Character Deep Dive: Nikolai Lantsov

Patrick Gibson as Nikolai aboard the Hummingbird looking toward his friends
Cr. Dávid Lukács/Netflix © 2023

Portrayed by: Patrick Gibson
Book | Show: Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy, King of Scars duology, and Netflix’s series

What makes a good king? It’s not a question we’d ask ourselves ordinarily, as, for the most part, kings no longer rule like they used to, and governments no longer function at their whims. That said, it’s easy to imagine the qualities a great ruler would ideally have: courage, morality, and intelligence. But both throughout history and within fiction, the ones who leave a lasting impression tend to have something else, too; something undefinable, undeniable, and unable to be replicated.

In Shadow and Bone‘s universe, Ravka has reached a reckoning point in Season 2. The Darkling can and will take control, and it seems the only thing that can stop him is Alina Starkov. Fortunately for the sun summoner, this universe has one other person prepared to align with Alina and stand in the Darkling’s way. He’s not Grisha. He may not even be noble.

He is Nikolai Lantsov (portrayed incredibly by Patrick Gibson), and if you want to know what type of kingly qualities he brings to the table, why, just ask him. (I am only kind of kidding because this character has become so real to me as both a reader of the books and a watcher of the show.) Gibson became Nikolai, bringing to life the answer to what makes a good king. He gave this character every ounce of nuance and complexity that can be found in the book, even adding his own interpretations to create a character that has something truly undefinable and undeniable.

Nikolai, Dominik in Shadow and Bone 2x07
Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

Who this character is, then, as a result of the hybrid of show and books, is just as Alina describes him: the clever fox with hazel eyes. He sees everything both at a surface level and immediately understands the deeper meanings and implications for the future. An intelligent and capable inventor, which translates to innovation as a soldier and ruler. Courageous to a fault but calculating, too. Emotionally invested, but distant in that calculation. At his core, he is a boy filled with hope who loves his country and wants to heal it. Combine that with a realist, a scientist, but also a man with a passion for creativity who believes most things are possible. His political skills are only rivaled by his ability to compliment himself. And yet, he believes in the power of justice to right wrongs and in his responsibility to build a better life for his country.

Nikolai Lantsov is a man filled with improbable (not impossible) combinations of qualities that make him an engaging character who, despite his flippant joking, endears himself to the audience through sheer force of will, just as he does most things. His relationships with others, especially his relationship with Alina, showcase that at his core, although he can be selfish and calculating, he is caring, kind, insecure, nerdy, and most of all, a person who will never, ever give up and will always fight for hope.

Nikolai Lantsov, The Sobachka

Nikolai Lantsov as Sturmhond with his hands on a desk

Nikolai’s nickname growing up, “sobachka,” means “puppy” in Ravkan. Baghra takes it a step further by referring to him as “the puppy prince.” I mean, is it inaccurate? Young Patrick Gibson probably did look as cute as a puppy. I see no lies.

I don’t think that this name was given to him because of his looks or even necessarily his demeanor. Since it’s one of the first things the audience learns about Nikolai, it is actually an incredibly important aspect of his character. The nickname is a signal to the reader, the watcher, of this prince’s otherness. By otherness, I mean his differences from the other Ravkan royals. He doesn’t fit into the royal family’s fabric in many ways. Some of those ways are obvious: for one, when we first meet him, he’s on a ship pretending to be someone else instead of living at the palace. His explanation of his own otherness to Alina points this out immediately.

Sturmhond leaned forward. “Did you meet my brother, Vasily, when you were at court? He cares more about horses and his next drink of whiskey than his people. My father never had more than a passing interest in governing Ravka, and reports are he’s lost even that.”

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

The only reason Alina (and the audience) should believe him, though, is because they have seen that for themselves. Nikolai’s parents are most known to the audience for both tormenting Genya in their own ways. His separation from the morals and actions of his family is again highlighted when he finds out what his parents did to Genya and chooses to send them away for their treatment of her.

“If you remain, I will see you tried for rape.”
The Queen clutched a hand to her heart. “Nikolai, you cannot mean to do this.”
“She was under your protection, Mother.”
“She is a servant!”
“And you are a queen. Your subjects are your children. All of them.”

Ruin and Rising, by Leigh Bardugo

And, of course, as his parents are being sent away, the cherry on top comes from his father:

“You are no Lantsov,” snarled the King.
Nikolai simply bowed. “I find I can live with that fact.”

Ruin and Rising, by Leigh Bardugo
Nikolai Lantsov in Shadow and Bone Season 2 Episode 4

Not only is he not a Lantsov by blood, but he isn’t one by behavior, ideals, or morals, either. He has ambition beyond wealth, beyond personal glory, and beyond being self-serving. He truly wants to defeat the Darkling and build a better life for his country. Unlike the rest of his family, he has served in the infantry of the First Army; he knows exactly what the soldiers of Ravka hope for, and it is not endless fighting or dying at the command of a man who does not care, who does not mourn them. It is a better future, a better life—a society where the only choice is not enlistment and death.

As viewers learned about Alina’s past, we learned she was handed a pencil to avoid being given a rifle. She, too, has firsthand experience with the life that awaits young Ravkans, and knowing that Nikolai wants to create a country where other choices are available makes him an easy ally for her, even though, at first, she doesn’t particularly like him [“Sturmhond had a way of talking that made me want to shoot someone. Preferably him.” (Alina, Siege and Storm)]

Even though he needs her—so much so that he offers marriage to secure the future of the country they both love—it’s more than that. Alina herself acknowledges, in a set of lines lifted straight from the book, that Vasily sees the throne as a toy and will feel no responsibility for anything that happens to the people of Ravka. Nikolai, in contrast, spent years in the military, working outside the law and risking his safety for whatever small victories he could deliver to his country. The presence of his close-knit and loyal crew, too, indicates both his leadership and his friendship, the kinship he shares with those who are similarly looking for their own place.

His nickname, then, hints at all of these moments and one of his core characteristics—that he is different and worthy of trust. Despite wanting to rule, he is also worthy of it and would be good at it.


Nikolai Lantsov as Sturmhond talking to Jesper Fahey and Kaz Brekker
Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

Meeting Nikolai first as Sturmhond was something I was excited to see translated to the screen. It is such a memorable first impression of the character in the book that I was interested to see how they would tackle such an essential part of Nikolai’s character, and I was not disappointed (although they removed the circumstances that allowed Nikolai some really funny lines about betraying the Darkling in the book). The viewer still gets the important beats of the story—pirate privateer rescues Alina and Mal, helps hunt the sea whip, and later reveals his identity as a prince of Ravka, which lays the groundwork for one of my favorite moments of Season 2, Episode 3, “Like Calls to Like,” (the punch heard round the world).

Sturmhond functions as more than just a device to prove to the viewer (and Alina) that Nikolai cares about Ravka enough to take drastic measures and risk his own safety for it. He vociferously corrects anyone who refers to him as a pirate, reminding them that he is a privateer, not a pirate. The reason for that to be included as many times as it was? The distinction is actually crucial to understanding him as a character.

A pirate is someone who plunders and steals for their own gain. Fictional pirates and perceptions about them aside, real-life pirates often resorted to becoming pirates to make enough money to establish themselves more easily than they could by just becoming sailors and working for a low wage. A privateer, though, is a different sort of sailor entirely. Privateering, as opposed to criminal activity for one’s own gain, is commissioned by a state, government, or sovereign—which is exactly what Nikolai does. He moves beyond the law to help Ravka. While it’s true that it’s up to him to determine what actions would be considered helpful to Ravka, his ultimate goal is to help Ravka using extrajudicial means.

Being distinguished as a privateer, then acknowledges that he is operating illegally but that the goal is to serve his country rather than himself. It’s how the viewer (again, and Alina) can gauge that he is serious about being a different type of leader and serious about how much he cares about Ravka. It’s not just talk.

Alina Starkov

Alina Starkov and Nikolai Lantsov on horses in Shadow and Bone Season 2 Episode 3

A deep dive into Nikolai Lantsov cannot possibly exist without talking about his friendship with Alina Starkov, especially given how much life Jessie Mei Li and Patrick Gibson gave to this friendship on the screen.

Nikolai and Alina are so intertwined and central to one another as characters, and one of the best things Shadow and Bone Season 2 accomplishes is its illustration of that relationship because it brings out the best and most important features of both characters. 

On the surface, it looks as though they both need each other as a means to reach their shared goal, which was the overarching theme of Season 2: save Ravka, no matter what the cost. But beneath that, there are two young people who share so much beyond needing one another’s status and position, and so much beyond the possibility of romance. The show, to its credit, makes no suggestion that Nikolai is a serious romantic prospect for Alina. He stresses that marrying her would be a political alliance, that he’s always known his marriage would be political more than anything. It is fairly clear that Alina loves Mal, and Nikolai’s introduction isn’t changing that.

Nikolai’s relationship with Alina does not need to be romantic to be one of the most meaningful relationships in the story as a whole, though.

At the beginning of Season 2, Alina is acknowledged as a living saint. That’s a lot for a teenage girl to handle, especially considering she did not accomplish vanquishing the Darkling as she had hoped. In a way, she’s developing a sort of legend around herself in real-time. Remember how in the first season, nobody really believed she could be a Sun Summoner until they saw her powers for themselves? It’s still like that for Alina, but with even more mystique added courtesy of sainthood.

Nikolai looking at Alina in Shadow and Bone Season 2
Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

Nikolai, similarly, is viewed as primarily a story rather than a real figure by the Ravkan people because he hasn’t been seen in years. Everyone who remembers him, though, remembers him fondly (as illustrated, again, by his nickname). In the same way that the Grisha thought nobody more powerful than the Darkling would come along to challenge his rule, Ravkan otkazat’sya don’t truly believe anything meaningful will change in their country when the King eventually dies, and Vasily ascends to the throne. The only possibility for change for Grisha is Alina, and Nikolai is the only possibility for change for ordinary people. The two coexisting societies—that of the Grisha and the otkazat’sya, the First Army and the Second Army have become parallel, forcing Nikolai and Alina into similar roles.

That makes Nikolai and Alina a pair of characters who understand one another. They are in similar positions, and there is much at stake should either fail. Neither can succeed, truly, without the other, which is what makes it such an engaging partnership. Alina thinks there is only one equal to her in all the world, but there are two. One is Grisha, and one is otkazat’sya, just like how Alina has lived both as otkazat’sya and as Grisha.

My personal favorite quality of Nikolai and Alina’s relationship on the show was this recognition of their mutual need for one another and accepting it wholly to work together. Alina tries to isolate things from Nikolai, but he tells her she knows it’s not the right play. They are both people with a huge amount of weight on their shoulders, and they recognize that in one another and craft a friendship based on trust and looking out for one another.

The moments where this friendship shines the most are when one of them clearly feels insecure and unsure of themselves. Throughout the season, they always take the time to encourage one another when they sense the other is uncertain. They see that the other person is strong, capable, and brave and take the time to try to help the other person see that in themselves.

One notable example of this is a particular sequence in Season 2, Episode 4, “Every Monstrous Thing.” First, Nikolai encourages Alina regarding her choice of clothes, as he can tell she’s feeling unsure when he sees her examining herself in the mirror. He presents her with the emerald, teasing her to ensure she doesn’t feel pressured and is comfortable. He also asks for permission before putting it on her finger. She tells him she enjoys it when he’s himself and recognizes that he cares about Ravka, even telling him she thinks he’d make a good king. It’s all just an extremely sweet scene where they are supporting each other, showing some vulnerability, and being their honest selves—a time of preparation and strategizing prior to facing the people they are trying to win over.

There, then, inhabiting the warmth in this scene, is what is so special about their relationship: the easy partnership of two people who desperately need someone to trust, to build each other up, to encourage each other that they can accomplish the difficult tasks that are in front of them.

A Prince’s Goal

Nikolai Lantsov before his coronation in Shadow and Bone Season 2

As I watched this season and fully absorbed how determined Alina and Nikolai were in their goal to save Ravka, I won’t lie and say I fully bought into that goal without question. I’d wager others didn’t, either. I wondered, what is it about Ravka that is worth saving? What is it that makes it so important to these two? I kept waiting for the show to address this, grasping at parts of the book that could explain. At first, this conversation between Nikolai and Alina was what I came up with:

“Is it so hard to believe I might actually care what happens to this country?”

“Honestly? Yes.”

He studied the toes of his polished boots. I could never figure out how he kept them so shiny.

“I guess I like fixing things,” he said. “I always have.”

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

They have another conversation that contributes to the interpretation I eventually arrived at. (Yes, I am including the beginning portion of this quotation purely because it is funny and adorable, come at me).

“There were rumors about me even before I was born. It’s why my mother never calls me Sobachka. She says it makes me sound like a mongrel.”

My heart gave a little pang at that. I’d been called plenty of names growing up.

“I like mongrels,” I said. “They have cute floppy ears.”

“My ears are very dignified.”

I ran my finger over one of the pier’s sleek planks. “Is that why you stayed away so long? Why you became Sturmhond?”

“I don’t know if there’s just one reason. I guess I never felt like I belonged here, so I tried to make a place where I could belong.”

“I never felt like I fit in anywhere either,” I admitted. Except with Mal.

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

So Nikolai Lantsov enjoys fixing things and is looking for a place to belong. We already know he belongs somewhere other than the palace with his family based on their differences. No, he would not find belonging with his family (and not because he is a bastard, either). He never belonged with them. As he grew, he was able to create a small environment where he (and many others, like Tolya and Tamar) could belong.

It’s actually a little scary to think of Nikolai’s life in aggregate. Since his birth, rumors about his parentage have been rampant. For that reason, he could never truly feel supported by his parents. He never felt belonging with the rest of his family due to being so different. Still, he loved his home country enough to look for belonging in places like the First Army and as Sturmhond. Add Ravka’s endless military conflicts and the constant friction between Grisha and otkazat’sya to the mix, and he is a character who has simply never known any kind of stability in his life.

Shadow and Bone Season 2 still of Nikolai looking at the monster

Here lies, I think, the core of his character. Not that he’s clever, calculating, caring, brave, or pretends to be arrogant—those are just his qualities. He is a person who has never lived without turmoil and has never had a peaceful home where he feels he belongs. That’s why he cares so much about Ravka, and his main goal is to save it. He wants to create that place for himself and, crucially, for everyone else who has never lived to see peace or understand safety. It is a far too common experience in his country, which he has learned through his experiences. If it was just himself experiencing this feeling, he could live with it. But not when it is as widespread as it is, not when the people he cares about, like Alina, feel it too. Everyone his age in the country feels it to some extent.

Despite all of that, he continues to hope. Why? Because he’s already made a place for himself to belong—with his friends, with his crew, and with Alina. Now, all that is left is to give that same thing to the rest of Ravka.

Name a better king. I bet you can’t.


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