Hello, friends! I’ve brought you something, well, different today, and I’m so excited about it! It is, essentially, a discussion post, but unlike my usual discussions – er, “usual” as in “twice in a lifetime” – this one will concentrate on one particular aspect of one particular series: I will be talking about the much discussed romance in the Shadow and Bone trilogy.
Those who’ve been following me for a long time will be surprised by this, because boy, do I complain about love triangles a lot, but I do love the idea behind the love triangle of Shadow and Bone. Now, don’t get me wrong – I do not like, nor support either of the love interests in the novels (we’ll get to the whys behind that!), but I do consider the love triangle interesting, and even, to an extent, realistic. 🤯
Why Nikolai Doesn’t Matter
Firstly, I’m going to start by excluding one of the so-called love interests from Shadow and Bone: Nikolai. I know, I know – so many of you love him, which is great! I actually want to read King of Scars quite a bit. That said, it does bother me a “tad” that he not only pretends to be with Alina despite her firm refusal to play a couple, but he also kisses her without her consent. This, alongside the fact that their relationship does not have (1) strong and consistent emotional development, and (2) any chemistry whatsoever, made me unable to take them seriously as a couple, or as friends.
Introducing Mal & the Darkling
At the beginning we learn that Alina, a 16-year-old girl, has only ever had Mal to rely on: they grew up together, and they had each others’ back when no else did. Which is actually sweet! Or… it would be, were Mal not a fucking dickhead, who makes Alina feel unimportant and less than his new friends and the girls he’s interested in (about that, the girl on girl hate was not it either). It’s obviously not a healthy, or positive relationship at this point, and the fact that Alina is very much in love with Mal is the cherry on top.
The second potential love interest is the Darkling, who I consider to be the fan favorite, whilst Mal is the… what’s the opposite of the fan favorite? Whatever it is, that’s Mal. After Alina meets the Darkling, she quickly starts to, for lack of better word, fall for him – he is powerful and attractive, and he is showing signs of being interested in her, which just hasn’t been the case with any guys before. I don’t think we have to relate to Alina’s emotions – and god knows, I hate the Darkling (please don’t murder me y’all) – to understand why she may be falling for someone so “impressive” so quickly. She is alone, unlike anyone in the world but the Darkling, and she has this gorgeous man, who is unapproachable to anyone else, seemingly courting her. Neat, huh? No.
Where it all fails
I fully believe that these are useful topics to tackle, and can be relatable for teens. Unfortunately, lots of teen will encounter (predatory) older men, who make them feel special and unique, and the Darkling, however much he is beloved as a villain, can very well be considered an example of that. However, Bardugo doesn’t seem to know where to take this character – she makes him detestable just to take a step back and humanize him. She doesn’t go all in, and fails to create the truly complex villain the Darkling could have been.
We can all relate to the Mal issue; not only because he is a fuckboy and they’re plentiful in real life, but we’ve probably all had friends, partners or even family members we have grown apart from. In my case, I’m thinking of friends I used to hang out with so darn much but after a while I had to concur that our friendship just wasn’t healthy anymore, and I went through a similar emotional turmoil as Alina. She is scared of being without Mal, blames herself for the distance between them and she refuses to let go of their friendship. It’s all very relatable and lovely… but it’s not particularly well-written, if I’m being honest. 🙈
The biggest problem is that their relationship lacks a strong base – from the get go, Mal is immature and annoying, and so the readers have no chance of rooting for him and Alina, or of relating to Alina’s struggle of letting him go. Rationally, I know they have a long history, I’ve just explained it! But Bardugo barely shows it to us, which is a problem, because without consciously considering their history, it’s hard to understand why Alina doesn’t just cut him lose.
As for Mal’s redemption – I seriously can’t believe how badly that’s done. Like I said, he fucking sucks through the first book, and then suddenly, magically he becomes a “better person”. This “better Mal” is still imperfect, he’s super-controlling for one, so then he is further developed, and by the end of the third book we’re expected to believe that he’s a ‘Good Boyfriend Material‘. I love redemption arcs so much! But in this case it was just… meh. There’s no gradual development, and because their history is also invisible to the readers, it’s really hard to give Mal a break.
Basically, I’m bitter. 😂 We could have been given such good content, and this… this just wasn’t it. Honest to god, there were so many things that could have been done differently:
- Make Alina evil 💪 and/or get her end up with the Darkling. An improved version of him, because this “I only like you bc you’re powerful lol” and “I want to put a collar on you, why don’t you like that?” attitude is not cool.
- Give Mal believable character development! I’ve read novels where an annoying (male) character develops and becomes someone likable, which would have been acceptable here, too.
- But also… why does Alina, as a teen, need to choose the love of her life? LET! HER! LIVE! On that note, develop her a bit more, too because a lot of what she did was not it either… oops.
- In a pinch – add Nikolai as a REAL love interest, or, better yet, a real, well-written friend!
Have you read the Shadow and Bone trilogy? How do you feel about it? Have you ever felt like the idea behind a story/characters/romance was spectacular, but the realization of that idea was meh?