by Guest Writer Monica Rivera Sosa
“I am become a blade.” This iconic line from Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone created a surge of TikToks and memes about the Shadow and Bone character, Malyen Oretzev. However, this line is not the only reason people have begun an online hate club; the real reason is because of his role in the series as a whole. In the Shadow and Bone Trilogy, Mal is Alina—the main character’s—childhood best friend and long-time crush. He is written to have a boy-next-door, popular jock type of personality with Alina as his sidekick. What he really is, though, is an immature, narcissistic child. Though these characters are grown adults for most of the series, it doesn’t keep Mal from making childish decisions that put everyone in danger and demonstrate his egotistical tendencies.
When we first meet him, he seems like the typical best friend who simply has never seen Alina as a woman. To him, she is his best friend since they grew up in the orphanage, but now, we see them with the backdrop of war and danger. Mal has grown up and made friends of his own in the army who see him as a hero, and the women around him fall at his feet. It seems that he is perfectly content with his life, even if Alina isn’t in it.
Nevertheless, she latched onto him and remained loyal to him the whole time. The first instance we see his blatant ignorance shine through is when he proudly boasts about sleeping with a Grisha woman to his friends, Dobrov and Mikhel, with Alina there as well. While he should feel comfortable discussing his life with his friends, his blindness to Alina’s feelings about him and the event are the first indicator of his true colors. When these two characters are separated going into the rising action, Alina finally feels free enough to make new friendships and discover herself outside her relationship with Mal. She suppressed her powers her whole life and kept herself from her true destiny to stay with someone who, when the time came, didn’t appreciate her.
Alina’s story is not a new one. We have all waited for someone and allowed other opportunities to pass us by in hopes that one person will finally notice us—but they never do. If it does happen, it is only once we have begun to move on. When Mal saw Alina’s relationship with the Darkling, it immediately “opened his eyes to her.” Why do we continue to find jealousy as an eye-opening experience so desirable?
On the topic of jealousy, there was an instance when Mal didn’t feel Alina was giving him enough attention while she was trying to save the world, so he retaliated by starting a fight club and kissing Zoya, the person he was aware not only had bad blood with Alina but would also make her feel insecure. Despite this, she remained tied to him. Why did he feel the need to make her feel like she was in the wrong for having her priorities? Is saving the world from an evil grisha and his shadow army supposed to take precedence over soothing a grown man’s ego? Not only was this immature, but it was also a testament to his own envy and insecurities. He knew that this was the place where Alina belonged. She was herself when she was being a leader to her people and building her community back up from the ground. Seeing this, Mal decided she was becoming too independent and strong without him. She no longer had to hide who she was or hide behind Mal’s popularity. She had her own friends and her own skills to rely upon.
This relationship is often seen in YA books. When a female character becomes independent, the male becomes jealous and reveals his egotistical needs while betraying his own insecurities. Even with this clear stroke of immaturity, this character is still written as desirable and attractive, exactly the person a woman would dream of being with. While it is empowering to see more strong female characters in the YA Fantasy genre, it can be equally disheartening to see them fall victim to male ego.
In the end, she became what he always wanted. She lost her powers and retreated to a small farm to raise orphans. Many have said that this ending was a perfect full-circle for Alina, but the only reason she believed that she belonged in Karamzin is because she spent her whole life suppressing who she was really meant to be to the point that she believed she should abandon her people in their time of need. Though she no longer had powers, she would always be Grisha. She didn’t have to marry Nikolai (or anyone for that matter). She could have helped train the Grisha, or helped the younger ones adjust; there was so much she could have done instead of leaving to follow Mal. He was a country boy and he wanted a life in the countryside, but we all know Alina was destined for more. The power of Mal’s manipulation still baffles me, and I wonder how this will change in the Netflix series as season 2 comes out in March. All I can hope for the future of YA is that we begin to see more women creating paths for themselves without feeling shame and retreating to the “childhood best friend.”