I am currently obsessed with Shadow and Bone on Netflix. As is a great deal of the country since even after a month since its initial release, it still sits in Netflix’s Top Ten. The show is written well. The actors lend themselves to the fantasy without going overboard and Netflix leans into the spectacle in a great way. I wanted to watch it so much, I even read some of the books before diving in, and became even more obsessed with the story before viewing. Something I noticed, and something that needs discussed is the love triangle surrounding the protagonist, Alina.
A love triangle in a young adult fantasy story is certainly nothing new. Many big hits in the genre hang their success on that aspect of the story. If one reads a lot of YA work, specifically fantasy, the trope is almost expected. I knew this before I started reading the books and before I started watching the show. Shadow and Bone’s reads similarly to almost every chosen one triangle one can bring to mind.
A chosen one female has a kind, sweet, caring, terrifically attractive male best friend character who never really noticed the chosen one female protagonist until she became powerful. When her powers are discovered, a brooding, powerful, and usually darker foil character to the male best friend comes into the story. This darker character usually understands her on a different level; and the protagonist is always drawn to the darker character because there is usually some sort of inner turmoil to their brooding that causes the protagonist, and by extension the audience, to empathize. When I was younger, I ate this up with a spoon; for every meal, and was really only satisfied when the protagonist ended up with said darker character.
What caught my interest in Shadow and Bone is not its use of these devices, but the fact it doesn’t cater to an older trend to which many are accustomed. While consuming this series both as a book and in its Netflix counterpart, I realized (with only a minor existential aging crisis) that the Grishaverse wasn’t marketed toward people around my age. It’s for those younger than me. Those who would be reading the Shadow and Bone series around the age I was reading The Hunger Games or Twilight. The series leads us, quite convincingly, toward hoping Alina Starkov and Mal Oretsev get together verses Alina Starkov and The Darkling. What Bardugo and the other writers of the show have done, is (possibly, remember I’m theorizing here, don’t take this as gospel) started the tapering off of the Byronic hero endgame relationship.
I know I just threw a pretty dry and foreign literary term in to that last sentence so let me try to explain that as quickly as possible. The Byronic Hero’s origin comes from the romantic era writer Lord Byron. Here’ s a link to a video that I think explains this in great depth. This man is far more well known to many for his antics as himself versus the things he wrote. The characters he’s written and inspired left an indelible mark on storytelling forever, and I’ll prove it. Think of every broody male lead you loved or admired around the ages of 13–18. Think of your male lead that reminds you of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Air Bender, Han Solo from the Original Star Wars movies, Kylo Ren from the Star Wars sequels, Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing, Loki from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Edward Cullen from The Twilight Saga. All of these characters have strong connections and characteristics of Byronic heroes; just like The Darkling from Shadow and Bone.
The Darkling’s questionable past and intense emotion towards Alina and his station and Ravka are great aspects for fulfilling a Byronic hero’s traditional sad and empathetic backstory. The Darkling also has the intelligence, the grey morality, and the bucking of the system he is in charge of all to his favor. These all make him perfect Byronic hero, bad boy love interest material. What makes Mal Oretsev so special is his exact opposition to these things.
Mal to Alina is as I said before, a sweet and kind boy that knows her down to every insignificant detail. He respects her, and he doesn’t shirk away from her flaws. If one were to classify him in an archetype based on his other behavior and tendencies, like his athleticism and large stature, one can certainly place him in a new-ish category of love interest cropping up, the Himbo. A man really only needs three things to be slotted into the Himbo classification. He must be large and beefy, be slow to pick up on things (like the fact their best friend is in love with them), and possibly most important, must respect women. For some examples, think Kronk from Emperor’s New Groove, Hercules from Disney’s Hercules, Sokka from Avatar the Last Airbender, and Thor from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Mal Oretsev has all of these things in abundance.
The much more obvious and healthy ship in the Grishaverse is Mal and Alina. Mostly because it’s the most healthy relationship. What I think is great about this shift is that younger viewers get to see a romantic relationship that isn’t about the female protagonist falling in love with a toxic person, or being the one who has to fix them. Another example of this sort of fading out of falling for and fixing the bad boy is many people’s aversion to Rey Skywalker and Kylo Ren’s sort of forced romance in the Star Wars sequels if you need another example. So while I don’t think the Byronic hero/Female Protagonist ship is going away, I do feel it’s in its last throes for now. So there may be hope to see healthy relationships in media because that’s what younger folks want to see, and maybe us older folks who will always love the bad boys deep down, can learn to enjoy the light before the shadows in our fictional love stories.