Hello and welcome back to the second half our our reread of Shadow and Bone, the first book of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy. Today we’re going to pick up where I left off last week with Chapter 14 and go right on to the epilogue.
Looking back on last week’s reread, I was thinking about the characters that didn’t get much or any of my attention; characters like Zoya and David and Ivan, who are important to the book, but moreso to the series in general than in Book 1. All three of those characters come up in this week’s reread, but they still don’t seem as important to the themes of the book and Alina’s journey as they could be. Or maybe I’m just too busy fawning over the parallels between Alina and Genya’s circumstances and trying to decide how much sincerity lurks beneath the Darkling’s lies and sultry ways.
Chapter 14: Summary
In Chapter 14 the people of the Grand and Little Palaces are gearing up for the the winter fete, the greatest party of the year which includes feasting and dancing, guests and performers from all over Ravka, and a special demonstration of Grisha talent. Alina is working hard at her training, but she is distracted by the preparations for the festivities, by her feelings for the Darkling, and by her growing realization of the limits of her own power. When training with Baghra she finds herself fretting over her inability to be strong enough to destroy the Fold, both for the sake of the people Ravka and for the sake of pleasing the Darkling.
When Genya comes to Alina’s rooms to help get her ready for the fete, they talk about the court, the Grisha, David (the talented Fabrikator that Genya has a crush on) and the Darkling. When Alina’s special party kefta is delivered to her room, she is shocked to find that it is black, and is even adorned with a gold charm at the neck that bears the Darkling’s symbol. She’s a bit annoyed at being singled out, having successfully negotiated for summoner’s blue up until now, but once she’s dressed she can’t deny how amazing she looks, or how she feels a thrill at such attentions from the Darkling. But Genya, who has picked up on Alina’s feelings, cautions her about being attracted to a man who is so powerful; it’s understandable, but Alina shouldn’t let her heart get involved.
At the fete, Alina observes the exotic food and entertainment, and is required to mingle with the guests, including Duke Keramsov, whose estate she grew up on, though he fails to recognize her. When it is time for the Grisha’s demonstration, Alina gets to see the Darkling for the first time since he kissed her, and she enjoys using her power in conjunction with his during the demonstration, reveling in the Darkling’s showmanship and the combination of their abilities. But Alina’s enjoyment is nothing compared to the reaction of the guests, who cheer and rejoice to see that the rumors of the Sun Summoner are true, and that the suffering of the divided country is coming to an end. Some cry, and everyone wants to shake Alina’s hand, touch her, talk to her, or even ask her to bless them. She doesn’t really know how to handle it, and feels that they are giving the people false hope, since she and the Darkling both know that she isn’t powerful enough to destroy the Fold. But the Darkling assures her that she is still his answer, that he isn’t done with her yet, and uses his power to shroud them both and sneak away.
In an empty room, the Darkling pushes Alina up against the wall and kisses her. Alina struggles with conflicting feelings, her attraction to him and the pleasure of his touch and his power, the fact that she doesn’t even know him very well, despite her attraction to him, and the fact that she can sense anger, or something like it, behind his ardor. When she asks him about it, the Darkling admits that he shouldn’t be here with her; his men have located Morozova’s herd and he should be in the war room, preparing to go after them. A group of noisy party goers in the hall disturbs them, and the Darkling asks if he can come to Alina’s room later, but she is confused and doesn’t answer before he leaves.
Alina returns to the party for a little while, but when she’s on her way back to her rooms in the Little Palace, she runs into a group of soldiers leaving the Darkling’s chambers, and is surprised to see Mal among them. Alina is overjoyed to see him and delighted by the knowledge that, of course, Mal is the tracker who was able to find the herd. But despite her elation, Mal doesn’t seem pleased to see her, and when pressed, he begins to question Alina about whether she is happy at the palace with the Grisha and the Darkling, and calls her out for wearing his color and symbols, saying that the Darkling owns her. When Alina replies that he owns everyone, Mal insists that the Darkling doesn’t own him and leaves in a huff.
One of the interesting things about Alina’s power is that its importance is based upon its uniqueness. Last week I skipped over the rivalry with Zoya, the powerful squaller whose jealousy over Alina’s special position actually led to her using her power on Alina during Botkin’s training, hurting her badly enough that she needed a healer and a night in the infirmary. But I think it’s very interesting to touch on the fact that Alina is talented, but her power isn’t necessarily stronger than that of other Grisha. It puts her in the position of being considered so valuable and important, and often being lauded by those around her, without really giving her a huge confidence boost. Alina wants to belong, to impress the Darkling, and genuinely to be able to help stop suffering she has seen around her all her life. Her discovery of her power has led to her being more whole in herself, but she struggles with the same feelings of uselessness she always has had.
And then there’s the black kefta. Alina is uncomfortable because it singles her out when she wants to belong, but she doesn’t consider the idea of belonging to the Darkling to be a bad thing. However, the way that people talk about the kefta and the symbol makes my skin crawl; summoner’s blue belongs to the summoner who wears it, but the color black does not belong to Alina. It is the Darkling’s, and his alone, and everyone who talks about what Alina wears says the same thing. His color. His symbol. His favor. Alina isn’t being singled out for who she is, but who she belongs to.
And once again, her questioning of the Darkling plans leads to kissing (and then some). I think it’s possible that some of the Darkling’s surprise at his attraction towards Alina might be genuine, but I also think it’s super convenient that he is confessing to being confused by his feelings and torn by his own needs and what he perceives as his duty right at the same moment that Alina is struggling with those ideas. It makes him sympathetic in her eyes, enhances the illusion that she might have some power in the relationship, and suggests just how much they have in common. Both the Darkling and Alina have thought about their commonalities before, the only summoners of their kind, both lonely and separated from others.
Mal, of course, is the most obvious in calling out the symbolism of the Darkling’s possessiveness of Alina, although he does it in a cruel and ugly way because of his jealousy. It’s clear already that Mal hadn’t really considered how he felt about Alina before she went away, and I really feel like she was right to tell him off the way she did. Of course, Mal might have been more fair about the whole thing if he’d received any of Alina’s letters—spending long months being terrified for someone isn’t exactly conducive to viewing things objectively—but I think also the idea of belonging is something that Alina has always had to deal with in some way, something she has always been striving for, and Mal has never thought about it until now. He’s been taken by surprise by his own jealousy.
And, also of course, Alina is exactly right that the Darkling owns them all, in some way, and the theme of that debate leads perfectly into the next chapter in which a whole other level of ownership and belonging is brought into play.
Chapter 15–20: Summary
Brokenhearted from Mal’s words, Alina retreats to her room to cry, but she doesn’t have any time to deal with her feelings about Mal or her encounter with the Darkling before Baghra shows up, basically in a panic, and drags Alina away and down to a small secret room. There she tells Alina the truth about the Darkling: he is much older than he admits, and is actually the same Darkling who created the Fold in the first place, and he intends to use Alina’s power not to destroy the Fold but to enhance it, intending to wield it as a weapon against the other nations and gain control Ravka for himself. She tells Alina that the Darkling will kill the stag and therefore have control over the amplifier, making Alina, once she is wearing it, his slave.
Alina is reluctant to believe Baghra, but the old woman’s obvious emotion gives her pause, especially when Baghra explains that she knows all these things because she is the Darkling’s mother. Baghra shows Alina that she, too, can summon darkness, and admits that she feels responsible for the monster he has become. The more Alina considers the Darkling’s behavior and the ways in which he avoids her questions and keeps her waiting, reliant on him, the more she begins to believe Baghra, and finally she decides that she must do as Baghra says and flee.
Alina hides in the cart of some departing performers and escapes the palace, planning to travel to the Fold and then across to West Ravka. She avoids crowds and main thoroughfares as much as possible, terrified that she’ll be recognized, but she finds as she travels that none of the King’s soldiers seem to be looking for her. It isn’t until she gets accosted by a drunken man in the city of Ryevost and gives herself away to one of the Darkling’s guards that she is recognized. Alina flees into the woods, and although her escape seems impossible, at the last moment Mal appears and leads her to safety.
Together Mal and Alina discuss the situation; he admits that the Darkling’s servants haven’t found Morotzova’s stag yet and that they probably won’t be able to find it without Mal’s help, and once Alina convinces him that she didn’t just run away from the Darkling because of “some kind of lovers’ quarrel” and isn’t going back to him, Mal agrees to help her.
Alina tells Mal everything about the Darkling’s plans, and the two of them go after the stag together. Despite the physical difficulty of the journey, Alina finds some peace in the experience being with Mal. Together they hunt the stag, fight off a couple of robbers, and even reminisce about their childhood and laugh together. Alina wishes she could stay with Mal, just like this, forever, but she knows that she can’t have that life, and makes Mal promise to kill her rather than let the Darkling enslave her. He reluctantly agrees.
It’s early spring when Mal starts to believe that they are getting very close to the herd, and he even takes Alina to wait and watch a specific plateau where Mal feels certain the stag will appear. As they sit together in the cold, Mal begins to open up to Alina, and the next day he admits to his jealousy over the Darkling, to how much he missed Alina, and how deeply he feels that they belong together. He apologizes for taking so long to see it, and the two share a kiss. At the same moment, Morotzova’s stag appears.
Mal prepares to shoot the stag and then let Alina finish it off, but she stops him, and finds herself unable to take its life. She tells Mal that they will find another way, but just then the Darkling and a group of Grisha burst out of the trees around them, and Alina and Mal are unable to fight them off. The Darkling kills the stag and has his men take the antlers, and it is David, Genya’s Fabrikator crush, who fastens the antlers into a necklace around Alina’s neck, leaving no fastening or seam with which it could be taken off. When the Darkling commands her to use her power, Alina finds that it responds to his will and not her own; she is a helpless conduit. The Darkling throws Mal in chains and declares that the party will head to the Fold.
The Darkling and his Grisha keep Mal and Alina separated on the journey to the Fold, and the Darkling holds Mal’s safety over Alina to keep her in line. As they travel, Alina learns that no one has been informed of her disappearance, and as they return to Kribirsk, the port city where Alina and Mal had waited to cross the Fold with their regiment in the beginning of the book, people cheer for the arrival of the Sun Summoner and Alina’s friends from the Little Palace are happy to see her, although surprised that she seems so tired and unwell. Alina can’t tell them the truth, for fear that the Darkling will hurt Mal, but when Genya brings her lunch, Alina comes to understand that Genya, at least, is somewhat aware of the Darkling’s plans. She tells Alina that the King is unwell and that the Apparat is ruling Ravka in his place, and Alina infers that Genya might have had something to do with the King’s illness. Genya is now wearing Corporalki red, and she tries to subtly impress upon Alina that their loyalty should be with the Darkling, although she also admits that David feels horribly guilty for his part of what happened.
There’s still a lot Alina, and therefore we as readers, don’t understand about amplifiers at this point. We know that the Grisha Morozova wrote about the special amplifiers and was obsessed with them; the way the stag is talked about it’s almost like Morozova created the stag, rather than just identified its potential as an amplifier. Of course there’s a lot to come in the next two books, but I’ll try not to jump too far ahead and just touch on the Darkling’s statement from earlier that Alina keeps remembering; “Sometimes I wonder how much we understand our own abilities.” The Darkling’s reckless seeking of power seems to fit as well with this theme as anything else in the book; he is relying on stories and myths to find the power he needs, and although he likes to act as though he has all the answers, it is clear that he doesn’t understand a lot of things. Like Alina and Mal, he is scrambling in the wilderness, struggling with the fact that the very Fold he created is something he cannot control, because of the unexpected existence of the volcra, and looking for solutions that until Alina seemed they would never present themselves.
One can’t help but draw a parallel between Alina’s intentions to kill the stag and inability to ultimately do so, and Mal’s inability to carry out his reluctant promise to kill Alina if the Darkling captured them. Alina’s mercy seems to turn to disaster, just as Mal’s love stops him from sparing her from enslavement. At this point, the Darkling’s attitude of “do what must be done” seems the far more effective one, especially with people like David and Genya following him.
While they’re traveling, Alina has a conversation with Ivan, the Corporanik right-hand of the Darkling, with whom she has always had an antagonistic relationship. Ivan’s story of the loss of his family to the war also paints the Darkling’s actions in a seemingly more reasonable light, and shows why so many Grisha see what he is doing as just. Alina is no stranger to the loss and pain brought by war, and even though she can see how the Darkling’s seizure of power will ultimately be bad and lead to just as much suffering, she understands how Ivan and the others feel. Especially Genya.
Oh, Genya. Genya my love, in your new red kefta, how my heart aches for you. I think Genya is the perfect example of the Darkling’s manipulation of people; just as he used Alina and still expects to be lauded and loved, he used Genya, putting her in a position to be a servant, abused and taken advantage of, separated from the very people to whom she belonged. Alina recognizes it instantly; “The Darkling had put her in that position for his own gain, and now he had raised her out of it.” But Genya’s hatred of the King and Queen for what they put her through doesn’t extend to the Darkling, or if it does, she keeps that resentment hidden. And what choice does she have? Like Alina, she wants to belong, to be her whole self and have autonomy, but unlike Alina, she has no Mal to run away with, no other life to show her a different way to be happy. And yet she cares so much for Alina, and I think Alina’s forgiveness comes as much from the friendship they shared as it does from understanding why Genya is making the choice that she is.
Chapter 21–Epilogue: Summary
The day before they are to enter the Fold, the Darkling summons Alina to him and forces her into a conversation. He expresses his frustration that she would abandon Ravka, and abandon him, after all he has done for her, and all the power he has offered. Alina is almost swayed by the reasonable arguments that he makes, insisting that he is doing what needs to be done for the sake of Ravka. But ultimately she knows better, and instead tries to use her compliance to bargain for Mal’s life. The Darkling behaves as though he is considering the offer, considering mercy, and then tells Alina that she has one night to say goodbye to Mal before the Darkling feeds him to the volcra on the Fold. Mal and Alina spend the night in the dungeons together, apologizing for the mistakes they’ve each made, reminiscing about their past, and affirming their love for each other.
The next day Alina and the Darkling lead a party of Grisha, Ravkan soldiers, and emissaries from all the nations, including a special envoy from the King, out into the Fold, and Grisha inferni light up the sky to call the volcra to them, so that the Darkling can show off Alina’s power. At his command, Alina summons light, not just enough to drive the Volcra away but enough to make an illuminated path all the way across the Fold to West Ravka on the other side, allowing the assembled delegates to see the docks and the city of Novokribirsk in the distance. But when the Darkling summons more of the Fold to stretch into Novokribirsk, covering it in darkness and letting the volcra in to feast upon the unsuspecting citizens, the truth of his intentions becomes clear to everyone. Despite protests from the King’s envoy, the Darkling declares that there will be peace, on his terms, and if anyone, even the King, were to protest, he will bring the Shadow Fold to their doorsteps.
As the Grisha rejoice at the end to war and suffering and others mourn or cower in fear, the Darkling orders that Mal be brought and thrown over the side of the skiff. Alina can only watch, helpless, as she is ordered to pull her light in, leaving Mal in darkness and allowing the volcra to come for him. And then, just when she is utterly helpless and believes all hope is lost, she sees the image of the stag in her mind’s eye, the same image that she has been seeing every night in her dreams. Alina realizes that it is not guilt that has been making her dream of the stag but a message; she suddenly understands that while the Darkling may have claimed the stag’s power by taking its life, she had gained power in sparing it. And the power of that mercy is something that the Darkling does not understand.
Alina feels as she had in Baghra’s hut, the power that had been taken from her suddenly coming back in full force, and with the added strength from the collar she easily drives the volcra back and prevents the Darkling from using his power against her or Mal. Alina begs the other Grisha to realize the truth about what the Darkling is doing, to help her stop him. They do not take her side, nor can they risk killing her and losing their protection against the volcra—she uses this to her advantage and escapes, vaulting over the side of the skiff and retreating to Mal. The Darkling asks if she will actually murder people, if she will show none of the mercy she had begged him for earlier, and although Alina knows that taking such action will bring her closer to being like the Darkling, she withdraws her power and uses the Cut to destroy the skiff. She and Mal flee, safe from the volcra in the light of Alina’s power, and make it to West Ravka.
The two fugitives burn Alina’s black kefta, both agreeing than Alina should never wear black again. Mal adds that they will find a way to get rid of the collar too, but Alina reminds him that it is still the only hope of destroying the Fold someday. But she knows, also, that the power of the collar belongs to her now, and she isn’t sure she wants to give it up.
In the epilogue, we see the boy and the girl traveling together on a ship across the true sea, together in the face of loneliness and fear, two lost orphans with no one but each other and the hope of some life together on the other side of the sea.
I have to admit, I missed the theme of mercy the first time I read the book. I even went so far as to view Alina’s reclaiming of the collar as a cheap trick on Bardugo’s part, a sort of “power of love” moment. But on the second read I found the whole thing actually much more complex, and I also realized how much of what happens is not only a result of Alina’s strength, but also of the Darkling’s hubris.
While talking in his tent and trying to bargain for Mal’s life, Alina tells the Darkling that if he will just spare Mal’s life, she will stop fighting him and serve him willingly. The Darkling feigns an interest in the idea of being merciful, not really for Mal or Alina’s sake so much as for his own, almost like it is a hat he wants to try on, or a distant memory of something he used to do. Reading it, I’m reminded of Baghra in Chapter 16, explaining to Alina that she still has hope that her son might be redeemed, and that she wants to put the power of the Fold out of his reach to keep him from moving beyond the point of possible redemption. What would it cost the Darkling, I wonder, to offer mercy to Alina? Would it have put a chink in his armor, so to speak? How long has it been since he considered the idea of mercy, of doing something for someone else and not only by justification of his quest for power?
Ultimately he sneers at the idea of providing mercy for a traitor, but of course, he isn’t really angry about Mal’s betrayal. He is angry at Alina’s, that she would reject the great Darkling and all his power and the life he offers her for someone he views as insignificant, a simple tracker, one of “the abandoned” as the Grisha call those without their abilities. And his very inability to grant Alina the mercy that she asks for is what destroys his hold on her.
Alina granted mercy to the stag, and in the moment of truth, she is able to extend that mercy to Mal. It’s not the power of love so much as the choice of love over power, of mercy over strength. Alina knew what she would lose if she chose not to claim the amplifier, so I think it’s important to view her decision not to kill the stag in that light. When she and Mal are fleeing, the Darkling shouts to her that destroying the skiff and leaving everyone to die makes her more like him, and I think he’s not wrong. But the power of Alina’s mercy will also sustain her through this hard choice, and many others to come.
The epilogue is sweet, and the idea that Mal and Alina are in some ways back to where they started is a poignant one, since their childhood together is the only thing that ever truly made them happy. The mention that there are rumors of the Sun Summoner’s death and of Civil War in Ravka are relevant to the next book, where we will begin to see a culmination of the little bits here and there in Shadow and Bone about how Alina is being worshiped by people as a saint. We will also see more of some of the side characters from Shadow and Bone, and the reappearance of the Apparat, who never becomes more than a creepy figure and a symbol of warning to the reader in this book, will show that Alina isn’t the only person who the Darkling has misjudged.
But all that is til next week! In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this week’s themes of love and mercy, duty, and sacrifice. Also, which order do you think you’d belong to, if you were a Grisha? Let me know in the comments.
Kelsey Jefferson Barrett agrees that kindness and mercy are a great strength, and would like to know just how cumbersome a collar made of whole antlers would be. Probably pretty cumbersome.