Leigh Bardugo has a fun brain. She created a heroine who was able to blossom into herself and accept her powers, even though she was afraid. She created a heroine who stood her ground, ran away, ran back and persevered, even though she was terrified. She created a heroine who let her power shine, even though she had been taught to fear her power because it was "not natural". She created a heroine who overcame obstacles and, while not completely victorious, survived. I think that was the best part of this novel -- reading about a girl who doesn't like herself, doesn't believe in herself, doesn't trust herself, learn to do all of these things and more.
I also have to say that the twist did surprise me. I really didn't think the Darkling was evil. I thought that Bardugo would go the love triangle route, but the Darkling would never truly love her, just her power. I thought he was a bit of a gray area. I was actually really - pleasantly - surprised to discover that he had created the Fold and that he was evil. The whole concept about the Fold and the volcra was also really fun and interesting.
In a lot of ways, this is a typical run-of-the-mill YA, but you can have tropes and cliches as long as you can do them well -- and I think she did. I enjoyed reading about the Grisha and her take on magic. I thought it was pretty neat that it wasn't actually magic that the Grisha controlled, but the "Small Sciences". It reminded me a bit of alchemy and those sorts of sciences that we consider hogwash nowadays, but were considered legitimate in the past.
I like that Bardugo tried to do something different by incorporating Russian culture into the books, but I feel as if she didn't succeed in this. Other than some fancy names here or there, this book could have been placed anywhere. The characters didn't exhibit Russian culture. You can't take regular characters, throw them into a different culture and call it a day.
You have to tweak the characteristics. You have to do your research on the culture they belong to and make sure they exhibit traits and beliefs from said culture. To me, I didn't feel anything really Russian off of this book and that was disappointing.
I could have done without the constant reference to kvas making people drunk, too. Listen, I've been to Russia (great country) and drank kvas. There is like 1% alcohol in those things. People let their kids drink them because the alcohol content is basically nothing. You can't get drunk off kvas.
Other than the fancy name, I don't know why she included kvas at all. If you want people to get drunk, give them vodka. That normally does the trick.
All in all, I still had a really fun time reading this and I will still read the next book in the series. I think that the world was really fun and I am looking forward to what happens next.