This is the first novel in yet another YA trilogy, and while it was a page turner while reading it, it definitely isn't at the same level as Daughter of Smoke and Bone or Graceling. The novel takes place in the country of Ravnak which has long been plagued by the Unsea, a dark area in the middle of the country that has consumed the fertile lands that once were there. This darkness has grown over the years, and is inhabited by vicious winged monsters. As a result, travel from one side of the country to the other is dangerous, and requires the assistance of some of the Grisha, or the trained magicians of this world. The common people are of two minds on these Grisha - after all, it was one of their power hungry leaders that caused the Unsea though they do provide necessary services. Everyone is tested for magical ability as a child, and the Darkling, or the Grisha's leader, is the second most powerful man in the country after the king.
Alina and Mal are two orphans that grew up together and are now assigned to a unit in the Army together. Alina is in love with Mal though he has not noticed his childhood companion in that way, and given his looks and reputation, has had quite some luck with women. During a crossing of the Unsea that goes very badly, Alina uses some type of magical powers while under threat of death. Not only does she have the powers of a Grisha, but she has an incredibly rare talent that hasn't been seen in ages and could be the key to defeating the Unsea. She is quickly taken to the court and put into training with the other initiates.
The novel has a superficially Russian feel due to the names and titles used. The king is weak, and there is one advisor that seems incredibly shady. Alina spends her time in the Little Palace, which seemed like a derivative of the Winter Palace. While this adds something to the novel that is a bit different, I've also read that most of her references were basically superficial and not very accurate in many cases. I think the novel started out fairly strong, but by the end, it just seemed like there were too many cliches from other YA novels. Alina goes from being mousy, tired and clumsy to being the answer to the kingdom's problems. Naturally there is a love triangle, and there even ends up being an evil villain, which is actually the part that I had the most issues with. This one character in particular starts out as interesting and complex only to descend into one note evil by the end - I would have preferred some more complexity, like maybe Magneto (Michael Fassbender) in the last X-Men movie - a person where you know what they want to do is wrong and yet maybe they kind of have a point. However, Alina doesn't have to struggle with any moral dilemmas as it is very obvious what is right and wrong. And even though Alina is constantly presented as being the answer to the Unsea and the darkness, I was never clear on how she was going to save everyone or even restore it. Obviously the light could beat the dark but that wouldn't exactly restore the land to what it once was. Maybe I was overthinking it. I'm still planning on picking up the sequel because it is very readable and entertaining, I just prefer Katsa to Alina as far as plucky, self-sufficient heroines go that discover new things about themselves and their powers (or Karou and her story when it comes to questions of moral complexity).