I’m the first to admit that I like a bad-boy-turned-good (but not so-good-he’s-boring) book. If you think I’m alone in this, get back to me after you’ve taken a look at the bestseller lists.
On the other hand, I know it’s a fantasy. In real life, when a guy’s controlling and tries to turn you into something you’re not, it’s rarely because he’s a heroic super vampire who’d love your spontaneous personality if only he weren’t trying so hard to protect you from a rival group of evil super vampires. Usually, it just means he’s a controlling jerk.
In Shadow and Bone, the newest super-readable, magic-centric, semi-dystopian love story, heroine Alina Starkov actually considers the possibility that her powerful, handsome, mysterious suitor might be less a soulmate and more a creep. And what I love most about her dilemma is that it’s actually a dilemma — usually, the guy is kind of fantastic, and his motive to save the world seems pretty upstanding. (It’s sort of the Harry Potter/Dumbledore dynamic of book seven, if Dumbledore were young and hot and trying to sleep with Harry.*) (Or the Bella/Edward dynamic, if she ever took seriously the fact that her boyfriend wanted to kill her every time he got close to second base.)
If you’re a regular reader of current YA fantasy, now’s the time you should be looking for the love triangle. Here it is: Alina has strong feelings for someone else. But, unlike those stories where all the boys (and werewolves and shape shifters) are falling all over themselves to take the heroine cliff diving (or whatever), Alina’s crush just sees her as a friend. Her choice isn’t really between the good guy and the bad guy. It’s between the maybe-bad-guy-but-I’m-just-not-sure, and … well … nobody. In my experience, at least, this is a lot more likely than a dual-soulmate situation.
The strength of Shadow and Bone (which is about way more than just romance, but I’m kind of fixating here) is its shadows. Love isn’t obvious. Magic isn’t a cure-all — even the witches (Grisha, in this story) have serious limits, and spells can have unforeseen impacts. And it’s just as tough to figure out what the right thing is as it is to actually do it. In other words, it’s a lot like life … just with more magical powers, mythological forest creatures, and martial arts.
* I realize the Dumbledore isn’t around in book seven. But that’s when Harry’s reflecting on their relationship.