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Flesh and Light in Shadow and Bone

Spoilers for the Netflix series Shadow and Bone and the books Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo below.

A few weeks ago, the Shadow and Bone series premiered on Netflix and as someone who follows book news very closely and also read the original book shortly after it was released in 2012, I was excited to see a new fantasy world portrayed on the small screen. At the same time, I was also worried to see what adaptational changes were made, after seeing so many failed book-to-movie adaptations. As I finished the series, however, I was thrilled to see that many of the changes made enriched the story not only by deepening character development but also by showing the struggles of obtaining power and the ways characters use it, for selfish or selfless reasons. 

The country of Ravka, and the world of Shadow and Bone as a whole, is a very desolate and hopeless place, with a large division between the common, everyday people and those who are rich and powerful. We can see this in how the soldiers of the First Army live in messy, impoverished conditions in the military camp compared to when Alina—our main character—is taken to meet the King of Ravka after her power is discovered. It is clear that even though he wears a military uniform with many medals, he will never have to experience the same conditions that his men and women have to live through daily. Even the Little Palace where the Grisha—those with the ability to manipulate certain aspects of the world— live has many luxuries not readily found elsewhere; in the book, Alina marvels at how they have sugar available when it’s been rationed everywhere else in Ravka for the last hundred years.

The power dynamics are also evident between the Grisha and the remainder of the population; despite possessing extraordinary abilities, they are feared by the rest of the world, derided as “witches” or hunted and killed in countries like Fjerda. It is only by the influence of General Kirigan that Grisha are not hunted in Ravka and have a high position in the country, yet even then they are kept tightly leashed. Genya, one of Alina’s only companions inside the Little Palace, casually remarks on the fact that she was “gifted” to the rules of Ravka when she was only a child, glossing over the physical and emotional abuse she faces on a daily basis as a result. Many Grisha long to demonstrate their power so that the world will no longer try to kill them, and even show dominance over others to make up for being dominated.

In Shadow and Bone, we not only see the disparity of power present in the world, but we also see how the pursuit of power can be a corruptible one, particularly with General Kirigan. He was raised with the full knowledge that he is a descendant of a very powerful Grisha and that he is special for the power he possesses. How the show and book handle that pursuit of power for Kirigan, or the Darkling as he is more commonly known, is very different. The Darkling in the book is someone who keeps his cards close to his chest in regards to his motives but is ultimately obsessed with the pursuit of power with as much force as possible. He intentionally created the Shadow Fold as a weapon but was unable to use it due to the volcra—the monsters that inhabited it. Kirigan’s use of force in the show, in contrast, tended to begin with his words. He is identified primarily by his military ranking and navigates situations with methodical conversations; it is his primary method of trying to get what he wants, resorting to force when that fails. The Shadow Fold was an accidental creation of Kirigan’s after his primary method of getting what he wanted failed, but he was still determined to use it for the sake of obtaining power. I felt that Kirigan’s depiction in the show was a more compelling antagonist than the Darkling’s depiction in the book. He is not a shadowy, mysterious figure but someone whose past struggles have turned him into a villain, and that is my favorite kind of villain to watch.

Alina Starkov, in contrast to Kirigan, is someone who comes from no power and is determined to use the power she does gain for good. Alina is not only a poor orphan with few prospects in the army, but she has also been physically set apart from the rest by the fact that she is half Shu, the fictional parallel to China in Leigh Bardugo’s series. This was one change well advertised prior to the premiere of the series that I felt worked very well to truly show how much of an outsider Alina was. Amongst the army, the Grisha, and ordinary townspeople, Alina is regarded with curiosity at best and outright hostility and suspicion at worst simply due to her heritage. In the book, she is physically set apart by how sickly she is from a young age, and it is later revealed that this was a result of her suppressing her true nature and power. Once she accepts who she is and what she can do, she begins to gain strength both physically and as a Grisha. Despite this acceptance of her power, she never lords it over others or treats them as lesser than she is. In the book, she had a powerful and kind moment when she chose to forgive both Genya and David for their betrayal, an encounter that unfortunately went unresolved in the show. Conversely, at the end of the show, she chooses to use her power to save the remaining people on the skiff from the Darkling, when in the book she made the decision to sacrifice the skiff in order to attempt to kill the Darkling, dooming all those aboard to death. 

We all must choose whether to hoard any gained power for ourselves, like the Darkling, or share it for the sake of others, like the Sun Summoner in the Shadow Fold.

Alina and Kirigan are constantly played against each other in their power struggles, as well. In the book, the Darkling looks very close to Alina’s age and she lowers her guard as a result of that. When she discovers his true plans for her regarding the use of her power and confronts him, he shifts to someone who is very forceful and outright cruel. He uses his position to intimidate Alina into compliance, threatening Mal’s life only to decide to execute Mal in front of Alina as punishment for her defiance. In contrast, the show’s Kirigan is more emotionally manipulative, appearing as an adult compared to the teenage Alina. He plays on her desire for acceptance and praise, trying to quietly guide her to his viewpoints while making plans to ensure he can use her. Even when his plans are discovered, he still consistently tries to convince Alina to join his side with arguments, really only willing to use Mal as a hostage to gain her compliance when she refutes him. Alina in the show is shown to be affected by his words, regretting that he forced her hand rather than give her the opportunity to make the choice, while Alina in the books never regrets leaving The Darkling. It is often harder to argue and fight against someone you know is wrong when they have spent the effort to try and sway you to their side with words instead of a show of force.

Another change to the series from the book is the inclusion of the main characters of Six of Crows, which takes place chronologically after Shadow and Bone. Far from Ravka, Ketterdam is a city defined by the desire for power and the lengths that everyone goes to obtain it, and Kaz, Jesper, and Inej are shown to seek it just as desperately. While their inclusion is mainly a way to introduce the characters before the events of their first appearance take place, it’s another example of the pursuit of power within the series. The million kruge reward promises power at home, even as Inej is struggling with the heresy of kidnapping a Saint, a living symbol she worships. The Crows’ bond with each other, however, proves stronger than this desire for power, even when it would be easier to betray each other.

My absolute favorite part of the show was seeing the relationship between Alina and Mal made sweeter and richer. We are shown that they are more than childhood friends, that in a way they are the only family that each other has ever known. We also see that this friendship has evolved into an (as of now) unspoken selfless love for the other; they care deeply for each other’s well-being, worry constantly about each other when apart, and go to any lengths in order to protect each other. Even when we see them hurt when they see their letters to the other go unanswered, their reunion shows that they still care deeply for each other and have each others’ backs. Even as the show ends with Alina irreversibly altered by the stag collar, she is determined to grow in power to save Ravka and Mal is determined to be there at her side.

People can want power for many different reasons, some of which we may even define as ‘good’. Whether it’s for the sake of preventing oppression or to raise oneself out of a dark situation or even just to do something positive in the world, we may all agree these are good reasons for pursuing power. It’s the actions we take in pursuing power that can be corrupted; We all must choose whether to hoard any gained power for ourselves, like the Darkling, or share it for the sake of others, like the Sun Summoner in the Shadow Fold. While I did like the book Shadow and Bone (though if I’m being honest, the Six of Crows duology is my favorite of Leigh Bardugo’s), I felt that the show is one of those rare adaptations that I prefer over the original source material. I felt it did an excellent job of fleshing out the characters in the world, making them more human than archetype, and I can only hope we will get to see more of this version of Shadow and Bone.

Amy works in education as an administrative assistant in Texas. She is both a follower of Jesus and an unashamed nerd -- particularly when it comes to reading, video games, anime, and Marvel. You can find her on Instagram at cookies_and_coke!

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