Note: This article contains spoilers for both the book series and the Netflix adaptation of the novels.
There is a fascinating tension between Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone series and Eric Heisserer’s Netflix adaptation of the books. Besides the combination of storylines that helped the show keep an addictive pace, showrunner Eric Heisserer has also made considerable alterations to the original trilogy: changing Alina’s racial heritage, adding some truly fantastic lines of dialogue for Mal’s character, and most notably, removing the quandary of whether or not Alina is willing to slaughter a boatload of bystanders in her conflict with the Darkling. Whether or not a protagonist can commit murder for the greater good is a worthwhile discussion on its own, but whether or not a Saint can be a murderer is especially interesting. Particularly because in Bardugo’s trilogy, the author seems to point out how ineffective it is to judge morality between characters in a world with no central moral standard or code.
Along with the Ravkan dress echoing that of imperial Russia, the Apparat creeping around like Rasputin, and Baghra grousing like Baba Yaga, there’s also a tantalizing echo of high church and Eastern Orthodoxy in the narrative of the Saints. The Ravkan people pray to the Saints for wisdom and intervention, and gather to honor their Saints in chapels. ‘Saintsforsaken’ is a delightful little swear word used by a number of principle characters, and also a rather telling clue pointing us towards another important element of the Grishaverse—it is a world without an established deity or higher power, agnostic in that it feels neither the need to affirm nor deny one. The characters, after all, are far too busy affirming and denying the existence of the Saints themselves, even in a trilogy that centers on a living Saint. This general religious doubt pairs nicely with Alina’s own conflicting emotions about her newly acquired status as Sankta Alina. As she adjusts to her rare Summoner powers, she often questions who she truly is. In the Netflix show, this culminates in a powerful scene where she confidently faces down the Darkling and declares, “Your first words to me were ‘What are you?’ This is what I am.” She is the Grisha who can stand up to the Darkling, the Saint who is going to defeat the Fold. And we, as viewers and readers, get the sense that when Alina triumphs, the good side will triumph.
But what exactly are the moral or supernatural requirements in the Grishaverse for becoming a saint? What does the journey to sainthood (or heresy) entail?
Generally speaking, a saint is understood to be a force for good, and the label ‘heretic’ has traditionally been used to express disapproval and condemnation. And yet, with the absence of any higher authority or system of belief providing a code of morality by which to measure themselves against, Bardugo’s characters seem to struggle continually with what actions are acceptable and which are not in the course of achieving their own ends. This is not a critique of Bardugo in the least. Although I personally believe in a higher power whose example I feel inspired to follow, I was utterly captivated by the lack thereof in Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, and the way Bardugo herself seems to revel both in the religious overtones of her story and in this murk of morality between her two central opposing forces: Alina and Aleksander. If Bardugo had simply adopted the saint vs. heretic terminology as a surface-level way of separating Good Guy and Bad Guy, this wouldn’t be a particularly rewarding line of thought. Thankfully, there are plenty of moments in the text hinting that Bardugo is not just bandying random religious terms about, and instead seems to be presenting a moral paradigm that’s masterfully threaded throughout the Shadow and Bone book series, culminating in a fantastic final scene between the Saint and the Heretic. For fans of the show, the question then becomes, are Heisserer’s Alina and Aleksander going to do the same?
Alina begins the book series as a lovesick girl, uncertain of herself and her tenuous hold on Mal’s attention, but willing to sacrifice herself for the good of others. She shields Mal’s body with her own against a volcra attack on her first journey through the Fold, and she refuses to take the life of Morozova’s Stag, even when she knows it will give her the power to withstand the Darkling. Alina’s fascination with the Darkling (also called Aleksander in the books, and General Kirigan in the show) and conflicted yearnings for Mal oftentimes felt more like an obligatory nod to conventional YA drama than an inventive take on attraction or romantic entanglements—particularly after reading Bardugo’s captivating relationship dynamics in her later Grishaverse installments. But Alina’s forgiveness towards the female Grisha who first actively shunned and betrayed her in the Little Palace, resulting in a warm scene of camaraderie in Ruin and Rising while rifling through new clothing, is refreshing. It highlights Alina’s overall growth towards embracing community, moving from someone who begrudged her one friend his other friendships to someone who draws strength from having multiple people around her, no longer weighing Mal down with the responsibility of meeting her every need. This all culminates in the series’ epilogue—Alina started as an orphan, and ends as a caretaker of orphans.
But Alina also undergoes a negative evolution throughout the books. As she gains power, she begins to crave power. After killing the Sea Serpent and while hunting the Firebird, she reminisces—“…I missed the girl who had shown the stag mercy, who had been strong enough to turn away from the lure of power…” She begins to physically long for the third of Morozova’s amplifiers, anticipating the delightful power that it will give her. When Alina and Mal realize the bloody price that third amplifier will entail, Alina initially rebels at the thought, but still desires it. The last act of Ruin and Rising is a dilemma over how far Alina is willing to go to secure the win against the Darkling. Will she go so far as to take the life of a long-beloved friend?
At the beginning of the book series, when thinking about what makes a morally “bad” character, a reader could easily list the Darkling’s offenses as obvious examples. He lies to Alina about the nature of his power, who he is, and what his intentions are. And yet, Alina does the same when dissembling in front of the Apparat’s followers in the White Cathedral, going so far as to brand soldiers with her own mark in a display of blatant religious manipulation. So, strict adherence to truth is not the baseline of morality. Or perhaps what separates the good from the bad is their end goal. Alina first desires to destroy the Fold for the good of all Ravka (and the Grisha). The Darkling wants to continue protecting the Grisha (and Ravka) by using the Fold against other countries. Both hurt others in pursuit of these goals, and are definitely willing to hurt those who support their opponents. If some Grisha disagree with the Darkling’s methods, then those Grisha are expendable for the greater good of other Grisha. Likewise, if some Grisha back the Darkling instead of Alina, then those Grisha need to be stopped for the sake of all the other Grisha. Alina and the Darkling’s moral paradigm seems to echo on another, rather than contrast, with no clear hierarchy by which to judge their actions.
In Seige and Storm, Alina recollects, “How many people had been aboard that sand skiff [in the Fold]? Thirty? Forty? I felt sick. I could hear the screams, the howls of the volcra. I could smell the gunpowder and blood. I’d sacrificed those people for Mal’s life, for my freedom, and in the end, they’d died for nothing.” Then, a curious thing happens: The Darkling ‘marks’ Alina with his nichevo’ya, and she gains the ability to manipulate shadows and to telepathically communicate with him over great distances. The once crystal-clear polarity of Light and Dark is destroyed. As Bardugo has been clearly hinting since the beginning of the series, “like calls to like.” Alina and the Darkling resonate with each other, so that even their powers have begun to resemble the other’s.
It’s not a perfect leveling of their differences, or a flattening of their contradictions—if anything, this development introduces a new level of complexity at the heart of their story. And thank goodness, because I rooted for Alina throughout the book series, and anticipate rooting for her throughout the Netflix series as well. Perhaps the truly fundamental difference between the two comes down to how they treat their own community.
The Darkling seems constantly disconnected from his community. As the leader of the Second Army, he eats and sleeps separately; throughout the series, he is never shown to take another Grisha’s counsel; and after emerging alive from the Fold, Alina observes, “The Darkling’s underlings had always treated him with awe and respect, but this was something new. Even Ivan looked a little ill.” The Grisha fear him. The Darkling also does not forgive. He attempts to ruin Genya for hesitating when Alina and Mal escape in the second book—letting his nichevo’ya maul and scar her features. And when he learns that Baghra, his mother, aided Alina, the Darkling blinds her. Later, when the two face off again, the Darkling kills Baghra. Meanwhile, Alina relinquishes her claim to rancor, vengeance, or mistrust at various key moments—when she forgives Genya’s betrayal, begrudgingly befriends Zoya, and initiates protection over a Grisha First Army that hasn’t decided if they’re loyal to her or not. And while the Darkling and Alina both experience the same obsession with power, the Darkling forces another person into amplifiers, or “a collar” and “chains.” Alina doesn’t ever try to exert a similar control over anyone else. She’s the one being controlled.
In this respect, then, Alina has the moral high ground. And that’s why Morozova’s third amplifier is such a blow. Mal is Alina’s first friend, the first person with whom she experienced a sense of community, before the other Grisha and before Ravka. I admire how Heisserer has deepened their joint otherness in the show by writing in a multiracial heritage for them both. When the two discover that Mal is the third amplifier (a story point that made me wonder if Mal should have truly been called Ivan—the everyman of Russian folklore), it is Mal who willingly embraces the sacrificial end of his story. But, it’s Alina who has to murder him, questioning her own motives even in their final moments: “I would never know if it was greed or selflessness that moved my hand. With Mal’s fingers guiding mine, I shoved the knife up and into his chest.” Even though this murder by no means evens out the ledger of questionable acts committed by the Saint and the Heretic (simply because the Darkling murders a lot of people), it is still an act of murder committed by a Saint.
Yes, there is a happy ending around the corner—Mal is miraculously resuscitated and Alina defeats the Darkling. And yet, Bardugo seems to mete out a punishment on Alina. She loses her power and in its absence is left with a craving that she can never satiate. Alina killed Mal to achieve the end goal of gaining greater access to her power, and now cannot access it at all. This loss, and her regret, can be seen as motivating Alina’s ultimate decision to create the lie that Sankta Alina was martyred in the Fold. Alina fulfills the promise she made to Aleksander in his final moments: She will mourn him, take care of his body, and ensure there is no grave to desecrate. She fulfills this in a very unique way by insisting that the Saint and the Heretic share a funeral pyre—a burial rite that could imply either honor or condemnation, but definitely confers a sense of equality to those who share it: “Some in the crowd were complaining that the Darkling had no business sharing a pyre with a Saint. But this felt right to me, and the people needed to see an end to it.” Can a person commit murder and be considered a hero? Yes. Can a person commit murder and still be considered a Saint? In the Grishaverse, for the people who mourn Sankta Alina, yes. For Alina, who was once a Saint, maybe the answer is yes, too. But the full, fraught reality of being a Saint, in Bardugo’s world, is one of great contradictions.
In the Netflix show, Ben Barnes, playing the Darkling, has already delivered the key line: “Fine. Make me your villain.” Given the final resolution of the Saint and the Heretic in the book series, I feel like Jessie Mei Li’s Alina could just as easily deliver her own variation on the line, filled with all the regret and resignation her destiny inspires: “Fine. Make me your saint.” Both of these assigned roles—heretic and saint, villain and hero—were unasked for, the labels questionably accurate at best. They are also eventually discarded, maybe because in the end the terms in question wind up hollow and meaningless when there is nothing to measure them against.
The skiff of murdered bystanders, the death of Mal, and the funeral pyre are all connected events that lead perfectly toward the resolution of Alina’s arc in the narrative. Already Heisserer’s adaptation has done without the first, and so I wonder if Alina’s character evolution will be represented differently in the Netflix version of Shadow and Bone, or if she’s already on the path to her shared funeral pyre. Personally, I hope it’s the latter, because Bardugo’s treatment of her two central characters and their complex duality is part of what makes this narrative so special, posing thorny questions about morality, power, and belonging as it unfolds.
Dorothy Bennett earned her masters in Theology & Art at the University of St. Andrews. She now lives in Austin, TX where she writes stories and screenplays, while running a creative agency with her husband. She is also the chief mediator between their newly-mobile infant and aggrieved cat. She can be found on Twitter @dorothymbennett.