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Defending “Shadow and Bone”: The Chosen Little Bitch and the Morally Grey Anti-Hero


O P I N I O N


Tasmim Kheya


There had been instances of outrage in the bookish community after Netflix’s Shadow and Bone (2021) trailer was released, raising qualms about how much the storyline had been altered from the original books. In order to converge the Crows’ storylines with the Sun Summoner’s, Leigh Bardugo embarked upon a path that falls under writing fanfiction, only with her own characters. Although it was already announced that there would be changes in the plotline, the fans were not ready to witness the Crows going in an entirely new direction.

But here I am, defending Bardugo’s choice to make Kaz cross paths with Alina. Because without the alteration, Alina’s story would make a dry and generic adaptation material, unique in no way. Had the Crows not crossed paths with Alina, it would have been just another chosen one with a prophecy saving the world from evil warlords, and Lord knows we already have enough of those. Throwing in another protagonist with grey morality and conflicting interest provides the show with the dimensions the books sorely lacked.

First, let’s dissect how the plotline of the Shadow and Bone trilogy falls perfectly under the chosen one trope. The trope has three distinctive features. First and foremost, the hero must be a person who is unique or chosen for cosmic reasons beyond their understanding. They might be chosen by some deity or they might be subject to some prophecy that they are the last one to know. They also happen to possess abilities that are unique and absolutely mandatory to save the world. The chosen one also must be the blandest character in the whole cast. 

As overpowered as they are, these chosen heroes are also new to the magic system. The readers get introduced to the world at the same time our chosen little hero does. The hero works as a blank canvas — a medium of sorts — through which the audience are fed intricate details of the system. Fantasies with the chosen hero trope are the most escapist form of entertainment for its self-insert element. Imagining oneself as an overpowered hero that is destined to save the universe from evil after overcoming a few minor setbacks — that is the essence of reading fantasies with this trope. Although, the lack of personality does not stop them from whining about their responsibilities. 

The heroes themselves are part of the minor setbacks they encounter while fighting for justice. Personal insecurities are a major part of the hero’s journey in this trope. First, they discover they have powers, then they discover they are also supposed to be responsible for upholding the  well-being of the universe. Next comes denial, where they try to revoke their power, or spend most of their time doubting themselves. Then comes the climax where the hero decides to finally embrace themselves and destroy the bad guy through their sheer self-confidence, or with their unique superpowers — whichever comes first. 

Shadow and Bone follows the exact formula with an additional romantic subplot. The chosen hero here is the mythical sun summoner Alina Starkov. In a universe where the Shadow Fold is the anomaly that is interrupting achieving world peace and increasing border wars, only Alina wields the power to destroy the Fold with her sun-summoning abilities. In true chosen hero fashion, she only happens to stumble upon the existence of her power by accident. Turns out, she is the subject of a prophecy that has been foretold for ages, and she is indeed the last one to know about it. Meanwhile, she becomes the pawn of one political leader after another, while doggedly going against every advice she receives in order to prove her defiance, or her lack of brain cells. But all is well when she finally emerges from her lake of self pity and decides to end the war once and for all. The trajectory of the story unfolds around her and follows her journey till the end. 

Here lies another pitfall of the trope — the story follows the chosen one and progresses as such, leaving little room for the opposition’s perspective. The story was busy following Alina and her string of bad decisions, so the Darkling went through very little character development. The readers have to sit through Alina getting herself in trouble for the thousandth time by ignoring every single advice, yet they only get to know about the Darkling’s evil plans as secondhand information. Rather than being a fully fleshed out character with questionable morals, the imbalance in the narrative renders the Darkling as yet another villain with a plan for world domination. The good versus evil element of the original trilogy is so on the nose that it leaves little room for nuance in the plot progression. If the perspectives were balanced, the Darkling could have gotten the anti-hero tag.

 

Bardugo did come up with a gang of full fledged anti-heroes in her spin off series Six of Crows. As the de-facto leader of the Crows Club, Kaz Brekker can be called one of the main protagonists of the series. Though set in the same Grisha universe, the Six of Crows duology takes place in a different location. This story has heists, yearning and morally grey antiheros, and it is just as amazing as it sounds. As a leader of a motley criminal crew, Kaz’s reputation for having flexible morals is already established. The story follows Kaz and his crew as they plan a heist to steal a prisoner from the most guarded prison in their world. Unlike the Shadow And Bone trilogy, this is not a good versus evil fight. This is a story where morals come after wits and bravery. Each member of the crew is fuelled by different reasons for their criminal activity, yet they each have redeeming qualities too. Every member of the crows club can be tagged as an anti-hero in their own right, but we’ll focus on Kaz for now. 

It is normal to wonder what makes a character worthy of the anti-hero tag. Since the anti-hero trope stemmed from attempts to subvert the goody-two-shoes hero trope, the characteristics of this trope can be chalked up to a blend of heroic motives with unheroic methods, or vice versa. Unlike the chosen one, the world does not bend over backwards for the anti-heroes. Rather it applies a healthy dose of reality in the plot, reminding the readers that sometimes heroes too can fail, or do questionable things. Another aspect of this trope is its mix of contradicting qualities in the characters, which leaves space for growth and redemption arc in the stories. The anti-hero might even have some qualities in common with the villain too, which are balanced out by his redeeming qualities.

Kaz, for example, is fuelled by his desire for revenge. But his love for his friends is also a driving force behind his actions. Black-and-white view of morality has no place in his conscience. In the Six of Crows duology, Kaz’s actions range from being heroic to not-so-heroic. The unpredictable nature of his actions keep the audience on edge. His redeeming qualities, like his unwavering loyalty, remind the readers that he would be willing to go to any length to ensure his friends’ safety. Anti-heroism, as an antithesis of heroism, depends largely on the context. Defending your friends and going to great lengths to save them can be a heroic or villainous trait, depending on the consequences and the motives. The Netflix adaptation captured this contradiction perfectly when they portrayed Kaz willing to kidnap a literal living saint just to save his friend from her life as a hostage. His fierce protectiveness for his crew and a general disregard for everyone except for his crew provide the combination of contradicting characteristics that mark Kaz as a revered morally grey anti-hero.

Staunch fans of the original trilogy might claim that the darkling already fulfilled the quota of characters with dwindling morality in the Grishaverse. Sadly, no matter how tall, dark, and brooding the Darkling is, he is undoubtedly still the villain in the original trilogy. What marks a villain from an anti-hero is the decided unheroic quality of their motives and actions. The Darkling is fuelled by his ambitions for world domination which can be hardly considered heroic, and his actions are just as unheroic as his motives. The moment Bardugo named him the Darkling, his fate was doomed to a life of villainy.

 

The audience must be tired of witnessing one good versus evil fight after another in the media. Adding unpredictable anti-heroes in the mix spares the boredom, and adds an element of uncertainty to the story. Morally grey characters such as Kaz add substance to the story, transforming it from a generic escapist fantasy to a nuanced commentary. If one really wants to witness one bad decision after another, they can just look back at their younger selves. No one in their right mind would have wanted to sit through the Sun Summoner doubting herself for the umpteenth time and lamenting her luck for a whole season.

Adding Kaz and the other Crows in the mix is just the right amount of spicing up the books were in dire need of. Leigh Bardugo must be commended for her clever rendition in combining the fates of the chosen little hero with the morally grey anti-hero’s.

 


Tasmim spends all her time listening to true crime podcasts. Send her killer ideas at [email protected]

One Comment

  1. I find the article interesting yet so unnecessarily lengthy that I lost my patience before I could even finish it. Try to reduce the words next time, please.

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