The characters and the plot was pretty 2-dimensional. I knew right away who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. There were a lot of dark and light concepts running, and I felt the author tried to throw some grey in there but without much success.
Oh, love triangles! How I love and hate thee! In theory love triangles should flesh out how nuanced love is, that there are many types of love and that you really can love more than one person at a time for different reasons. So in one way she explores lust and power when it comes to Alina's attraction to the Darkling. But I wouldn't call it a love triangle. Yes, she wants to do him dark and dirty but not necessarily live with him and bear his children! So not truly a love triangle. Which brings me to Mal...he's pretty one note. Of course, he loves Alina he just doesn't realize it until she's gone! So convenient.
Bardugo never explains why we should except the second-rate status of the Grisha...lots of unanswered questions.
She did have an interesting take on psychology, though. I like how she explored Alina's powers. She couldn't tap into them until she faced her demons...her head shrink was her own head! Facing those unconscious ideas and then growing from them and becoming powerful. I loved that.
I also loved that Alina had to make some hard decisions but some of those decisions were backed by power and lots of it. And how she realizes awesome power comes with awesome responsibility (yeah, that is from Spider Man). She grows, she learns to be independent, she learns about love and mercy and the power that comes from having those.
She does touch a bit on tyranny and what that can mean for a country and ultimately the world. But she only touches on it. I'm hoping some of these barely touched grays will come into fuller focus in the next two books.
So while it's not by ideal YA fantasy (that would be Seraphina by Rachel Hartman), it's pretty entertaining and has a lot of potential by Bardugo.
I did read some other reviews about how they didn't appreciate her lack of Russian knowledge and history. If I were a Russian or had some intimate knowledge of Russia and its language and culture, I'd probably be a bit annoyed as well. But I never was throughout the book. I thought adding a distinctive Russian flare to the book enhanced its mystery and fantasy. So I say read with a caveat that if you have Russian knowledge don't read this because you'll be annoyed :)