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Character Deep Dive: Alina Starkov

SHADOW AND BONE (L to R) JESSIE MEI LI as ALINA STARKOV of SHADOW AND BONE Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021
SHADOW AND BONE (L to R) JESSIE MEI LI as ALINA STARKOV of SHADOW AND BONE Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

Portrayed by: Jessie Mei Li
Book | Show: Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone Trilogy and Netflix’s Shadow and Bone Season One

“I’m not who you think I am.”

Alina Starkov, Shadow and Bone

Spoiler Alert: There will be very minor book spoilers for Shadow and Bone trilogy, but I will not be revealing or discussing any major ending plot points or spoilers, and very few spoilers beyond Shadow and Bone. I do not ship an Alina ship, so this is written through a neutral lens with regard to her relationships (I do ship her with a hell of a lot of therapy, though).

The first thing that struck me about Alina Starkov as a character was that everybody wanted something from her—and that includes readers of the novels she appears in and viewers of the show that was made based on those books. Everybody wants something for her, whether that be a specific relationship, a certain fate, a life for her filled with exceptional deeds and responsibility, filled with humility and gratitude for her power and circumstances. The true story of Shadow and Bone, though, is Alina’s coming-of-age, coming into herself as a person, fully becoming her true self regardless of what anyone else says or wants. If the reader/viewer can acknowledge that journey and pay close enough attention to her transformation, a beautiful and often relatable story unfolds—a story about a woman finding herself, figuring out what she wants, and learning the difference between others’ expectations of her and her own expectations for herself.

Alina Starkov: The Otkazat’sya

When we meet Alina, her shared past with Malyen Oretsev (Mal) at Keramzin, the orphanage where they grew up together, is introduced. Right away, viewers see that their stories are deeply intertwined on a level that is hard for someone who did not live this experience to understand. Just the implications of the two of them as children with the line: “We can’t hide forever, but we can run—together”, speaks to a deep relationship that has profoundly shaped who Alina is at the start of the series.

Although Alina is not of foreign ancestry in the novel, she is part Shu in the show, which further highlights two important aspects of her character—first, that she is not accepted by anyone she has met with the exception of Mal, which the show repeatedly goes out of its way to show us, whether that be through the way she is treated when she is trying to get dinner with the rest of the First Army, or the way the other cartographers respond when they find out they will have to cross the fold to reproduce the maps that were destroyed (even though that did happen to be Alina’s fault). Her peers are quick to blame her for the thing that went wrong, and in the incident where she was denied food, she quickly left to avoid anyone being associated with her and punished as a result of that. That is a pretty potent reinforcement of the fact that she is not welcome, but cares enough about others to try not to let them get involved with her ‘otherness’. Secondly, her Shu heritage means that she cannot go anywhere, do anything, or be anyone apart from that identity. Others will always only see her for that, and there is nowhere she can go to escape it. It is quickly established that the only place where she is treated like a normal person is with Mal.

It’s easy to see, then, why the show makes great effort to show us Alina’s comfort with Mal and the way that she depends on him. She has been with him for as long as she can remember. Because of her Shu heritage, he is one of the only people who accepts her and doesn’t add an asterisk to her status as a Ravkan and a friend. There has to be a good reason for her to want to follow Mal into the Fold, and this is it—Mal is as much her home as any place, since most Ravkans go out of their way to show her she is not welcome and Ravka is not her home.

Of course, Mal does not want her to come with him through the Fold, but Alina tells him she’s with him—she has a strong sense of loyalty to him because of their shared past and how much he stands up for her and cares about her. She thinks Mal, unlike anyone else, truly understands her, and she doesn’t want to be separated from him because of that. How far she is willing to go to preserve this understanding illustrates that someone who understands her is very valuable to her. She also shows a predisposition to bravery here, because Mal points out she’s a terrible shot, and we as viewers know she is a cartographer, yet it seems she wants to go with Mal partly because she wants to protect him in any way that she can. It is important to her not to lose him because he is so intrinsically part of who she is. He is all she has.

But after she boards the skiff to cross the Fold (anyone else notice her blue scarf as a hint at her future blue kefta?), we see a different side to Alina—one that maybe longs for a sense of belonging even though she has it with Mal. She looks back as they enter the fold to see the Squaller manning the sail, and her expression is one of fear, but also interest. I think she is interested because she sees the Grisha as, in a way, having the same ‘otherness’ as she does, but in a way that makes them more revered than reviled, or at the very least, makes people fear them enough to not mess with them. This plays into her hunger for not only acceptance, but maybe even a step further than that—that maybe she would enjoy having that type of power after being so powerless for so long and having nearly no control of her life or her future. Grisha, too, seem to understand and want to protect other Grisha, and she wants to feel understood by others and clearly has a strong bond with the one person in her life who is willing to try to protect her.

The show even includes a flashback establishing that ever since Alina was young, she was encouraged to draw, because otherwise they would put a rifle in her hand. Clearly, it’s been accepted for much of her life that her life belongs to the First Army, to Ravka—the place that rejects her!—more than to herself or her own desires. While it’s true that she may wish she didn’t stand out, I think here we see her playing with the idea that maybe if she were different in another way, things could be different for her, and that’s what she is thinking of as she takes in the sight of the Grisha and their power.

In the end, though, when they are attacked by the Volcra in the Fold, she watches the Inferni try to fight them off, and the viewer learns an important lesson right along with Alina. There is no amount of power greater than the bravery she shows when she picks up Mal’s rifle to try to save him. Everyone else on the vessel is screaming, cowering, and she—who is a terrible shot, as we know—picks up the rifle, takes the shot, and saves her friend when nobody else could. And THAT is bravery, THAT is friendship. THAT is who Alina Starkov is, even though she doesn’t know it.

The Sun Summoner and a Reflection of True Light

I want to talk for a minute about how her power is revealed because I think her reaction is really important. The look on her face as she uses the power for the first time is both bewilderment and wonderment, I think because the nature of Grisha power is that using the power makes Grisha stronger and healthier. I think she finally feels a sense of home more than she ever has the first time she uses it, even if she doesn’t know why. She can finally stop repressing this thing that has been there inside her all along, that maybe she knew was there on a subconscious level, and most importantly, her expression shows that he has no idea what it means for her to feel this way because she never has. All the credit to Jessie Mei Li for her work in this sequence—I think she really shines here (pun intended).

Shortly after this, we see Alina come to the fast realization that even though she wishes she were different with regard to her heritage, wishes she could be accepted or was different in a way that was more accepted, she truly does not want the attention of being a sun-summoning Grisha. She doesn’t want this attention not only because she hates being singled out in the same way she always has been, but because Mal makes it clear that he detests Grisha both because of their attitudes and their unnatural abilities (although this is more in the show than in the book). There’s a whole can of worms there about the differences between the ways the Second Army and First Army are treated, and how he is treated like his life is far less valuable than that of a Grisha, so because of that, Mal has reasons not to like them.

Alina’s greatest concern is to tell Mal she did not know that she was Grisha, that she hadn’t spent years lying to him. She can’t bear the idea that he would think she betrayed him because of the loyalty she feels for him and how much she cares about him. In flashback, we see young Mal ask young Alina if she wants to know if she is Grisha or not, and she looks down, troubled, because she does want to know. If she knew, she would have had a place to belong, to be understood—the Little Palace, where she wouldn’t be viewed as an outsider (assuming she wasn’t a Sun Summoner and was just a normal Grisha). In the end, though, Alina decides that having a person who is the closest thing to a home that she ever had is more important to her than being a hero, than being special, than finding another place to belong.

But becoming a Grisha and being taken into the protection of the Darkling is an especially dangerous place for someone like Alina. When she meets Kirigan, she seems indignant, definitely not afraid, and does not show the reverence for him that everyone else does. She doesn’t want to answer his questions because she knows she’ll lose Mal if she allows him to look to closely at her. Further, I think she is scared to think too hard about her decision to cheat the Grisha test as a child—she can’t look too closely at that decision because she may question if she made the right one. As we see her learn more about her powers and finally erase the scar on her hand that reminds her of Mal, we see her acknowledge that she feels an even greater purpose now thanks to Kirigan. She did not want this unique power at first, but she is too brave and kind of a person to ignore the fact that she can change lives with her power. She admits to Kirigan that she actively wants to help people.

Kirigan as a character, though, is someone that learns about her, has a motive for everything he does in her presence. He tells her that he’s been waiting for her, that he is the only person who can understand her, and even eventually makes sure she wears a black kefta to push the idea onto her that they’re different from other Grisha, different from everyone, that he needs her. He wants her to think Mal isn’t her home anymore, that Mal doesn’t understand her, but that he, Kirigan, does. There is a part of Alina, I think, that always wanted to start over—go to a place where nobody cares that she is part Shu, that she is an orphan, and Kirigan gives her that because he knows she wants that (and we know he knows a lot of these things about her because she later mentions he must have gotten her drawing of the stag from her journal, so he clearly read her journal and probably read all of her letters to Mal, too). Kirigan’s immediate acceptance of her is something she always wanted, too, partly because he’s NOT Mal. Mal accepts her and always has, but nobody else ever did. She finds that being accepted by someone so powerful, so revered, who knows her heritage and past and doesn’t care, feels good. And that desire for someone to see the true her and accept her for it is something the Darkling is more than happy to pretend to oblige her, especially because of his unique position of power over her and all of Ravka’s Grisha. She’s not alone in this. Everyone wants his approval because of his position of power.

Of course, the problem here is that he wants her for her power—nothing more, and that’s coming directly from him, since he tells her that wanting (in a romantic context) makes someone weak (in the novel). That is a direct commentary from him that he sees she wants to be loved, and, in his eyes, that makes her weak and ripe for exploitation. He knows exactly what he has to say and do to make her feel comfortable, at home, welcomed, important, even loved. It’s easy to see how she comes to be dependent on him in the same way she depended on Mal. Here, then, lies the crux of Alina Starkov as a character. She is shaped by the fact that she doesn’t feel truly welcome anywhere, and is looking for belonging. She is brave and loyal but has been dependent on someone else to shape who she is and give her the belonging she wants. The truth is, though, that neither of them accept her for who she truly is because she doesn’t know who she truly is. And she doesn’t know who she truly is because she is always trying to be who Mal or Kirigan want her to be. The acceptance Alina wants is from herself, but she cannot truly accept herself until she knows who she is.

This is what I mean when I say everyone wants something from her. Mal wants, presumably, his companion, his normal life, and as we see in the books, he develops romantic feelings for Alina and wants to live a normal life with her. He doesn’t want her to be Grisha—he fears Grisha and has other reasons for disliking them. He wants her to be his Alina, not necessarily in a possessive or toxic way, but in the way that, as he was almost like a home for her, she has been like a home for him, too. She is a source of comfort and belonging for him in the same way that he is for her. After he learns Alina is Grisha, though, which is an intrinsic part of who she is as a woman, their relationship can never be the same.

Kirigan, on the other hand, wants her for her power, wants to mold her into his weapon, wants to turn her into a person just like him, maybe even so he is no longer alone. Even though he pretends to accept her for who she is, he knows that’s how to make her trust and care for him, and does it to bind her to him and give him the ability to manipulate and use her, proven by the fact that he tries to cede control of her power to himself.

What she needs is a chance to figure out who she is, truly, and who she wants to be, but there is an endless list of things getting in the way of that: her army service, her Grisha abilities, her past, the expectations of her given that she is a Sun Summoner, and, crucially, both men in her life because of what each of them wants from her. She feels betrayed by Mal, since Genya and Kirigan hide his letters and make her think he has abandoned her because she’s Grisha, despite her always being loyal to him, and Kirigan takes advantage of that. I think this also explains why she ultimately chooses to believe Baghra regarding Kirigan’s betrayal of her—because even though she is an extremely loyal person, she can’t trust anyone because they all turn on her at some point, whether because she’s Shu, because she’s Grisha, or because they want to use her and don’t really care about her. We saw her deal with that after not receiving Mal’s letters, and then we see her deal with it again when she realizes Kirigan has betrayed her and only wants to use her power.

One thing that really struck me is that as Alina tries to escape from Kirigan with Mal but ultimately cannot, Genya had said to Alina earlier with regard to her service in the palace that she used to try to struggle but it never helped, which ends up being a warning to Alina and foreshadowing of what Kirigan plans to do to her. Alina escapes from Kirigan and reunites with Mal, and just as we see her coming more into her true self—an Alina that is both an orphan from Keramzin and Grisha, Kirigan catches up with them.

The loss of the stag and its melding into her body is obviously a pivotal point in Alina’s characterization, not to mention just utterly horrifying (side note: please, for your own mental health, do not read this scene in the book if you are squeamish or triggered by issues involving consent. It is vivid). By this time, she had lost her innocence a thousand times over given the life she led and the things that have happened to her, but it is not truly gone until this, until she is enslaved by Kirigan, until she sees the lengths he will go to in order to truly control her and her power, the suffering he will inflict upon Ravka that nobody but her can stop. The Alina Starkov we saw beginning to develop, who is shrewd, intelligent, brave, and kind begins to fade in favor of one who is beginning to see what she has to become in order to remain a free woman, save her country, and destroy Kirigan. Inklings of that are visible in how she stands up to him in the Fold, bargains with Kaz, the determination with which she and Mal set out. With this loss of her free will, this change to her body completely against her will, we see her begin to fully transform from the woman she was to the woman she has to be, and hopefully, eventually, to the woman she is meant to be.

Alina Starkov and the Endless Possibilities for Growth

Did she want to be a hero in the same sense as the one she had to become? Did she want Grisha power at all? Who does she truly want to be, and how will she become that woman? My heart breaks for her knowing she never got the chance to figure out who she is and what she wants independent of others’ desires, independent of what Ravka as a country needs from her. But I think she can still become the woman she is meant to be by holding on to those key characteristics that make us as viewers want to root for her—her loyalty, heroism, morality, and desire to do good and to help others. The second she gives up the things that separate her from Kirigan is the second he wins is the second he gets what he wants.

So as her journey continues into more seasons of Shadow and Bone, I look forward to Jessie Mei Li’s work to bring the true Alina to life, and will hope for much, much more growth from this complicated character of contradictions who does not want the attention that comes with her power, but seeks more power through looking for the stag herself—a character who wants to belong but has no choice but to stand out, who is kind but must learn to be as ruthless as the Darkling so that she can guess where and how he will strike next, and how to retaliate and beat him. Alina Starkov is an extremely complex character that people should want more for. People should want her to grow, to find herself, to be exactly who she is, and be accepted for that at last.

I know I do.

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