While Alina’s process of self-discovery takes center stage in Shadow and Bone, the novel also explores the consequences of ineffective, uncaring political leaders—and how such a government can breed apathy, desperation, and political radicalism. Ravka is a country that, hundreds of years before the novel’s present, was divided in two by the Shadow Fold, a desolate area of complete darkness inhabited by nightmarish monsters. This division threatens to permanently divide the country and leave the landlocked half to die. At the same time, Ravka has been engaged in bloody wars with neighboring countries for about a century. These wars have decimated armies and civilian populations; Alina and Mal are two of many orphans of the so-called border wars. The result of these wars and the fear and division caused by the Fold, the novel shows, is a combination of fear, increased poverty, and a growing sense that Ravka’s leaders aren’t actually capable of fixing anything. So when the Darkling discovers Alina’s power—she’s a Sun Summoner, who can manipulate light—she represents hope for Ravka: with her, the Darkling believes he can do away with the Shadow Fold altogether, reuniting and bringing prosperity to every corner of Ravka.
However, Alina discovers that the Darkling has no interest in reuniting the country—rather, he wants to use her power, combined with his own, to threaten Ravka’s adversaries with expanding the Fold into their territories and essentially rule the country himself using brute force. Alina is shocked when she discovers that the Darkling isn’t good. But she’s even more shocked to discover that while many Grisha harbor some reservations, they still see following the Darkling and enabling his bloody crusade as the only way to save a country plagued by corruption, war, and an ineffective and uncaring King. As the first in a trilogy, Shadow and Bone offers no neat fixes for the situation in Ravka, but it serves as a chilling warning about how ineffective, bloated governments can lose the people’s trust—creating situations ripe for bad actors like the Darkling to step in and take control.
Desperation, Leadership, and Corruption ThemeTracker
Desperation, Leadership, and Corruption 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.
The kefta was far too large. It felt soft and unfamiliar, the fur lining warm against my skin. I chewed my lip. It didn’t seem fair that oprichniki and Grisha wore corecloth while ordinary soldiers went without. Did our officers wear it, too?
“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.”
Everywhere I looked, I saw marble and gold, soaring walls of white and palest blue, gleaming chandeliers, liveried footmen, polished parquet floors laid out in elaborate geometric designs. It wasn’t without beauty, but there was something exhausting about the extravagance of it all. I’d always assumed that Ravka’s hungry peasants and poorly supplied soldiers were the result of the Shadow Fold. But as we walked by a tree of jade embellished with diamond leaves, I wasn’t so sure.
“The Darkling is very keen on the idea that we all eat hearty peasant fare. Saints forbid we forget we’re real Ravkans.”
I restrained a snort. The Little Palace was a storybook version of serf life, no more like the real Ravka than the glitter and gilt of the royal court. The Grisha seemed obsessed with emulating serf ways, right down to the clothes we wore beneath our kefta. But there was something a little silly about eating “hearty peasant fare” off porcelain plates, beneath a dome inlaid with real gold. And what peasant wouldn’t pick pastry over pickled fish?
“The horse has speed. The bear has strength. The bird has wings. No creature has all of these gifts, and so the world is held in balance. Amplifiers are part of this balance, not a means of subverting it, and each Grisha would do well to remember this or risk the consequences.”
Another philosopher wrote, “Why can a Grisha possess but one amplifier? I will answer this question instead: What is infinite? The universe and the greed of men.”
“Just admit it,” he sneered. “He owns you.”
“He owns you, too, Mal,” I lashed back. “He owns us all.”
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.
He wasn’t at all shocked to hear of the contempt with which most Grisha regarded the King. Apparently, the trackers had been grumbling more and more loudly amongst themselves about the King’s incompetence.
“The Fjerdans have a breech-loading rifle that can fire twenty-eight rounds per minute. Our soldiers should have them, too. If the King could be bothered to take an interest in the First Army, we wouldn’t be so dependent on the Grisha. But it’ll never happen,” he told me. Then he muttered, “We all know who’s running the country.”
“He plans to bring us peace.”
“At what price?” I asked desperately. “You know this is madness.”
“Did you know I had two brothers?” Ivan asked abruptly. The familiar smirk was gone from his handsome face. “Of course not. They weren’t born Grisha. They were soldiers, and they both died fighting the King’s wars. So did my father. So did my uncle.”
“Yes, everyone is sorry. The King is sorry. The Queen is sorry. I’m sorry. But only the Darkling will do something about it.”
This is the truth of him, I thought as I squinted in the dazzling light. Like calls to like. This was his soul made flesh, the truth of him laid bare in the blazing sun, shorn of mystery and shadow. This was the truth behind the handsome face and the miraculous powers, the truth that was the dead and empty space between the stars, a wasteland peopled by frightened monsters.
They’re hungry for this, I realized. Even after they’ve seen what he can do, even after watching their own people die. The Darkling wasn’t just offering them an end to war, but an end to weakness. After all these long years of terror and suffering, he would give them something that had seemed permanently beyond their grasp: victory. And despite their fear, they loved him for it.