Spoiler warning! This is the second book in a trilogy. I will be unable to review the book without possibly giving away spoilers for the first book in the series, Shadow and Bone. Which is obviously the one you should start with if you're interested in this series.
After the rather dramatic show-down with the Darkling at the end of the last book, Alina and Mal are on the run, trying to get as far away from Ravka as possible. Having to hide her Grisha powers and suppressing her abilities is making Alina frail and she feels constantly jealous of the attention Mal is getting from the women in the villages where they're hiding. Unfortunately, the Darkling escaped their last show-down relatively unhurt, and when he catches up to them, he reveals that he has new and even more terrifying powers. He uses Alina and Mal's affection towards one another to control both, threatening to hurt Alina if Mal doesn't find the legendary sea serpent legends say is required for a second amplifier for Alina, while he promises to kill Mal instantly unless Alina agrees to cooperate with him.
Lucky for the continued welfare of both of them, Mal manages to track the sea serpent in the allotted week, and as Alina is both elated at the thought of how her powers will be further strengthened with a new amplifier and terrified at what the Darkling might make her do, she and Mal are rescued by unexpected and unlikely new allies, who want to take them back to Ravka. Now that they are aware of what new and horrible things the Darkling is able to unleash in his quest for world domination, their privateer saviour hopes to persuade Alina to take control of the what remains of the Second Army and the Grisha still loyal to the Crown. With her two amplifiers, she's more powerful than ever, but she's also not sure she's up for the task she's facing. She doubts her sanity, as the Darkling appears to her, though no one else appears to see him. She needs to prove her strength to the remaining Grisha, nobles and the royal family. Most of the populace revere her as a living saint and believe she can save them from anything. All the while, she seems to be losing Mal, just when she needs him the most.
My biggest complaint about Shadow and Bone was that I really didn't like Alina very much. I frankly didn't connect much with any of the three most central characters. I found the supposed love triangle between Alina, the Darkling and Mal completely preposterous, mainly because I couldn't see what was possibly worth loving in Alina, Mal was an oblivious dude-bro who barely gave Alina the time of day, and then there's basically the nefarious villain, who really does not have many redeeming features. As far as I can tell, he's just a scheming megalomaniac, no hidden pain in his back story to make him even vaguely sympathetic.
In this book, Alina gets a lot more likable. Mal is still mostly a broody, self-involved, douchy waste of space. He appoints himself the captain of Alina's guard, and then passive-aggressively avoids her and makes her feel guilty because she's trying her best at near insurmountable odds to counter the Darkling's schemes to take over the kingdom. Because he's being such an erratic d*ck, Alina doesn't really feel she can tell him that the Darkling keeps showing up to torment her when she's alone. Another suitor for Alina's hand enters the field (because this non-descript little waif is clearly irresistible to all men, not just because she's extra specially magical, with unique and impressive powers) and I must admit, I found Nikolai charming, fun and clearly much too good for Alina.
The younger of the two princes of Ravka wants Alina to lead what is left of the Second Army, taking control of the magically gifted Grisha who are left (many died or defected to the Darkling's side). He also hopes to persuade his older brother to renounce his claim to the throne, and offers to make Alina his queen. The powerful Sun Summoner, the country's best hope against the ravages of the Darkling and the beloved and charming younger prince would make a formidable ruling couple. Alina, of course, hates the burdens of power thrust upon her and mainly just wants to hide away somewhere with Mal. Then there's the added complication of the Apparat (the King's former head priest) having declared Alina a living saint. So many people literally worship her and think she can do anything and Alina is painfully aware that she is likely to let them all down once the Darkling musters his forces and attacks again.
The world building and magic system are fascinating and all the things I liked about the first book are just expanded upon here. Since I now actually liked the protagonist a lot more, plus this book had some pretty exciting action set pieces, the second book in the trilogy was a marked improvement. I remain entirely unconvinced by any of the attempted romances that Bardugo suggests, with what is now a love quadrangle just presenting three differently bad options for Alina. The Darkling - ancient sociopathic madman, intent on ruling the world at terrible cost. Nikolai - a prince and possibly future king, charming and adventurous, but also very calculated, but far too grand for little ol' Alina. Mal - sullen, brooding, jealous and uncommunicative. He's deeply protective of Alina in the beginning, but then gets aloof and behaves erratically for most of the book. I see zero chemistry between them and am still baffled as to why the author is trying so hard to make Alina irresistible.
It may have taken me the best end of two years between reading the first and the second book, but I'm properly invested in the story now, and want to see how Alina is going to solve the pickle she lands herself in at the end of this book.
Judging a book by its cover: A lot of YA fiction has less than great cover art. Leigh Bardugo's Grisha trilogy, on the other hand, have absolutely amazing covers. You can so clearly see the Russian influences in the story from the onion-domed towers in red, with the ominous nuances of grey showing the tensions in the story. The sea serpent that plays such an important part in the first part of the book is cleverly intertwined with the intricate font that makes up the title of the book (as the stag horns of the mythical being in the first book were central in the design of that cover). I absolutely love this design.