So what do you call a love triangle with four players, instead of three? A love rectangle? Maybe some kind of three-pronged love star? I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the ships for Alina and the Darkling, Alina and Nikolai, and Alina and Mal. When you look at reviews for The Grisha Trilogy you see a lot of discussion about this topic, and while sometimes people’s favorite relationships are just between the two characters that they like best, there’s a lot of debate out there about who Alina belongs with. Who is the best match for her, as it were. And I think that this question is more interesting for Ruin and Rising than it is for a lot of other YA novels and series, because so much of Alina’s life is about fate. The chance of being a Sun Summoner, the way in which the amplifiers change her from a (relatively) normal Grisha into something mythic and strange and new—all these things affect the romantic relationships she has much more than her personality or tastes really do. And in this final book of the trilogy, more than the other two, Alina has finally become aware of that fact. I think it’s as clear to her as it is to the reader that Mal is the person she really loves, but she is looking at her destiny in a new way this time; she is realizing that she might be too much like the Darkling for that to work even if she still wanted it, she is seeing her relationship to Nikolai in a new and more complex way, and she is starting to accept that Mal may not be what is right for her, even if he is truly what her heart wants.
The question of choosing love over power is a central one for the Darkling and Baghra in Part Two of our reread, but it is an even more interesting journey for Alina throughout Ruin and Rising.
Chapter 8 – 9: Summary
Nikolai gives Sergei passage to one of his smuggling way stations, and then he and Alina and rest of the Grisha start planning their next moves. Mal and Alina need to travel to the Sikurzoi mountains, near where they grew up and where they suspect they may be able to find the Firebird. Nikolai agrees to supply them with a ship, but they also decide that he and Alina to travel to West Ravka first, to make a show for Nikolai’s new allies. They decide to split up, Tamar and Mal taking a crew to start hunting the firebird, and Alina and Nikolai flying to wine and dine and show off their alliance to West Ravka, before joining the others in the mountains.
Alina is pained at the thought of separating from Mal, but they have both made the decision to let go of each other, so she tells herself that it is what she wants. She even suggests that after everything is over, Nikolai should reassign Mal. And then Nikolai offers her a ring, the Lansov emerald, and despite the fact that Alina still won’t accept his offer of marriage, he insists that she keep it.
Back in her room, Alina discovers dozens of dresses, also left for her by the prince, and she promptly shares them with Genya, Zoya, Tamar, and Nadia. She also shares the news about the ring, and the girls bond over the things they miss during wartime, their hopes for the future, and romance. Tamar and Nadia flirt and kiss. Alina is grateful for the company, but all too aware that soon she will have to part ways with the girls, and with Mal. Feeling lonely, she finds herself crossing the bond to visit the Darkling.
He asks her if she hesitated, back when Baghra first told her the truth about him and urged her to run. Alina admits that she did, that she even thought sometimes of coming back to him. But she also points out how the Darkling didn’t just deceive her about his attentions, but actively seduced her in order to manipulate her. The Darkling responds simply that he needed to ensure her loyalty, then moves on to talk about Nikolai and Mal, trying to provoke Alina. She asks why he has such disdain for otkazat’sya, and the Darkling replies by asking her what she thinks will happen to her when Nikolai grows old and dies and she remains young, how people will treat her once those who remembered her sacrifices were long dead and buried. Alina realizes that she never thought about it that way before, of how long her life will be and what it might mean to live so long. He tells Alina that she was meant to be his balance, the one who could rule with him and keep him in check, but Alina asks who will do the same for her, pointing out that she might end up just like him. The Darkling is surprised by her answer, but instead of pushing the issue, he tells her his real name, Aleksander, and asks her to say it. The word on Alina’s lips draws them both together, and the Darkling urges her to let him go further, but when she rebuffs him he turns angry and sour, and informs her that he is planning to cross the Fold and attack West Ravka. He claims that David left “secrets” behind at the Little Palace and that after he destroys Nikolai’s only ally he will hunt Alina down like an animal. And then he uses the Cut to send her back across the connection into herself again.
Alina immediately has Tamar summon Mal and Tolya, and goes down to David’s room to get him, where she finds him in bed with Genya. When Alina tells him what she has learned, David is at first confused, but then it occurs to him that the Darkling might be talking about one of his inventions, a glass skiff and a substance he calls lumiya, which burns with light but no heat. But David insists that it would be useless to the Darkling because he would need to use sunlight to activate it once he’s on the Fold; lumiya, like all David’s inventions, was designed to magnify Alina’s power. Alina shows them the way she can make shadows jump, the little bit of power that she somehow picked up from the Darkling during their battle in the chapel, and David confirms that, if the Darkling has the same echo of Alina’s power, that would be enough to use the lumiya as protection against the volcra and cross the Fold. The group realizes that the Darkling, with his light-filled glass skiff, his Grisha army, and his nichevo’ya, has a very good chance at breaking West Ravka, and ensuring that no one else would ever ally with Nikolai or Alina again.
I’m sorry, Tamar and Nadia are adorable. There is something really nice about how their relationship is just slipped in there; it’s not in Alina’s focus as much as Genya and David, because Genya is so important to Alina, but it’s there and and it is so cute too. The flirty thing Tamar does with her knives and weapons to show off to Nadia is all kinds of wonderful, being both cute and kinda creepy at the same time. But then, as Alina later observes, Nadia is as much a soldier as any of them, so it makes sense. There are a lot of similarities between their relationship and David and Genya’s, I think, especially when you consider the gossipy, cliquey Nadia from Shadow and Bone. Nadia and Tamar appear to be so different, and yet their romance seems effortless, and they have more in common than Alina would have originally thought. Also I think Tamar’s more bombastic attitude (as apposed to her much more reserved twin) makes sense as something Nadia would appreciate.
Now that Alina is using the bond to visit the Darkling, rather than the other way around, we are seeing more and more how much this physical connection is shaped and controlled by their shared feelings. In Siege and Storm, Alina “called” the Darkling to her by being lonely, now when she feels that way, the connection opens up for her to travel down herself. Bardugo is also trying to show us another side to the Darkling in Ruin and Rising, having Alina take more note of the way the Darkling sometimes looks like the boy he used to be, and by having her aware now of a little bit more of his past (and soon a lot more, in the next chapter).
But for all that she still experiences a pull to the Darkling, for all that in some ways she is more empathetic towards him than she ever was, Alina has learned too much to be swayed by him anymore. I think it’s really significant to note that it isn’t as though she has lost all feelings for him, but only that she now has enough experience and knowledge to temper them. Alina understands the Darkling’s manipulation of her, and she resents it, even in her moments of sympathy or desire. And that is where the Darkling’s efforts to humanize himself fall down. As much as we may believe that he really cares for Alina, as much as we can see that his need for companionship is real, he proves time and again that he cannot accept anything from Alina utter than total capitulation, that he wants her love and service only on his terms. He still thinks that he can seduce her into agreeing with him, that her pull towards him can be used to overrule the decisions she has clearly and definitively made. And when she refuses to let him play her, when he finally starts to realize that that gambit will never work, he vows to destroy her.
And that’s the Darkling all over, isn’t it? His emotions are real, his affection for his mother, to Alina, and even, I think, to his Grisha followers, is real, but it cannot overcome his lust for ultimate power, his belief that his ends justify any means. I don’t think the Darkling ever really knew how to compromise, but if he did, that ability died long ago. And so he destroys the things that he loves whenever they disobey him; Baghra, his own mother, Genya, the woman who made his assent to power possible, and finally Alina, who he wants by his side but will never forgive for not feeling blind loyalty towards him. Who he cannot forgive for loving an otkazat’sya tracker over the only Grisha who can truly understand her power.
But Alina has a similar problem with Nikolai, and I think it’s as big an obstacle to their relationship as her love for Mal is. Although Nikolai is a good man, and one who Alina has come to care for and trust, she is still highly aware of the machinations of his interest in her. She knows that he is using her, as the Darkling did, even if it is more kindly and respectfully. She is resistant to make a commitment to any relationship that carries such a stain, and I think she is right to be, especially considering how little else about her fate is beyond her control. Being the Sun Summoner will dictate her choices for the rest of her life, but that doesn’t mean she has to attach herself romantically. I think that Alina is aware that she might find some kind of happiness with Nikolai, but also that choosing not to be with him, even if it means she will always be alone, may be the one little bit of freedom she can hold onto.
Chapter 10: Summary
Alina fills Nikolai in on what she has discovered, and how she gained the information. Although she doesn’t like the idea, it is reluctantly decided that they will rally both Nikolai’s forces and any of the Soldat Sol that the Apparat might be willing to send him, and move on the Darkling at West Ravka.
Alina goes to make one last attempt at getting information from Baghra, suspecting that the old woman might even have known Morozova, and although Baghra is as stubborn and resistant as always, when Alina admits that she knows the Darkling’s name, Baghra relents.
She tells Alina the story of Morozova, the great and powerful Grisha Fabrikator who was also a husband and father, about his otkazat’sya wife who traveled the world with him, hunting the stag and then the sea whip, to make Morozova’s grand scheme a reality. But before he could decide on the firebird as the third amplifier, Morozova’s wife became pregnant, and they decided to settle down somewhere out of the way where he could continue his work and the child could be born. When Baghra reveals that the little girl had the power to summon darkness, Alina is shocked to realize that Baghra herself is the daughter of Morozova, and that the Darkling is therefore his grandson.
Baghra tells Alina about how her mother was afraid of her, afraid that her strange powers might be some unwholesome result of Morozova’s experiments, but that her sister was otkazat’sya and much beloved by their parents. Alina can hear the pain in Baghra’s voice as she remembers her sister being favored by her mother, about how it had been so hard to get their father’s attention, as he was always more interested in his work. But one day Baghra’s sister broke her toy, and the strange, powerful little girl lashed out, killing her sister with the Cut.
When Morozova heard the commotion of his wife’s grief and the gathered villagers, he merely knelt down over his daughter’s body and used his powers to bring her back to life. Baghra explains that Morozova was a great healer, and that back in those days, Grisha didn’t distinguish between orders the way they do today. But the villagers saw what Morozova did as witchcraft, and had both the father and the daughter bound with chains and drowned in the river.
Baghra and her mother were driven out of town, and when Morozova’s wife could not overcome her grief, Baghra was forced to leave her in the woods. She was taken in by a family, but she was never able to find her mother again, and suspects that she might just have lain down and died on the forest floor.
Alina wonders how the third amplifier could have been completed if Morozova died, but Baghra points out that a Grisha of his power could very well have survived, and that Morozova would never have abandoned his life’s work, just as Alina cannot abandon her own search for the firebird.
Baghra explains that in those days, all people with such power suffered similar fates to Morozova. And when she had her son, they both saw how the Grisha lived in secret, hiding or persecuted, and how her boy vowed that one day he would make a safe space for all Grisha, that he would make their people valued amongst Ravkans. That dream became the Second Army, but Baghra admits to Alina that she was so desperate to protect her son from the pain and loneliness that she had felt as a child that she taught him to be too proud, to be hard and strong and view himself as better than everyone. She confesses that he learned her lesson, that power was better than love, too well.
When Alina asks what Baghra thinks might have become of Morozova, Baghra tells her that most Grisha with that kind of power eventually take their own lives, after growing tired of watching everyone around them wither away and pass on. Once again it occurs to Alina to consider how long she herself will live, and she wonders what kind of strength she would need to make such a choice, what might happen if she manages to destroy the Fold only to make something worse. She asks Baghra what it would take to kill a Grisha with three amplifiers and Baghra merely replies that she expects that they will find out.
After preparing for her journey and sending a letter to the Apparat asking for troops, Alina is interrupted by Nikolai from musing about Baghra’s story and wondering if she herself might be descended from Morozova’s other daughter. He declares that he has come to show her a miracle. They climb to the top of the fortress to witness a beautiful meteor shower, but Alina’s delight is destroyed by passing Mal on the stairway and realizing that he was also coming to show her the incredible sight. Nikolai, in his usual smug, teasing way, tries to find out what he can do to make her forget Mal, and when Alina won’t rise to the bait, he admits that, if they all survive, he intends to ask her to marry him, and that he wouldn’t allow Mal to stay in the picture. Nikolai’s reasoning is that he does not want any children Alina had to be suspected of being bastards, and to bear the burden that Nikolai has always carried. He tells Alina that the alliance between the First and Second Armies is the alliance he wants for his country, and that while he always knew his marriage would have to be political, he thinks that it is possible for he and Alina to eventually find love.
Alina can see the merits to Nikolai’s arguments, even believe that perhaps she could be happy with that life. But she still finds herself comparing Nikolai’s touch to Mal, and wondering if love really just means longing for something out of reach.
I really want a novel about Morozova. The whole story of his life and death is so interesting, but I can’t help having a lot of questions about Baghra’s perceptions of her father’s work. Her insistence that his quest to create the amplifiers is madness, that the idea of using them is evil and an abomination that only more evil can come from them, has been a driving force for Alina’s decisions and struggles throughout the series. This central theme has never really been questioned up to this point. Alina feels that she has no choice but to seek all three amplifiers in order to defeat the Darkling, and she hopes that the result of bringing them all together won’t be catastrophic, but she never questions if Baghra is wrong about the morality of her choice. She never questions Baghra’s knowledge or judgment in the matter.
Of course, Baghra saw what happened when the Darkling created the Fold, and that certainly must inform her opinion of using merzost, but I think that her childhood neglect must also be a huge factor in what she thinks of the amplifiers. How much more is Morozova’s work an abomination in her eyes because of the fact that it caused her father to neglect her, her mother to fear her, and ultimately caused her to lose her entire family? How could she not grow up cursing her father’s obsession?
Narratively, Baghra’s position in Alina’s story is similar to that of the Wise Guide, the knowledgeable older wizard-type who gives the hero the information they need to set out on their quest, and sometimes a gentle (or not so gentle) nudge out the door. But unlike, say, Gandalf or Dumbledore, Baghra never wanted Alina to go on this quest. She has only ever wanted her to run away from her fate, to stop the journey from unfolding. Baghra doesn’t care about the fate of the world, the triumph over darkness, she only wants her son back, and it is only Alina’s continued insistence that forces her into the position of teacher and knowledgeable guide. Really, Baghra knows very little about either Morozova or Grisha power, but since no one else knows anything about Morozova, it makes her look extremely knowledgeable in contrast.
It might be my foreknowledge of the ending, but after hearing Baghra’s story it sort of makes me trust her advice less than I did before, and I wonder that Alina doesn’t have more questions about the true nature of the amplifiers, about Morozova’s intent, about Baghra’s lack of hope for the future of either her son or the country. But then, she doesn’t really have time to muse too deeply on what she’s learned, because in the next chapter, things are about to get bad.
Chapter 11 – 12: Summary
The next day Alina and Nikolai are about to leave on their ambassadorial mission and Mal and the others are heading off to hunt the firebird. Mal and Alina say goodbye, and Alina gets in a hug, and Mal says goodbye to Nikolai as well, telling him to “deserve” Alina before basically running away. But no one has a chance to even get onboard their ships when suddenly a nichevo’ya swoops down and carries Nikolai off, another one catching Alina up in its claws. Mal and Tamar come running, and Mal manages to help pull Alina down as she turns her power on the attacking shadow monsters. The Darkling arrives a moment later, surrounded by his creatures, two of them carrying Sergei between them.
The Darkling tells Alina that Sergei told him everything, that he went to the first of the Darkling’s guards that he could find to betray her. Alina tells the Darkling not to hurt him, but the Darkling explains that Sergei betrayed him first, and so the choice between mercy and justice is his. He has the nichevo’ya tear Sergei apart.
Mal and Alina barely have time to react to this brutality when another nichevo’ya appears carrying Nikolai. Alina is afraid that he will also be killed but instead the Darkling has him thrown down beside her and uses his shadow power to infect Nikolai. Nikolai grows fangs and claws as the black shadow spreads over his skin like veins, his eyes going dark and shadow wings sprouting from his back. But he still looks like Nikolai beneath the horror, and Alina can see him struggling with himself and the darkness that has taken hold. The Darkling is sure that Nikolai will feed on his friends, but he flies away instead.
Furious and horrified, Alina unleashes all her power at the Darkling, but there are too many nichevo’ya and she cannot destroy enough of them. Just as they are all being overwhelmed, the monsters stop moving, hanging still in the air. And that is when Alina sees Baghra and Misha, standing at the door to the balcony as fighting carries on behind them. Baghra has Misha lead her over to the railing, beyond which the Darkling hovers in the air, and she tells him that she has come to meet his monsters. They respond to her with interest, recognizing some kind of kinship between them, but although the Darkling insists that she come back with him and that she will not be harmed, Baghra orders Alina not to fail her again and then uses her power to make lashes of darkness that bind all of the nichevo’ya to her. “Know that I loved you,” she tells the Darkling. “Know that it was not enough.” And with that she leaps off the balcony, falling to her death and dragging the nichevo’ya with her. The Darkling, horrified, dives after her with the rest of his creatures, giving Alina and Mal the chance to make a run for it, taking Misha with them.
They manage to make it down to the hanger where the airships are, and they find their friends and some of Nikolai’s men holding off a crowed of the Darkling’s Grisha and oprichniki from one of the boats. The climb aboard, and when the ship is too heavy to take off, the soldiers jump overboard to fight and allow Alina to escape.
Adrik has been badly injured by a nichevo’ya bite to his shoulder, and Tolya struggles to save his life as Zoya and Nadia summon wind to carry the craft along. They travel for hours, all the original Grisha who left the White Cathedral with Alina (except for Stigg, who they could not find) holding each other together despite the fact that Nadia and Zoya have no one to give them a break as they summon, that Harshaw was never trained to work the lines on the sails, that they are all wounded and tired and their confidence is horribly shaken. Despite everything, Alina can’t help noticing how they have all come together as a team, how even those she once doubted like Harshaw and Zoya are standing up when it really counts.
Afraid of being seen once daylight breaks, the group discusses finding a place to land, but there are few options that seem viable. Finally, David suggests that Alina could bend light around the ship, making them invisible to anyone looking up from below. Alina is skeptical, but after practicing on Tamar’s boot, finds that she can do it.
They fly for days, Zoya and Natalia forced to summon the entire time as Alina struggles not to think of her grief over Sergei and Baghra and Nikolai, and they finally arrive at a safe canyon where they can hide and rest. Adrik begins to recover, although Tolya had to amputate his arm, and Alina decides they will rest for a while before continuing on to search for the firebird, their only remaining hope in the fight against the Darkling. While gathering firewood, Alina is surprised by Nikolai landing in a tree near her. She tries to speak to him but he flies away, and that’s when her grief finally gets the better of her and she breaks down, and when she does, she feels an answering grief from the Darkling, trying to pull her along the tether between them. But she doesn’t go.
Later, Mal finds her, and he tells her that she shouldn’t shut the others out, that they all need to grieve with her. Alina doesn’t want them to see how frightened and hurt she is feeling, but she takes Mal’s advice and admits to the others that she has been gone for so long because she needed to cry. Then they talk about their anger towards Sergei, wondering if he had planned the whole thing all along or if he was just fell apart at the end, about Nikolai and if he can be saved, about Baghra and the stories they all have from being trained by her as children. David admits that Baghra hated him, that she refused to ever teach him, and Alina recognizes that it must be because David’s passion for knowledge reminded Baghra of Morozova. But she recognizes the difference between David and the man who had neglected his family in the pursuit of his work; when Genya needed David, he was there, as he was for all of them. She muses about Adrik and Natalia, who have both proved themselves to be soldiers, stronger than Sergei, stronger, too, Alina thinks, than she is herself. She muses over Tamar and Nadia’s relationship, and realizes how grateful she is to have all these people with her, but also how much she fears that her weakness in keeping them close.
Alina spends a lot of time in this book trying to “despise her heart”, as Tolya and Tamar’s saying goes. She tells herself to let go of Mal, to let go of needing people and to be more like the Darkling in order to stop him, but the people around her keep unknowingly pushing back against this decision. Last week I talked about how Alina both wants to be, and fears being, more heartless and ruthless, and it is interesting to me that she doesn’t actually realize that she is striking a pretty good balance, all things considered. I think she is right in believing that, if she had chosen to be the Darkling’s partner and rule with him, she would eventually become as bad as he is. But I also think that she doesn’t recognize the strengths of her continuing choice of mercy, despite that little speech Mal gave her in Chapter 7. She believes the Darkling’s lesson that her friends are a liability, that her love makes her weak, even as she sees the evidence all around her that this isn’t true.
I expected her to feel more guilt over Sergei’s betrayal than she did, although I’m glad that it didn’t become a huge thing in the narration. She does think about how her guilt over Marie’s death clouded her judgement in deciding to let him go, but she doesn’t view her compassion towards him as a weakness. Even after learning of his betrayal, she recognized the word “safe” that Sergei was muttering to himself and wanted mercy for him.
And I wonder if that isn’t why Baghra sacrificed herself so Alina could escape. When she helped Alina flee the Little Palace in Book One, Baghra said that she was doing it for her son, to protect him, in hopes that some part of him could remain human and ultimately be saved. She must have had a pretty good idea what kind of price he would exact for her actions, and she was willing to pay it. I wonder now if she isn’t doing the same thing for Alina, sacrificing herself for the part of Alina that remained human and good. Although it’s subtle, there is shift in Baghra’s attitude once she lives at the Spinning Wheel with Nikolai; she seems just a little less despairing, she shows a grudging affection for Nikolai and for Misha, and she seems to have a level of compassion for Alina that was never there before. I like to think that maybe there was just a glimmer of hope there for Baghra at the end, even if her son was lost to her.
The narration is trying to humanize the Darkling for us a bit now, as it starts to bring his story full circle, and I have to admit it isn’t really working for me. The recognition that he was once a boy, “who had a name, and not a title,” humanizes Baghra, but I don’t really see that boy in the Darkling, even though Alina does. I guess by now I’m as wary of his manipulation as Alina is.
Actually, come to think of it, of all the Darkling’s actions in the entire three books, I think the thing that makes him feel the most human to me is the brutal way he hurts the people who betray him. From his verbal attacks on Alina to the torture of Genya and his own mother, the Darkling’s reactions are overblown every time; and while he calls these reactions justice, it is clear that what he really is doing is taking revenge. The Darkling is a calculated strategist in almost every situation, but the way he lashes out shows hurt feelings and pain in a clearer way than anything else he does. I’m never sure about how honest he is being when he tries to be sweet with Alina, but when he rages? That is the real Darkling. It’s not a show. It makes him the bad guy, but it also shows pain and fear, rather than his usual cold, implacable demeanor.
Next week we’re going to cover the last part of Ruin and Rising; we’ll see the team track the firebird through the mountains, we’ll see Nikolai again, and we’ll finally get the last part of the story of Morozova’s amplifiers and the fate of his descendants. There’s a lot of pain coming up before the end, but for now we can leave Alina and Mal, Tamar and Nadia, and David and Genya snuggled up by the fire, lost and hurting and without much hope, but at least together.
Oh, and Harshaw and Oncat too. How about that romance, eh?
Kelsey Jefferson Barrett actually loves camping, and the Sikurzoi sound like a pretty awesome place to do it. You know, except if your friends are all murdered and your entire country about to be destroyed unless you find a mythical creature that may or may not have been turned into a magical weapon by a possibly dead guy. Kelsey does not do that well under pressure.