Spoiler warning! This is the third book in the Grisha trilogy and therefore NOT the place to start reading. This review will contain at least some minor spoilers for the previous books in the series, and who starts a trilogy with the third book anyway? Go read from the beginning, starting with Shadow and Bone. This review will be here when you're caught up.
Alina is shadow of her former self, trapped in tunnels underground, "protected" by the zealous Apparat (former high priest of Ravka) and his devoted followers, who worship her as a living saint. She is unable to summon her powers, but has to put on a show for the crowds (aided by illusion and trickery) to placate the high priest. She drained herself completely in her last confrontation with the Darkling, intending to kill them both. Now what remains of Ravka's royal family may be dead, the Second Army is in tatters, and Alina and her tiny band of loyal friends have to figure out a way to get above ground and away from the religious fanatics.
Having confronted the Darkling twice, without having been able to best him, Alina is convinced that what will make the difference is a third amplifier, making her the most powerful Grisha since the legendary Morozova. They need to track down the elusive firebird of myth, and from poring over Morozova's old journals, they suspect they know where to begin looking. Alina also wants to ascertain whether Prince Nikolai and his parents survived after the Darkling's attack on the palace. Having been beaten twice, just makes Alina more determined that the next time they meet, she will defeat the Darkling once and for all. Little does she know that getting the third amplifier could end up costing her more dearly than she could ever have imagined.
As in a lot of trilogies, the first book introduces us to the characters and the world, the second brings our protagonists further into the story, but also brings them oh so low, so that they have to overcome all odds and make it to the end triumphantly. Alina is broken in body and spirit, having nearly drained herself trying to stop the Darkling at the end of the second book. She would have died if Mal hadn't insisted on carrying her away, aided by a handful of loyal Grisha, while Prince Nikolai did his best to rescue his parents and escape, so he could return and fight again at a later date. Hidden in an intricate network of caves far away from the Darkling's reach, Alina can't access her powers at all while she's so far underground. The Apparat would prefer a dead martyr to a living girl, and closely guards his precious figurehead, trying to make it impossible for her and her little band of followers to plot and scheme. Nonetheless, they manage to orchestrate an escape and having had time to heal during her stay underground, Alina is relieved to discover that her powers aren't actually lost.
In a series that has already explored some pretty dark themes, this book was the darkest of all. Alina is obsessed with finding the source of the third amplifier, even after discovering what the search did to Morozova all those years ago. The idea of all that power is incredibly alluring to her, even though she knows that it could make her tip over the edge into madness and corruption, turning her just as monstrous as the the Darkling. Having seen her willing to kill herself to stop the Darkling, Mal is no longer trying to keep his distance from her, instead doing his best to help and protect her. For a lot of the book, they are aided only by a ragtag group of Grisha, and the odds of their succeeding in a third confrontation with the centuries old sorcerer are so slim.
I was really impressed with the final quarter of this book, and where Bardugo took the story. I'm not sure she needed to go to the lengths she did to establish that yes, the Darkling is totes evil, so evil, you guys. The choices facing Alina and Mal towards the end are not easy ones, and the sacrifices required to ensure victory are staggering. Some might say that the very end is a bit of a cop-out (and all those people pissed off that Alina didn't end up with the Darkling should have their heads examined), but I felt that due to what came before, it was earned, and the epilogue was bitter-sweet.
While I'm totally on board with Alina as a heroine in this one and didn't actually feel Mal was a total waste of space in this one (he still ranks behind pretty much any of the others in the supporting cast), I am still baffled by much romantic attention she keeps attracting throughout the series. Made no sense to me, and I didn't think she had chemistry with either of them. As a character in her own right, she goes through a hell of a lot of challenges over the course of the trilogy and her personality develops a lot.
Based on this book, I would feel comfortable recommending the trilogy to others. I found the first book a bit hard to get into (and Alina alternately boring and unbearable), the second book was a lot more entertaining, while this was a thrilling conclusion, which did not go in the direction I was expecting. Having heard great things about Bardugo's new series, I now no longer feel I would be cheating in some way when I start it. It just seems right to read things in the correct order.
Judging a book by its cover: It seems fitting that the third and darkest book in the trilogy has a colour scheme evoking blood, fire and ashes. The firebird that Alina is searching throughout crowns the top of the book, while a dark city appears to be burning in the central image. I mentioned in my review of the previous book how much I love these covers. That bears repeating. They are very striking and I love how each of the books' titles give the reader a glimpse of what to expect.