In many ways, Shadow and Bone is a classic good versus evil story: protagonist Alina must save her country from the Darkling, an evil villain who, she later discovers, plans to threaten everyone in Ravka with total darkness if they don’t give in to him. As it becomes clear that the Darkling is an antagonist rather than a savior, Shadow and Bone proposes that it’s his greed, ruthlessness, and inability to show respect and mercy that makes him evil. Indeed, Alina’s first indicator that perhaps the Darkling isn’t as good as she initially thinks he is comes when she discovers that the Darkling knowingly “gifted” Genya, a Grisha with powers to change people’s appearances, to the Queen as a maid. This makes Genya unable to refuse the King’s sexual advances—something the Darkling knew about when he sent Genya to work for the Queen. Later, it’s the Darkling’s willingness to murder an entire village and Alina’s love interest, Mal, to prove a point that shows Alina the extent of his evil. People’s lives mean nothing to him, and he sees no point in showing mercy to anyone unless it benefits him.
Alina, however, discovers that the only way to fight the Darkling’s greed is with mercy. The Darkling’s plan revolves around killing the mythical Morozova’s stag and making its antlers into a collar for Alina, which will amplify and allow him to wield her power—if he kills the stag. Alina knows this, and yet when she has the opportunity to kill the stag and take its power for herself, she chooses not to. Ultimately, Alina realizes her act of mercy wasn’t her death sentence. Rather, refusing to kill the stag allows her to take control of her power and her body back from the Darkling, as showing the stag mercy was, in and of itself, a powerful choice. Showing others mercy, the novel suggests, can be a dangerous proposition in the novel’s magical world—but its power is, perhaps, far stronger than what one earns by being ruthless and greedy.
Greed vs. Mercy ThemeTracker
Greed vs. Mercy Quotes in Shadow and Bone
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.
“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 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.”
“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.
“Just admit it,” he sneered. “He owns you.”
“He owns you, too, Mal,” I lashed back. “He owns us all.”
“The Fold was no mistake.” Baghra dropped her hands and the swirling darkness around her melted away. “The only mistake was the volcra. He did not anticipate them, did not think to wonder what power of that magnitude might do to mere men.”
My stomach turned. “The volcra were men?”
“Oh yes. Generations ago. Farmers and their wives, their children. I warned him that there would be a price, but he didn’t listen. He was blinded by his hunger for power. Just as he is blinded now.”
“But he can’t use an amplifier,” I protested weakly.
“He can use you,” Baghra said softly. “Morozova’s stag is no ordinary amplifier. He will hunt it. He will kill it. He will take its antlers, and once he places them around your neck, you will belong to him completely. You will be the most powerful Grisha who has ever lived, and all that newfound power will be his to command. You will be bound to him forever, and you will be powerless to resist.”
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.”
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.
I’d thought the stag was haunting me, a reminder of my failure and the price my weakness would exact. But I was wrong.
The stag had been showing me my strength—not just the price of mercy but the power it bestowed. And mercy was something the Darkling would never understand.
I had spared the stag’s life. The power of that life belonged to me as surely as it belonged to the man who had taken it.
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.