Meditation: Shadow and Bone

Anika Reads
5 min readMar 26, 2021

My thoughts on grief and legacy in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse trilogy


My feelings about this trilogy are confused by the fact that I spent pretty much all of it waiting for the main character to die. I’d already read Leigh Bardugo’s other Grishaverse books, Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom. Those books are set in the same world, but chronologically many years later, and one of the characters refers to how Sankta Alina died alone on the Fold, to save her country.

Well shit, I thought, when I realized that Sankta Alina was the main character of the Shadow and Bone series. I guess I know how this one’s going to end.

I did not, but maybe because I spent this entire book sitting with death, awaiting it, I sensed a sadness in these books — especially in the third one — that swirled off the page and through my apartment with almost palpable force. Or maybe it was simple repetition: the word grief appears in the third book ten times. Its various forms — grieved, grieving, grieved — add another eight. Surely, this is more than normal.

This is a story about dying, as both a metaphorical and practical fact — after all, the world Sankta means ‘Saint,’ and most of the Saints in the Grishaverse folkloric universe meet grisly ends. It’s a book about a man who saves his daughter from death by knitting her body back together with merzost, forbidden power, thereby sparing her but setting in motion a series of events that shape nations hundreds of years later.

It’s also a story about grief, which is life that survives an ending but is transformed by it.

For my father, Harve –
Sometimes our heroes don’t make it to the end.

That’s the inscription with which the book begins, and look, I understand the limitations and the invasions inherent in trying to map an author’s mental state onto a fictional text. But I also understand the inevitability of it.

Alina’s story is framed in obvious symbolic imagery. She’s born with the power to summon sunlight, and most of the imagery surrounding her is filled with daylight, revelation and fire. But her foil, who necessitates and also defines her existence, is the character of the Darkling. A legendary and near-immortal sorcerer who can summon shadows, monsters of darkness, and night. Only Alina can defeat him, because only Alina can understand his power. Like calls to like, she thinks, repeatedly. And yet, the Darkling is cruel, where Alina is kind. He tells her he’s cruel because he’s lived for lifetimes.

“You live in a single moment. I live in a thousand,” he says, in one of the book’s better lines. He’s lived through so much grief it fails to leave any impact. If grief is love with no place to go, then the absence of grief is its own loss.

He’s not the only character in these books to have outlived his ideal lifespan. His mother, it turns out, has also survived, praying for his redemption all the while.

Her grief is old, I reminded myself. And yet I didn’t think pain like that ever faded entirely. Grief had its own life, took its own sustenance,” Alina muses, of the mother, in a line that seems to foreshadow what’s to come.

I can’t help but feel — as I do throughout — that Bardugo imbues Alina with an adult’s awareness of the limitations of life. Otherwise whence this wisdom, in the mind of an orphan girl? Alina’s lost her parents, sure, but she doesn’t remember them. Alina’s is another form of loss: not the loss of love, but rather, an absence.

What small bulwarks do people hold up against absence and grief? Bardugo’s argument — if there is one — seems to be that love redeems its own losses.

It’s a lesson Alina learns over time.

“Maybe love was superstition, a prayer we said to keep the truth of loneliness at bay,” she thinks, considering a marriage proposal from someone who wants to capture her sunlight power for himself. And certainly, Alina’s entire journey has been an attempt to keep loneliness at bay, from her earliest days as an orphan. But it ends up being much more to her than that, as she notes on the eve of the book’s final battle, when she inscribes her name and her lover’s in a random diary. I just needed to say we had been there, she notes. But this isn’t just about love as a bulwark against grief — it’s about love as a foretelling of it. If grief is love after the fact, then love is grief before it. In this moment, Alina truly believes both of them are going to die.

Alina herself is an unwilling sacrifice: aware of how most Saints end, she surrenders herself to a destiny she can’t entirely embrace, until she learns that the required death might not be her own, after all, but that of someone she loves. He accepts it more readily than she does.

“We all die,” he said as he jogged off to retrieve his kill. “Not everyone dies for a reason.”

I’m 35 years old. I’m fortunate to be far away from some of life’s deepest griefs even though I know they’ll come. It seems like no matter how long we have, there’s no such thing as preparation. This book offers, in its own way, a fantasy of grief: death for a reason, with time to prepare, and by choice. Life rarely seems to offer such neat endings.

I wasn’t broken. I was empty.

I wondered, up until just about the last line of this book, whether somewhere in the multiverse Leigh Bardugo wrote a version that ended differently. I think so, because Alina’s emptiness has a near perfect negative shape. Without her power, without the person she loved, she’s empty. And yet in the same moment that she surrenders her power, she sees it reborn around her, spilling from the hands of others. The final sacrifice. “Power multiplied a thousand times, but not in one person.”

Death, a gift, life. Is there a better metaphor for what a legacy feels like than this? It is the mythmaking of Saints, but — as Bardugo points out — it’s also the mythmaking of every ordinary life. If death defines life, then grief defines humanity. It has its own structure — absence — and its own life — loneliness. It blooms in the most unexpected places: “Someone to mourn me,” the Darkling says to Alina with relief, when he finally dies, as if this is the most important thing, followed by, “Don’t let me be alone.”



Anika Reads

Reader, gamer, sci-fi/fantasy nerd, reviewer. I love great stories, regardless of medium. This account is for honest reviews, observations, and critiques.