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Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo

Why I picked it up: I read the first two books in this YA trilogy (Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm) last year, and I liked the world building. The magical system is unique, and there are a lot of really fun secondary characters. I was anxious to see how Bardugo was going to wrap it up. All in all, it was a satisfying conclusion.
Goodreads Star Rating: 4/5

As I said above, I was completely satisfied with how everything shook out in the end. Though I felt like the pacing was a bit off, in hindsight Alina and her group’s escape from the Apparat and the search for the firebird were quite important in terms of Things Alina Needed to Figure Out. (She needed to learn how not to be used by people in power and that the Firebird wasn’t the third amplifier.)

I continued to really like Nikolai, and his time as a creature touched by the Darkling’s power was really interesting. I didn’t see that coming, and I think that the fact that he managed to keep parts of himself even as that was happening speaks to a whole lot of inner strength and self-possession. He’s going to be a decent King, I have a feeling.

I had suspected the thing about Mal somehow being another amplifier (though I had no idea he was going to take the Firebird’s place…), so it was nice to be right. I think Mal and Alina’s reaction to that, and the question of what she’ll do to get access to power, even if it is power she thinks she needs to defeat the Darkling, was well done.

The relationship between Morozova, the Darkling, and Mal was another thing I didn’t see coming. I liked how the mystery was revealed slowly – we find out who The Darkling really is in the first book, then who his mother is, and then finally how all of them are connected to the man who figured out amplifiers in the first place, and to Mal… I also was really intrigued by the idea of the power being passed down in Morozova’s “normal” daughter’s descendants’ bones. (Now there’s a story I’d like to read… that’s one of the things that I really liked about this series. There’s a lot of potential for exploration and there are other unexplored corners to be poked around in.)

I was a bit worried when I was within fifty pages of the end and Alina was just going to confront the Darkling and save the students she had stashed away at the orphanage, I was worried it was going to feel rushed, but it didn’t. (And I love that he didn’t actually bring the kids into the Fold… he just told her he had because he knew she’d believe it. Doesn’t make him Man of the Year, but tells you where his priorities are.) In the end, I like that Alina had to come to that moment of truth make her choice, make her sacrifice, but that Mal didn’t have to pay for an accident of birth with his life. (I also really liked that the two of them grappled with “were we friends because of destiny or because of US,” and the answer they arrived at was, “Nope, it was US.”)

Anyway, it was a nice ending to a fun little series.

Now, let’s talk about SHIPPING. Because I read these in isolation, without a community of readers, I was surprised to find that there are some REALLY passionate shipping opinions about this book, as well as a lot of gorgeous graphics that will be showing up on my tumblr soon.

Full disclosure: I don’t really ship anything strongly in this series. I thought that Alina and the Darkling were right up my alley for about fifty pages in the first book, but after the reveal of who he really was, I couldn’t wish that on her any more. She and Mal were sweet, but not something I was rabidly pulling for, and I wanted dear, resourceful Nikolai to end up with a girl who was wild about him, so Alina/Nikolai was right out.

That being said… this book confused the heck out of me when it came to shipping because the thing that I SHOULD want, based on previous pairings I’ve loved, lost me quite early. And that pairing (Alina and the Darkling) is one that a lot of other reviewers are FURIOUS about because it wasn’t end game.

This is why I find myself in an odd position as I read other reviews of this book. Because I love bad boys. Some of my very favorite characters are bad, or at the least morally ambiguous characters. I’m a Guy/Marian shipper in the Robin Hood BBC fandom. I wept for days when Guy killed her, and they are still on my list of top five OTPs of all time. I love Jaime Lannister from ASoIaF. I know. He pushed a kid out a window once. He had his reasons. He sleeps with his sister and is kind of a horrible mess on the inside. But he is witty and funny and a broken idealist on the inside, too, and I love him to pieces and flail about him on tumblr a lot. I also love Theon, my sad excuse for a lonely failed Kraken Prince. I was on the Buffy/Spike side of the great B/S vs. B/A shipwar in BtVS because… SPIKE. More recently, I prefer Damon/Elena to Stefan/Elena by miles and miles.

So, when I say I’m usually on the Team Bad Boy when it comes to male characters in general and love triangles specifically… I have some pretty hefty credentials.

So it feels very strange to be reading all of the reviews throwing fits over the Darkling’s end in this novel, and all I can summon up (hahaha Summon… didn’t mean to do that, but it’s funny…) is a moment of melancholy, reverential silence before I go back to feeling WARM AND FUZZY inside over the very solidly Alina/Mal ending. (For those of you who know me from Robin Hood, this would be like Robin and Marian getting a truly happy ending, and me going, “Awww….” Instead of grumbling in a corner about Guy/Marian.) It’s enough to make me scratch my head and ask, “WHAT is happening to me?”

Because I thought the Darkling was a great character. Dark and complicated and terribly sad… but did I want him to end up with Alina? Maybe for a while when I read the first book, but as the series went on, my answer became an emphatic NO. All of that “I need you to balance me out and maybe that will keep me from doing awful things” read to me not as romantic, but as something Alina was right to RUN in the other direction from. She didn’t need that kind of responsibility, and though I think his desire to have someone redeem him was sincere… are we going to forget about what he’s done? He’s a practically immortal Summoner who is responsible for thousands, if not several million deaths. And this is coming from someone who TOTALLY SHIPS a “she’s going to redeem me if I can just get her to love me” pairing like it’s her job. Just… the scale of what The Darkling did is too large for my normal, “Oh, but maybe he can come back from that…” reaction to kick into gear. I think that the moment that Alina realized that his darkness and his pain were bottomless, and he was just going to keep falling into them forever was a moment of wisdom. It wasn’t her responsibility to fix him, and what she did was mercy. The Darkling knew at the end that the Fold was disappearing, he knew she’d managed to bring it down, if not in the way either of them expected (And I fully believe he wanted the Fold to come down for the good of the country, just like she did…), and even if he’d lived, do you think that an entire ARMY of Sun Summoners wouldn’t have been able to bring him down and make him stand trial? I think they would have managed it easily, and Alina spared him that.

And I thought that Alina’s reaction to the Darkling’s death and finding out his real name and insisting on his body being burned next to her decoy’s was bittersweet and fitting. She remembers him in a way no one else does any more – as a lonely boy who was set apart by his power and didn’t know how to handle it.

I didn’t always love Mal, but after what he did for Alina? After he was willing to die so that she could come into her power and save all of them? After he grew into a person who was a good leader and willing to give her up because he thinks she is destined to be more… I was convinced he was a keeper.

And darn it, I liked the sweetness of the Alina/Mal ending. And for all of the people who are upset that she was left without her power… I think they’re missing a rather major point that the series is making. Alina doesn’t need power in order to do extraordinary things. She never wanted to rule. Wishing that on her is rather out of character. The divide between Grisha and “normal” people is a PROBLEM, one that Alina desperately want to FIX… and so to say that she is somehow less because she lost her power (a power that frightened her as much as it exhilarated her, a power that would have made her outlive all the people she loved and might have turned her into someone just as bitter as The Darkling given a few centuries…) seems to be wishing something on her she is happier without. And I don’t see it as “giving up her power,” I see it as “empowering a whole bunch of “normal” people to save Ravka and heal the Fold. In fact, I LOVED that it wasn’t JUST Alina who fixed the Unsea. It was ordinary people, suddenly given the power of Sun Summoning, working together to fix what ONE man did. Honestly, it reminded me of the end of Buffy where EVERY potential Slayer is activated at once, which was a moment I always thought was really empowering.

And as for Alina and Mal having “ordinary” lives back where they started the orphanage… I loved it. The two of them were orphans, too, and so the idea that they would go back to the place where they lived and make it somewhere that homeless kids can grow up loved and have better experiences that Alina and Mal did when they were growing up, in a country that’s changing for the better because of what the two of them did… that’s powerful, and it felt right to me. Not cliché, not like Alina gave up “something better” to be with Mal, but RIGHT.
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