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. 🙈
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.
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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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?