Bookish Discussion

All That’s Wrong with the Romance in the Shadow and Bone Trilogy

Quick disclaimer before we start the post: I can see that a lot of you have been finding this post recently, likely because of the release of Netflix’s adaptation. My post – originally published in 2019 – is about The Shadow and Bone trilogy, as such it contains spoilers for all three books, so keep that in mind. If you would like to read my thoughts on the adaption click here.

Hello, friends! I’ve brought you something, a bit different today, and I’m so excited about it! It is, essentially, a discussion post, but unlike my usual discussions this one will concentrate on one aspect of one particular series: I will be talking about the much discussed romance in the Shadow and Bone trilogy.

Even though I’m no fan of love triangles, I love the idea behind the love triangle in Shadow and Bone. Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t 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

I’m going to start by excluding one of the so-called love interests from Shadow and Bone: Nikolai, a character that first appears in the second novel. I know, I know – so many of you love him, which is great! I actually want to read King of Scars myself. That said, it does bother me 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.

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 someone who makes Alina feel unimportant compared to his new friends and the girls he’s interested in (about that, the girl on girl hate in the books was not it either). It’s obviously not a healthy nor a positive relationship at this point, and the fact that Alina is very much in love with Mal is the cherry on top; given his treatment of her, it’s difficult to envision why she would feel so strongly about him.

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) – 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. At first glance, that seems pretty great… until it isn’t, of course.

Where It Fails

I fully believe that these are useful topics to tackle, and can be relatable to teens, or even adults. 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.

Most of us can probably relate to the Mal issue. Not only is he a type of person that exists in plentiful quantities 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 spend a lot of time with but after a while I had to concur that our friendship just wasn’t important to us 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… but it’s not particularly well-written, in my opinion. ๐Ÿ™ˆ

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 their history 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 can’t believe how badly that’s done. Like I said, he is horrible throughout the first book and then suddenly, magically he becomes a “better person”. This “better Mal” is still imperfect, he’s rather 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 wasn’t great. There’s no gradual development, and because their history is also invisible to the readers, it’s really hard to give Mal a break.

In Conclusion

Basically, I’m bitter. We could have been given such good content, and this… this just wasn’t it. 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, of course, because him only liking Alina because of her power and wanting to put a literal collar to control her is far from acceptable.
  • 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? I’d have been completely fine with her ending up on her own, as none of the choices were completely suitable. Speaking of Alina, I think she could have also been better crafted.
  • Finally, Nikolai could have been included as a real love interest or, better yet, as a well-written friend!

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Let’s chat!

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 wasn’t great?


16 thoughts on “All That’s Wrong with the Romance in the Shadow and Bone Trilogy

  1. Oh, I love this post so much! I’ve read the first two books in July and August and very eager to continue with the final book this month. I’m actually enjoying this trilogy so much more than I expected to.

    I think overall when it comes to YA romance, love triangles and lots of angsty stuff, I try not to focus on that aspect of the book and, instead, enjoy everything else – i.e. world building, magic system, action, etc.

    To begin with, Alina is not a great character. She is a very clichรฉ portrayl of a female YA protagonist, by this I mean: “an ugly duckling turning into a beautiful and powerful swan”.

    Mal is just “meh” to the point that I don’t even think he has any personality at all.

    Darkling is that dark broody type, the “bad boy” of the story.

    And Nikolai is probably the ONLY character who (1) carried on his back the entire second book, (2) has lots of charisma and charm and (3) is the most fun of them all.

    When it comes to the romance I didn’t focus on it, so it didn’t annoy me as much, but I just wish for them all to go their separate ways ๐Ÿ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! ๐Ÿ™‚ I really hope you’ll enjoy the final book – that was my favorite from the series, plot-wise and character-wise it was just stronger than the others, in my opinion.

      Very true, especially of older YA titles that they overdo the angst, and part of that is introducing love triangles, which sucks. It’s good that you can concentrate on other things, I mostly can’t if I’m frustrated by something, like I was by the romance in this case.

      Agree 1000% with your description of the characters. Nikolai is my favorite character from the series, but then he isn’t a real favorite – I don’t see myself mentioning him in character-related lists, and things like that. He just isn’t that unique to me? But he’s still the best of the bunch, which is sad haha.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I wish the Darkling could have been redeemed, alas. Mal just exists to me and I could never consider Nikolai a love interest (he came on too strong). Honestly, it should have been “Alina ends up with no one and just lives her best powerful life.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I never count Nikolai as love interest too; I think he was a character too strong on his own to become a love interest and Alina never really felt anything for him. Instead, I was hoping their friendship will be more developed! I agree with everything you say about The Darkling and Mal though, I actually like The Darkling but I agree that the romance are poorly developed on all sides. I am so for the idea of Dark!Alina that shows The Darkling her true power, though. It will totally turn the power balance and helps develop the relationship (romantic or platonic, between Darkling and Mal) even more.

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was surprised by Nikolai, because I saw a lot of people shipping him and Alina… but he was more of a friend than a romantic partner. I actually wish he had remained strictly a friend, I don’t understand why Bardugo tried to introduce him as a love interest. Dark Alina would have been AMAZING – so much potential development.


  4. THIS IS SUCH A GREAT, WELL WRITTEN POST!!!! i only read the first 2 books but i gave up and didnt attempt the 3rd book bc it was just too much for my brain to handle (i did spoil myself for what happens tho)

    mal was so annoying and self-centered throughout the entire series, alina truly deserved better than him. YES THANK YOU FOR MENTIONING THE DARKLING’S BEHAVIOUR. it was completely unacceptable and felt so toxic to me like the only reason she was attracted to him was bc she was so alone and he was willing to use her??? jkflsdajklf bYE

    i feel like the shadow and bone trilogy had SO MUCH potential if it elaborated on any of the really deep themes that it brought or delve into complexities of the characters but instead the darkling was lame and mal sucked oops ๐Ÿคญ

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!! ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m so glad you agreed. It is such a shame, because like you said, this could have been awesome, but it just never lived up to its potential. And the Darkling WAS toxic, 1000%. I find it so strange that most people despise Mal, and rightly so, but then a lot of these same people legitimately shipped Alina and the Darkling. As if using her for her powers and enslaving her was hot, smh.


  5. OMG I love you for this post because this sums up my feelings on the Shadow and Bone books perfectly. There was never any chance I’d like Mal for you very reasons. He’s a fuckboy with no true character development and no good personality. I liked the darkling to the extent that (at first) he seemed to support Alina’s new abilities and didnt become jealous of her and try and hold her back. I would have loved for there to be a better third to the love triangle than Mal who supported Alina’s growth and progress but not been a bad guy.

    And I hadn’t even thought of the fact that there were darker undertones to the Alina/darkling romance in that teens could view this to mean it’s acceptable to have attention from someone older and in a position of power. Wow it’s irresponsible to make it romantic in that way and I know I’ve read and enjoyed romances like that but none that are marketed as YA.

    Ugh next time I try to explain where this series went wrong from me I’m just going to link to this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I was scared of posting this, because the Darkling is loved by many people, and I don’t want to shit on anyone’s opinion, so it means a lot that you loved my post. ๐Ÿ™‚ I definitely agree – the Darkling seemed great at first at supporting Alina. I’d have loved to see him remain that way, without trying to enslave her as he did, and have this be a villain origin story for Alina, or at least to see her tempted to go to the dark side. Her attraction to the Darkling made me so uncomfortable/annoyed after she realized what he was like – it was so toxic, and the fact that Leigh Bardugo made Alina remain with the Darkling and call him on his real name as he was dying made me sick.

      Yes, it IS weird as a YA, because I feel like the characters read as young teens – Mal, Alina, even Nikolai, and the whole cast, but the Darkling, tbh – but then the ideas it presents/shows aren’t that suitable for younger teens? But even for older teens and adults, it’s a terrible thing to portray, imo, it’s a controlling, abusive relationship (the whole – “they won’t understand you, they are SCARED of you, because of your ability, BUT I don’t mind that” coming from the Darkling IS like an abuser) and it’s made to look sexy and forbidden, and the Darkling, despite not doing anything good, is redeemed to an extent. Ffs, the scene with him dying closely follows the scene where Alina loses her powers, and the Darkling obviously shows that he only cared for her because of those. How’s that redeemable? Sorry for the long reply!!


  6. Ahaha I love this post. There are actually so many things wrong with the shadow and bone romance. I didn’t care about Nikolai much while reading the series and found him a bit useless. I kind of love the Darkling and was totally team make Alina evil and make her end up with Darkling ๐Ÿ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

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