I never planned to read this because I'm pretty wary of the fantasy genre in general. On top of that, it has all the cliches going for it: the girl who doesn't know the powers she has to save the world, the love triangle with one (very) bad guy and one nice guy/best friend, and the whole peasant-to-royalty situation. Despite my initial opinions, I decided to give it a chance after hearing all the positive reviews. And let me tell you, I'm so glad I decided to read it because Bardugo manages to do so much more with those cliches.
Let's talk about the love triangle. I wasn't really a big fan of Mal in the beginning. He already had Alina's affections (whether he knew it or not) and the advantage of Best Friend. I'm not really sure why that automatically made me unsympathetic to him, but it did. Plus, he's running all over the place chasing other girls, so there's that (I know, I know. Not really his fault.)
Then we have The Darkling. First of all, his name is kind of sexy. So he has that going for him. Then he has the whole Bad Boy thing going for him. Not in a I-ride-motorcycles-and-don't-care-about-anything way, it's more that he just has kind of sinister, forbidden air about him that should probably make me dislike him, but doesn't. The Darkling is new and just so freaking hot with his little touches and small signs of weakness towards Alina.
By the end, though, I was on Team Mal. The Darkling is still hot, though.
The thing is, it doesn't feel as much like a love triangles as others do. Though Alina does switch the object of her affections a few times, she's always firmly on one or the other. She starts out with feelings for now, but because of Things, decides to forget him and move on. Then comes The Darkling. Then more Things happen and Alina firmly directs her love to Mal again.
Next, we have the Girl With Secret Powers cliche. Admittedly, the formula is much like other stories, but there is one thing I really liked about Alina's situation; her powers are discovered, but then for quite a long time she's basically incapable of using them. She has to go through some growth before she can fully embrace and use her powers. Plus, the powers are all kind of neat. They remind me a bit of the bending from Avatar: The Last Airbender since they deal with the elements for the most part.
I'm not sure I'd call the rags to riches story ground-breaking or anything, but I enjoyed the way it was handled. Alina doesn't fit in at first, of course, but she slowly gets used to it and starts to get comfortable to her new life. I like that she still finds herself missing her old life as a mapmaker sometimes. She doesn't get a big head about the power and position, but she doesn't shun it either.
The Nutshell: Basically, read this. If you don't think you'll like it, read it anyway. The love triangle is done in a way that doesn't entirely lend itself to "teams" and I found myself being swept along with Alina when it came to both romances. The Grisha powers themselves are also interesting and I enjoyed learning about them. I'd love to see more in the sequel, especially where it concerns The Darklings powers as I find them fascinating.