is all alone on his shadow throne.
I don’t have to wax poetic on this guy. I love him. He’s back and as awesome as ever. Really, Sturmhond is amazing. He ends up being one of the funniest AND one of the most heartbreaking characters in the entire novel. I love all the many facets that make up our Sturmhond—his humor, his wit, his intelligence, his love of tinkering, his passion for Ravka, his respect for Alina, his love for his family. They’re all here in Ruin and Rising, but he’s also forced to grow and suffer right along with the other characters. Yes, he suffers. My BAAAAAAABY!
Heavens, the things Leigh Bardugo can do with secondary characters. These stories are so rich with life. I can’t even with these people. You will come to adore every last one of them, from old friends like David and Genya (my #1 ship in this series, by the way) to new allies like Harshaw and Misha. They all have their own character arcs with their own hopes and dreams and fears and traits entirely independent of Alina and her story. It’s fantastic. While I’ve been a David fan from the first book, I am now thoroughly, hopelessly charmed. Watching Genya come back to herself after Siege and Storm is heartbreaking and exhilarating. Tolya and Tamar remain fabulous. Baghra continues to be Baghra, and it’s a treat to watch her form connections with other characters even while raining abuse upon their heads. Nadia moves from tertiary to secondary character, and her wee brother Adrik comes into his own. Harshaw, a new character, goes from suspicious and annoying to one of my favorite side characters. And ZOYA. Remember Zoya, the raven-haired Grisha seductress? ZOYA. I think we may be BFFs now. (Not really, but sort of.)
They are Alina’s family. They bicker, joke, laugh, fight, and even betray, but they are bound together in a way no man or Grisha can sever. Their motives aren’t always pure, and their endings aren’t universally happy, but recognizing that our young orphans have gathered around themselves a true family unit is satisfying beyond measure.
Buckle up tight. This book manages to squeeze in a lot of events and twists into what felt like a very short time. The grip Ms. Bardugo has on her pacing is masterful. I was dreading the start of Ruin, because I feared oppression and desperation in the lair of the Apparat (whom I loathe, may he die a thousand deaths), but Ms. Bardugo never lets us linger in one place for long, either physically or emotionally. Alina and her small family crisscross the continent, from underground tunnels to mountain ranges to forests to the neverending dark of the Unsea. At the same time, while Ruin visits some incredibly dark and depressing moments, we’re never allowed to sink to an irretrievable depth. The amount of humor in this story blew me away. I laughed out loud on more than one occasion, more often than not mere pages before or after being emotionally shellshocked in some manner. Such rapid shifts are rarely done well, but Ms. Bardugo nails it every time, and in a manner that feels internally consistent with the other books.
Also, ANSWERS. What’s up with Saint Morozova? Answered. How did the amplifiers come to be? Answered. What’s Baghra’s history? Answered. What’s the Darkling’s name? Answered. What’s up with Mal’s crazy tracking talent? Answered. Is Nikolai really an illegitimate child? Answered. WHAT HAPPENS IF ONE GRISHA WEARS ALL THREE AMPLIFIERS? ANSWERED.
I almost didn’t add this part in, but I feel like I must. Ruin and Rising is a big book with big events and big themes. Alina is fighting to save the entire world, which is storyline enough to keep anyone occupied. But amidst it all, we are treated to some fantastic truths, some of which directly pertain to the struggle at hand and some that don’t. The truths are woven in, organically arriving in the course of the story rather than handed to us on a platter. There is a scene around page 157 that blew me away where [spoiler]Genya is brought before Nikolai to answer for the attempted murder of the king, and at that time, Nikolai learns of her treatment at the palace, including her relationship with the king. It’s a tense scene, but one that is handled so beautifully. As prince of Ravka, Nikolai could have easily sided with the king. He is, after all, king and can do whatever he wants. Too often, those with power are let off the hook as the attention turns to victim blaming. But here there is no question and no hesitation. Rape is rape, and though the king and queen try to protest otherwise, they are roundly overruled. Genya still has to answer for her own crimes, but in no way is the king pardoned or excused.[/spoiler] It’s a brilliant scene, one that could have been easily passed over for the sake of the larger story, but one that I’m thankful the author kept.
Ms. Bardugo plays with the nature of good and evil, of the hunger for power vs. the hunger for knowledge, of ends and means, of actions and intentions. In the end, there is no Us vs. Them. All sides trade in shades of right and wrong. Grisha and otkazat’sya, Darkling and Sun Summoner, noble and peasant, Ravkan and Shu and Fjerdan. Thisness and Thatness. We are not so different.
Like I’m going to tell you! I will say that I was content. I will say that Ms. Bardugo was less bloodthirsty than I had feared, and I yearn for some of the more shocking decisions that I had imagined. However, all the threads came together satisfyingly. I mourned for what was lost and held tight to the new threads that might be explored in the next series. I liked how the story ended and where it left us. But beyond that, you’ll just have to read the book for yourself.
Thank you, Leigh Bardugo, for such a wonderful adventure. Thank you for the friends we’ve made and the places we’ve traveled. I wish I could give you a review equal to what you’ve given us, but my talent falls short. So all I can say is thank you.
They wondered at her bruised and mysterious court: the raven-haired Squaller with her sharp tongue, the Ruined One with her black prayer shawl and hideous scars, the pale scholar who huddled away with his books and strange instruments. These were the sorry remnants of the Second Army—unfit company for a Saint.
Like the teachers at the Duke’s estate, the priest thought he knew the girl and what she was capable of. He was wrong. He did not hear their hidden language, did not understand the boy’s resolve. He did not see the moment the girl ceased to bear her weakness as a burden and began to wear it as a guise.
“I will return more powerful than before. You are my eyes. You are my fists. You are my swords.”
Yuyeh sesh. Despise your heart. Ni weh sesh. I have no heart.
“I’ve been busy. I might have some surprises in store for the Darkling yet.”
“Please tell me you plan to dress up as a volcra and jump out of a cake.”
“Well, now you’ve ruined the surprise.”
Na razrusha’ya. I am not ruined. E’ya razrushost. I am ruination.
“It’s a promise to be better than I was. It’s a vow that if I can’t be anything else to you, at least I can be a weapon in your hand. And I guess it’s a reminder that wanting and deserving aren’t the same thing.”
“Suffering is cheap as clay and twice as common. What matters is what each man makes of it.”
“You’ll still make a great king.”
“Of course I will,” he scoffed. “I’m melancholy, not daft.”
“I don’t want lies between us, Alina.”
“How many lies have you told me, Sturmhond? How many secrets have you kept until you were ready to share them?”
“If a mere prince gets a pass, so does a living saint.”
“Are you going to make a habit of winning arguments? It’s very unbecoming.”
“Was this an argument?”
“Obviously not. I don’t lose arguments.”
“Tell me, Alina, has he claimed you yet?”
“Claimed me? Like a peninsula?”
“If this stains my teeth orange—”
“It will, but I promise to put your teeth back whiter than they were before. I may even fix those weird incisors of yours.”
“There is nothing wrong with my teeth.”
“Not at all. You’re the prettiest walrus I know. I’m just amazed you haven’t sawed through your lower lip.”
Zoya and I gaped at him. Then she scowled. “You know, if you turned a bit of that poetry on me, I might consider giving you a change.”
“Who says I want one?”
“I want one!” called Harshaw.
Zoya blew a damp curl from her forehead. “Oncat as a better chance than you.”
Harshaw held the little tabby above him. “Why, Oncat,” he said. “You rogue.”
“We all die. Not everyone dies for a reason.”
Points Added For: Alina, Mal, Sturmhond, the Darkling, David, Genya, Zoya, Harshaw, Misha, Adrik, Tolya, Tamar, Baghra, loss and gain, fantastic world-building, being the anti-Twilight in terms of power dynamics, a satisfying ending.
Points Subtracted For: I actually wanted just a wee bit more devastation (despite being pretty devastated.)
Good For Fans Of: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson, clever characters, well-rounded and realistic secondary characters, science and magic.
Notes For Parents: Language, death, [spoiler]sex (spaces added so people can’t guess what this is by the size of the white space, haha!)[/spoiler].