Shadow and Bone explores how people handle both the immense pressure to fit in and the desire to stand out and be special. Alina, the novel’s protagonist, has never felt like she fits in anywhere. She’s an orphan, is a weak and uncoordinated soldier, and a poor mapmaker, so she doesn’t feel like she fits in in the army. And when it’s discovered that she’s actually a powerful Grisha (a person who performs a sort of magic), Alina feels even more out of place: she’s not beautiful like Grisha are, and she struggles to call her power to summon light without assistance. Eventually, it’s revealed that Alina has been subsuming her power for years in order to be able to stay with her childhood friend and love interest, Mal. Alina has been trying so hard to conform that she’s actively hurt herself. For Alina, accepting her power helps her feel secure, important, and as though she fits in for the first time in her life.
However, Alina quickly learns that being the sole Sun Summoner has its downsides. When she discovers that the Grisha’s leader, the Darkling, plans to use her powers for evil, Alina realizes she’s been tricked. She realizes her desire to not just fit in with the Grisha, but to be special to the Darkling, has blinded her to any possible costs of conforming. Though Alina chooses to run from the Darkling and assert her individuality, others, like Genya, show how overwhelming the pressure to fit in is. For years, Genya has lived like a servant and been scorned by other Grisha, using her talent to do the Queen’s makeup and hair. It’s implied that Genya ultimately uses her power to make the King sick, in exchange for becoming a real Grisha and not a servant. Both Genya and Alina’s trajectories make it clear that there are steep costs to both fitting in and asserting one’s individuality—and each person must decide for themselves what cost they’re willing to accept.
Conformity vs. Individuality ThemeTracker
Conformity vs. Individuality Quotes in Shadow and Bone
“He’s not natural,” said Eva, another assistant; […] “None of them are.”
Alexei sniffed. “Please spare us your superstition, Eva.”
“It was the Darkling who made the Shadow Fold to begin with.”
“That was hundreds of years ago!” protested Alexei. “And that Darkling was completely mad.”
“This one is just as bad.”
“Peasant,” Alexei said, and dismissed her with a wave. […]
I stayed silent. I was more a peasant than Eva, despite her superstitions.
The side of the Darkling’s mouth twitched, as if he were repressing a smile. His eyes slid over me from head to toe and back again. I felt like something strange and shiny, a curiosity that had washed up on a lake shore, that he might kick aside with his boot.
I pulled the kefta tighter around me, feeling suddenly cold. I remembered the surety that had flooded through me with the Darkling’s touch, and that strangely familiar sensation of a call echoing through me, a call that demanded an answer. It had been frightening, but exhilarating, too. In that moment, all my doubt and fear had been replaced by a kind of absolute certainty. I was no one, a refugee from an unnamed village, a scrawny clumsy girl hurtling alone through the gathering dark. But when the Darkling had closed his fingers around my wrist, I’d felt different, like something more.
“My great-great-great-grandfather was the Black Heretic, the Darkling who created the Shadow Fold. It was a mistake, an experiment born of his greed, maybe his evil. I don’t know. But every Darkling since has tried to undo the damage he did to our country, and I’m no different.” He turned to me then, his expression serious, the firelight playing over the perfect planes of his features. “I’ve spent my life searching for a way to make things right. You’re the first glimmer of hope I’ve had in a long time.”
“I…If it would be alright, I’d prefer to have blue robes, Summoners’ blue.”
“Alina!” exclaimed Genya, clearly horrified.
But the Darkling held up a hand to silence her. “Why?” he asked, his expression unreadable.
“I already feel like I don’t belong here. I think it might be easier if I weren’t…singled out.”
“Are you so anxious to be like everyone else?”
My chin lifted. “I just don’t want to be more conspicuous than I already am.”
The Darkling looked at me for a long moment. I wasn’t sure if he was thinking over what I’d said or trying to intimidate me, but I gritted my teeth and returned his gaze.
Abruptly, he nodded. “As you wish,” he said. “Your kefta will be blue.”
I closed my eyes, feeling tears slide down my cheeks, and I reached out to the thing within me that I’d kept hidden for so long. I’m sorry, I whispered to it.
I’m sorry I left you so long in the dark.
I’m sorry, but I’m ready now.
I called and the light answered. […] It surrounded me, blazing with heat, more powerful and more pure than ever before because it was all mine. I wanted to laugh, to sing, to shout. At last, there was something that belonged wholly and completely to me.
Suddenly, lots of things seemed easy. I wasn’t tired all the time or winded when I climbed the stairs. I slept deeply and dreamlessly every night and woke refreshed. Food was a revelation: bowls of porridge heaped with sugar and cream, plates of skate fried in butter, fat plums and hothouse peaches, the clear and bitter taste of kvas. It was as if that moment in Baghra’s cottage was my first full breath and I had awakened into a new life.
“Black,” Genya whispered.
His color. What did it mean?
“Look!” she gasped.
The neckline of the gown was laced with a black velvet ribbon, and from it hung a small golden charm: the sun in eclipse, the Darkling’s symbol.
I bit my lip. This time, the Darkling had chosen to set me apart, and there was nothing I could do about it. I felt a little jab of resentment, but it was drowned by excitement. Had he chosen these colors for me before or after the night by the lake? Would he regret seeing me in them tonight?
I couldn’t think about that now. Unless I wanted to go to the ball naked, I didn’t have a lot of options.
If the Darkling came to my room tonight, what would it mean? The idea of being his sent a little jolt through me. I didn’t think he was in love with me and I had no idea what I felt for him, but he wanted me, and maybe that was enough.
I shook my head, trying to make sense of everything. The Darkling’s men had found the stag. I should be thinking about that, […] but all I could think about was his hands on my hips, his lips on my neck, the lean, hard feel of him in the dark.
I’d wanted so badly to belong somewhere, anywhere. I’d been so eager to please him, so proud to keep his secrets. But I’d never bothered to question what he might really want, what his true motives might be. I’d been too busy imagining myself by his side, the savior of Ravka, most treasured, most desired, like some kind of queen. I’d made it so easy for him.
Dimly, I’d been aware that I still had a shard of the blue cup in my hand, that it was digging into my palm, but I didn’t want to let go.
When he finally set me down and ambled off to the kitchen to find his lunch, I had stood there, my palm dripping blood, my head still spinning, knowing that everything had changed.
Ana Kuya had scolded me for getting blood on the clean kitchen floor. She’d bandaged my hand and told me it would heal. But I knew it would just go on hurting.
I fumbled with the tiny black buttons of the kefta. There seemed to be a thousand of them. When the silk finally slid over my shoulders and pooled at my feet, I felt a great burden lift from me.