Coupling Plot Points with the Grand Gesture: A Look at Netflix’s Shadow and Bone

SHADOW AND BONE (L to R) JESSIE MEI LI as ALINA STARKOV and BEN BARNES as THE DARKLING / GENERAL KIRIGAN in SHADOW AND BONE Cr. DAVID APPLEBY/NETFLIX © 2021

This is a would-be writer’s look at Netflix’s Shadow and Bone. Spoilers abound, especially for episode one.

A major hallmark of YA fantasies is that they focus on intercharacter drama.

At least according to March McCarron, author of The Marked series, who claims:

“While a YA novel isn’t going to bog you down with world-building, it will be more inclined to add tension through troubled character relationships. These books are rife with betrayals, love-triangles (and other manner of romantic difficulties), family issues, tested friendships, and power struggles.”

True to form, the central plot of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone is a love triangle between the show’s heroine and villain, Alina Starkov and General Aleksander Kirigan (aka the Darkling), and the heroine’s childhood friend, Malyen (Mal) Oretsev. In the first episode of the series, Alina learns that she is a Grisha, which in this universe is a fancy synonym for a bender- as in Avatar: The Last Airbender; only in the Grishaverse, besides blood bending and fire bending, there’s bodily tissue bending (healing/ cosmetic surgery), dark bending, and light bending. The last two seem to be the most potent. The Darkling is the only dark bender. The light bender, who is referred to as the Sun Summoner, however, is more a creature of prophecy: a savior/ chosen one. It should thus surprise no one that the series’ heroine, Alina, is the Sun Summoner.

In fact, the love triangle is in reality a love quartet as there is a minor character named Zoya Nazyalensky, who has a love/sexual interest in both the Darkling and Mal. So far, this fourth wheel seems pointless, adding nothing to the story except to verify that the two bland male leads are desirable. Interestingly, the actress who plays Zoya is the best looking of the four.

Besides this main plot, the rest of the series is also told in romance.

As backstory, the Darkling turns to darkness when a group of soldiers kills his lover, Luda. The two are being hunted because they are Grisha, who, like witches in Medieval Europe, are looked upon with fear and suspicion because of their power.

There’s also another romantic storyline that involves a Grisha named Nina Zenik and a witch hunter named Matthias Helvar. This subplot fleshes out “the can’t we all live together in harmony” theme, and will please anyone who likes a himbo romantic lead. This subplot hasn’t yet merged with the main story yet.

And finally, there is a simmering, unspoken love between two thieves, Inej Ghafa and Kaz Brekker; the former is a spy/ knife thrower/ informant, while the latter is a criminal mastermind.

Grand Gestures

The grand gesture is a supreme display of love, and at its most powerful, it’s often sacrificial. Though it often figures prominently in romance fiction, it is by no means solely a feature of that genre. For instance, Katniss Everdeen taking her sister’s place in the Hunger Games is a grand gesture.

In Shadow and Bone, what leads to the series’ inciting incident begins with just such an act. There’s a kind of Cathy and Heathcliff relationship between Alina and Mal. They grew up together in an orphanage, a place they didn’t fit in because they were racial outsiders. This led them to cleave to one another. After they grow up, they both end up in the army; he is a soldier, and she is a cartographer. When Mal is assigned to a dangerous mission, Alina decides she will not let him go without her. She burns a set of maps so that her cartography unit will be sent along, thus placing herself in danger. This is the first grand gesture, which will ultimately lead to the revelation that Alina is the Sun Summoner.

The second grand gesture involves Kaz Brekker and Inej Ghafa. Inej is an indentured servant to a woman name Tante Heleen, a brothel owner, but Kaz has been purchasing Inej’s freedom in a piecemeal fashion on a sort of layaway plan. As he needs extra money to set her free fully, he’s always on the lookout for a big job. One soon comes his way. A wealthy merchant named Dressen wants Kaz to kidnap the newly discovered Sun Summoner in exchange for a lot of money. Kaz, however, needs Inej’s help for the mission, but he can’t take her without Heleen’s permission. As a go around, he puts up his gambling club, and thus his livelihood, as collateral.

From the point of view of plotting, what’s interesting is how closely linked these romantic grand gestures are to the inciting incidents of the two story threads. They lend this important plot point an interesting layer of depth.

But such moments have to be carefully constructed.

Where Grand Gestures Can Go Wrong

One problem is that the grand gesture might appear selfish. After all, Alina isn’t just sacrificing herself but her whole cartography unit.

Indeed, in the end, her fellow cartographers are nothing more than red shirts. After they are dead, Alina spends zero screen time thinking about how she led to their collective demise.

It leaves a bad taste.

So, what did you think of Shadow and Bone? I didn’t read the book, so I’d be curious to know if the novels have the same setup. Let me know in the comments below.