In which I recommend books starting from a very well-known one I have reread recently.
Disclaimer: this is not a “books similar to Shadow and Bone” post. You don’t have to like Shadow and Bone to like any of these books!
I’m just using a well-known book to recommend things that deal with similar themes or have a similar aesthetic, but some of them aren’t similar to Shadow and Bone at all when seen as a whole.
↬ You liked the dark world of Shadow and Bone and want to read something that is still set in/inspired by Eastern Europe but feels more adult and complex.
- you like books that are somewhat challenging, great (if heavy) writing, toxic romances, magic that doesn’t answer to rules, and would love to read something that dealt with Russian history in the first half of the 20th century: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente.
- you want something subtler, with just a touch of romance, and a more reckless-and-lovable heroine. Also, atmosphere is really important to you, you don’t mind slow pacing, and would love to read something about the conflict of Christianity and Paganism: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
- what if overdramatic wizards are exactly your thing but you’d like to read a book in which the overdramatic wizard isn’t great with people at all? If you’d like to read something about a Polish-inspired world and agree that plants can be really creepy, I recommend Uprooted by Naomi Novik.
↬ Your favorite part of Shadow and Bone was without a doubt the villain, and you want to read a book that is specifically about whether the end ever justifies the means, of course featuring mass death and fascinating villainous characters.
- Is “reading about immortal people being horrible” your favorite genre? Well. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee doesn’t have one nearly-immortal villainous character, it has two. Who are trying to get back at each other. This series is about very smart people doing horrible things and what drives them to do that, in space, with a lot of explosions and mass murder. (Also: all-queer cast!)
- If you liked the whole “does the end ever justify the means” theme of Shadow and Bone regarding the situation of magical users, you need to read The Fever King by Victoria Lee. Especially if you like to read about gay teenagers just trying their best and side characters who are fascinating manipulative bastards. (Also: Jewish biracial main character, Jewish side characters, main m/m romance.)
↬ You want something like Shadow and Bone that has more court intrigue, more romance, and explores the religious themes more too.
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin: could I not include the book I’ve seen described multiple times as a Shadow and Bone for adults, with both more romance and more political intrigue, about a polyamorous relationship between gods? Of course not.
- Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan: do you want to read more fantasy books in which there’s a villain romance (although one that doesn’t have the same dynamic as the one in Shadow and Bone) and in which the magic system is tied to religion and also includes blood magic? This book exists and I love it. Also, the second half features deadly court intrigue!
- Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge: if you liked the love triangle in Shadow and Bone and want to read one that is even better, with a more morally gray lead, I would recommend this. I don’t remember much about it because I read it in 2016, but I remember loving the atmosphere, the main character, and the French-inspired fantasy world.
↬ Your favorite part of Shadow and Bone was the “power corrupts/is addicting” theme, but you want to read something that takes it further.
- if you like retellings and want to read one that deals with how the allure of power, both in a magical and political sense, can corrupt people, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, an East Asian retelling of Snow White from the PoV of the Evil Queen, could be the book for you.
- if you like complex magic systems that are perfectly integrated in the society of the fantasy world you’re reading about, you should try the adult fantasy book Jade City by Fonda Lee, a story about a fictional Asian-inspired society in which jade is magical and jade can be addicting.
↬ You liked the classic fantasy trope of the heroine who has to learn to use her powers (including many training montages), and you’d like a more diverse version of that.
- the book with my favorite training montages ever is Red Sister by Mark Lawrence, a story about magical assassin nuns training in a monastery. The book is slow-paced because the main character (who is bisexual, by the way) spends most of the book learning and going to class, but I didn’t mind that at all, because this book’s training montages are wonderful and the worldbuilding even more so.
- if you’re looking for a book that has a more maybe-villainous heroine than Shadow and Bone had, but really like training montages anyway and don’t mind a heavy, descriptive writing style, I recommend The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco.
- And if we’re still talking about very morally gray heroines who end up attending magical school, I can’t not mention The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, in which a girl goes to a military academy and learns about magic not because she was the chosen one, but because she worked harder than everyone else. (I… didn’t like the rest of the book, the parts not set in the school, but my opinion is very unpopular; you’ll probably love it if you like grimdark. Look up the trigger warnings, though, if you haven’t heard about them.)
↬ You didn’t actually care for a certain villainous character much, but you really liked Alina and just want to read something about girls taking down evil, manipulative men, in a book that is not as overwhelmingly straight and white as Shadow and Bone.
- Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan is a story about a girl who has been forced to become a concubine of the demon king in a Malaysian-inspired fantasy world. It’s about women finding a way to fight back in a world in which they’re just seen as objects, and it also features a beautiful forbidden f/f romance.
- If you want something that is about women supporting each other and is beautifully written, gay, and very quiet, I recommend Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, another Snow White retelling that features women working together against the evil man who is trying to use them. And, just like Shadow and Bone, it has a beautiful wintry atmosphere.
↬ You want to read something fantasy written by authors who are Eastern European.
- I sadly don’t know much about modern SFF by Eastern European authors, for various reasons, but I have read the Ukrainian novel Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated in English from Russian, and I can say that if you want something set in a magical school in modern Russia that will change all your ideas about how fantasy can be like, you really should try reading it.
- I have recommended another book written by Naomi Novik on this list, but I also want to remind all of you that the Lithuanian-inspired fantasy Spinning Silver, a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin that explicitly challenges the antisemitism of the fairytale by centering a Jewish main character, exists. It’s an atmospheric, slow-paced story about women supporting each other against terrible men, and it includes some of the best romantic storylines in adult fantasy. The author is of Polish and Lithuanian Jewish descent.
- If you want to read a story about sisters that combines fairytale-like atmosphere, Eastern European fairytales, and poetry (it’s a subversive retelling of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market), with wonderful food descriptions and writing that integrates seamlessly both Ukrainian and Yiddish words, I recommend The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner, an author who is Jewish and of Eastern European descent. I DNFed this book because I really didn’t like the parts written in verse (and the bad ARC formatting was giving me a headache), but I still recommend it because think it could work for someone who likes this kind of poetry more.
Are there any other books you’d recommend for these categories?