By Lidia Molina Whyte
Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse has been revamped for its first foray into streaming territory. Tweaked timelines, new (and omitted) characters and The Darkling’s name change – he goes by the far less sinister General Kirigan now – are just some of the ambitious alterations featured in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, with varying degrees of success.
But as a huge fan of Bardugo’s books, there’s one change I couldn’t be happier with: the reworking of the series’ young protagonist, orphaned refugee turned mythical Sun Summoner Alina Starkov (played by newcomer Jessie Mei Li). Not only does the adaptation change her ethnicity – strengthening her status as an outsider and grounding the conflict between warring nations Ravka and Shu Han – it also injects her character with a much-needed shot of agency.
Even if her ‘chosen one’ journey is rather predictable, Alina is a compelling protagonist in both the books and the TV series. She is fierce, frank and funny. And she has flaws, the kind that make her decidedly human despite possessing the ability to manipulate sunlight. Her longing to belong is marked by crippling self-doubt, which sometimes sours into cattiness. By making Alina half Shu, the Netflix adaptation also adds another layer of complexity to her initial reluctance to embrace her destiny as Ravka’s saviour Saint. She “looks like the enemy”, and being reminded and punished for it often doesn’t exactly incline her towards heroic patriotism.
For all intents and purposes, she possesses all the hallmarks of a dictatorship-toppling YA heroine. Yet, as I read the Grisha Trilogy, I was struck by how passive Book Alina came across. I felt like she was dragged from one plot line to the next by forces out of her control, continually subject to the whims of the questionable men in her life. And she was always being kissed by said questionable men, rarely if ever initiating physical contact herself.
Perhaps my reaction is the result of discovering Bardugo’s fantasy world via Six of Crows. Unlike the Grisha Trilogy, which is told exclusively from Alina’s perspective, its follow-up duology features multiple perspectives and the kind of female characters that leap off the page with a knife in hand, ready to slit your throat.
Which is not to say Nina Zenik and Inej Ghafa – both of whom are part of the Shadow and Bone cast – are not vulnerable or partial to a bit of pining. Quite the opposite. They just find ways, however small, to assert themselves despite the insurmountable odds stacked against them. And they make it clear to their respective love interests that they will not settle for less than they deserve.
Book Alina goes through quite the remarkable transformation after we first meet her as a low-ranking mapmaker in Ravka’s First Army. By the final novel, she leads the Grisha in battle and is not so easily manipulated by predatory Generals with grand plans to take over the world. She does, however, still spend far too much time and energy brooding over fellow orphan and best friend Mal. He may be less questionable than the much older Darkling, but his controlling tendencies and constant moping are certainly suspect.
The Netflix adaptation already plants the seeds for the respected leader Alina will become, while also establishing her bond with Mal in much more equal terms. From the very first episode, it becomes obvious Alina is, if not master, at least influencer of her own destiny. It is her own actions that place her on the skiff that will cross the deadly Shadow Fold, which she takes to protect Mal. A reckless action, sure, but one she takes on her own accord.
Plus, it’s not like Mal doesn’t make sacrifices for Alina in return. In the books, I couldn’t shake the impression he preferred Alina powerless and dependent on him. The series tempers the pair’s connection by showing its intricacies through Mal’s eyes as well as Alina’s. And we see Alina is not the only one who bears the scars from honouring their promise to stick together. It still takes losing Alina for Mal to realise he had taken her for granted, but he does not shame her or sulk about her frolics with General Kirigan/The Darkling when they eventually find their way back to each other.
Even finding their way back to each other is driven by Alina’s own decision-making, rather than by following others’ instructions. When she is urged to run away from her newfound life in the Little Palace for her own safety, the series tweaks things so that she chooses not to wait around for someone else to determine her next steps. It’s a small, subtle change, but it does a great job at imbuing Alina with some of her later nerve without sacrificing her initial naivety.
Here’s hoping the Saints bless us with another season to see where she goes next.
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