Netflix’s Shadow and Bone expects you to know what’s going on. Usually, this assumption works in the YA fantasy show’s favor, providing an air of mystery for newbies while refusing to spoon-feed longtime fans of the book series from which the show is adapted (also known as the Grishaverse novels). But when the exposition moves fast, it moves really fast, dropping in vital pieces of information like blink-and-you’ll-miss-it care packages. Thus how we get to the understanding of protagonist Alina Starkov as an outsider, without much context of why she’s an outsider.
In the opening seconds of Shadow and Bone’s first episode, Alina reveals she lives in East Ravka, where she’s “never been welcome.” Why? Because she looks like her mother, and “she looked like the enemy.”
The show’s creators don’t go so far as to spell out that Alina Starkov’s actress, Jessie Mei Li, is half-Chinese, thus Alina must be half-something as well. But, of course, Alina’s journey through the first episode is riddled with microaggressions—“I need to get a better view from your country,” one fellow cartographer tells her, even though Alina grew up in East Ravka. “The Shu Han didn’t want [Alina] either.”
The subtext is that Alina is a victim of racism because of her mother’s Shu ethnic background. But if that explanation means nothing to you, never fear. There’s more to that history than Shadow and Bone is willing to give you.
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What is a Shu?
In Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, the author has stitched together an entirely new fantasy map composed of familiar fragments. The land of Ravka is drawn from tsarist Russia—you can tell by the ushanka-like hats Alina and her fellow soldiers wear. Meanwhile, other countries like Kerch, where the criminals known as the Dregs reside, are based on other real-life nations: In particular, Kerch is inspired by the Dutch Republic. Similarly, the Grishaverse characters share ethnicities similar to those on our little blue dot, though they go by different names.
Shu Han, for example, is Alina’s mother’s homeland. Ruled by a matriarchal monarchy, the perpetually warm country rests to the south of Ravka and is inspired largely by Mongolia and China, meaning its residents have mainly East Asian characteristics. But the Shu people are often considered Ravka’s enemies, in part because they’re known to experiment on Grisha, the super-powered Ravkans who make up the country’s Second Army.
How are you supposed to know all this? Well, it’s fed to you in tiny shards throughout the series, chiefly during a flashback in episode one: A little orphan Alina is told by her caretaker, Ana Kuya, that the reason why Ravkans cross the dangerous Shadow Fold is because the “North wants our Grisha dead, and the South guards its mountains.” From the seconds-long glimpse viewers get of the map, you might be able to make out Shu Han to the south, protected from Ravka by a sturdy mountain range known as the Sikurzoi.
We never learn—at least, not in Season One, but possibly in Season Two—how or why Alina’s mother made her way from Shu Han to Ravka, but it’s nevertheless an important part of the young heroine’s characterization. As Mei Li explained to ELLE, it cements her desire for belonging.
“Not only is Alina’s ethnicity really important to the world-building—we understand who’s at war with whom—[but] it’s important for her as a character,” Li told the magazine. “Her journey is, essentially, where do I belong? And as a person of mixed heritage [Li’s mother is British, her father Chinese], you grow up thinking, Well, I’m not X enough, I’m not Y enough. They wove that into the story.”
And if you’re still unclear who’s fighting whom and why, you’re in luck. We’ve got a guide for that, too.
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