So for the sake of specifying the genre, this is a fantasy novel.
The world the main character Alina inhabits seems to be influenced by some sort of Eastern European traditions. The various names used throughout are "Ravka," "Kribirsk," and "Fjerda," to name a few. And in fact, on the acknowledgements page, the author credits several books about Russian folklore as influences in the creation of this book. So yeah, it sounds pretty Russian. I wonder, however, which themes were actually influenced by Russian folklore. Nothing in the novel screams Russian influence, other than the place names, of course. Something to think about.
Alina's country of Rvaka has been ravaged by wars since long before she was born, and she and her best friend Mal (a boy) were raised in the household of a philanthropic duke when their parents were killed in the fighting. Ostensibly ruled by a king, the real power in Rvaka lies in the hands of the Grisha, people born with magical powers. Tested as children for these innate abilities, neither she nor Mal exhibited anything worth noting, so they grow up and join the army instead.
The most frightening thing a person can do in this land of magic is to enter The Fold. It is a terrifying place of darkness where rich farmland has been made barren and where horrific creatures with giant teeth and leathery wings called volcra prey on anyone foolish enough to enter their realm. It is said that The Fold was created by an evil Grisha at some time in the past. No one really understands it.
The military unit Alina and Mal serve has been ordered to cross The Fold to deliver supplies to the other side. Unfortunately, Ravka is a land divided by The Fold, and the only way to reach the other side--other than traveling into the bordering countries it is at war with--is to cross The Fold. Soon after they enter the darkness, Alina's convoy is attacked, and it is when a volcra threatens the life of her beloved friend Mal that a sudden white light encompasses them all, killing the surrounding volcra and saving their lives.
As soon as the white light erupts, Alina passes out, little understanding what has happened. When she awakens, no one will tell her what happened and everyone looks at her with horror. It is when she is presented to the head Grisha--the Darkling himself--that she finally discovers the truth. She herself has created the white light. She is Grisha.
Torn away from the only person in the world that means anything to her, Alina is thrust into the opulent society of the Grisha and begins the training she needs to control her skill. But things do not go as well as she, or the Darkling, would like. There is a barrier preventing Alina from accessing her power, and until she discovers what it is, she is useless.
When the Darkling comes up with a shorcut that will enable Alina to use her power in spite of her inability to control it, she jumps on the chance. What she doesn't realize is that this shortcut will take her power out of her own hands and put it into those of someone who cannot be trusted.
Yay! What a fun novel! I really liked this one. Great fantasy, and some really imaginative conceits! Like I said at the beginning, I wonder how much of it was influenced by Russian myth. The scene that is absolutely the most awesome is at the beginning when Alina and her crew come under attack in The Fold. It is very Stephen King. It reminded me a lot of The Mist because of the inability of the people to see what is around them and the horrific creatures that inhabit their surroundings. It is a great scene. The only thing that makes it more disturbing is when we later learn what the volcra actually are. I'm not going to give it away, but it is truly inspired. The great thing though is how organically the novel comes together. Every surprise and twist that comes along seems to flow naturally from the storyline. Although unexpected, each of these twists and turns makes complete sense in the end.
Like fantasy? Put this on your must-read list.