The blurb says:
Sweeping, glorious fantasy romance about an orphan who must save her kingdom from the seductive and terrifying Darkling.
The Shadow Fold, a swathe of impenetrable darkness, crawling with monsters that feast on human flesh, is slowly destroying the once-great nation of Ravka.
Alina, a pale, lonely orphan, discovers a unique power that thrusts her into the lavish world of the kingdom's magical elite - the Grisha. Could she be the key to unravelling the dark fabric of the Shadow Fold and setting Ravka free?
The Darkling, a creature of seductive charm and terrifying power, leader of the Grisha. If Alina is to fulfil her destiny, she must discover how to unlock her gift and face up to her dangerous attraction to him.
But what of Mal, Alina's childhood best friend? As Alina contemplates her dazzling new future, why can't she ever quite forget him?
Glorious. Epic. Irresistible. Romance.
My verdict: Beautiful and satisfying fantasy for teens and up.
First, let me say that I might not have gone for this had I noticed that it was being billed as a romance above all else, but I'm really glad I did. Yes, there is a romance thread, but I would say that this gorgeous novel is much more about identity and finding yourself than it is about love. So if, like me, the romance being centred in the blurb makes you think again, I'd urge you to consider the book's many other fine qualities: fabulous world-building, complex characters, a twisty plot (which concludes in a satisfactory way even though it's the first in a trilogy).
Following a brief prelude (simply labelled 'before'), in which we see Alina and Mal as children, the story is related in the first person by Alina, ensuring we see everything from her perspective. Her status as an orphan, and therefore effectively an outsider, allows for a lot of explanation and description without it feeling like info-dump. Of course, the orphan of indeterminate origin with inexplicable gifts is also a great fantasy trope, which is used well here. I expect that Alina's curiosity about her background could take us into this territory in subsequent novels in the series. I certainly hope so, and am convinced enough of Leigh Bardugo's skill as a storyteller that I doubt very much she'd leave this angle unexploited.
The world created here is fascinating. I believe that it uses ideas and/or themes from Russian folktale, about which I know nothing, so to me it all feels very original and intriguing. The ideas of magic being a part of some people and not others, and of gifts being simultaneously revered, envied and limiting (for the gifted) are well-handled and thought-provoking. I also appreciated that Leigh Bardugo doesn't treat her reader like an idiot, or leave us confused. There are times in the novel that we are dropped into situations that are not fully explained up front, but enough detail is drip-fed through the story that it does make sense - again, without that annoying info-dump feeling. This is skilled fantasy writing.
There is a romance plot here, which develops throughout the novel. Although there are some familiar concepts from the world of YA, there is no hint of annoying insta-love and it all seems realistic to me. I feel that the romance angle is really all part of the identity theme, which is certainly appropriate for the YA age bracket.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed being lost in this world for a couple of days and would strongly recommend this to fantasy readers - teen and up.