clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The women of Shadow and Bone deserved better

Zoya and Genya’s book characters were brilliant deconstructions

genya, a redhead with a scarred face and eyepatch; alina, a pale dark-haired girl; and zoya, a girl with light brown skin and dark hair in a fringe Image: Netflix

So long as an adaptation keeps the spirit of the characters and story, changes and timeline shifts are not the end of the world. That’s been the creed that many fans of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books have carried into the Netflix adaptation Shadow and Bone, one that the showrunners also proudly proclaim. And yes, so long as the heart of the story is respected, changes can be good.

But when it comes to the second season of Shadow and Bone, it’s evident which characters the writers understand and which ones have been reconstructed to use as puzzle pieces in the larger framework. To include the ever-popular Six of Crows characters and to speedrun Alina’s quest to defeat the Darkling, two of the books’ most dynamic female characters, Genya Safin (Daisy Head) and Zoya Nazyalensky (Sujaya Dasgupta) became collateral damage, their storylines reduced to almost nothing. In the books, they both represent a deconstruction of what we typically expect from the YA stock character of the Beautiful Cool Girl. In the show, they’re the tropes, not the deconstruction, and any nuance that their arcs would have takes a backseat to the more traditionally exciting characters.

[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for Shadow and Bone season 2, as well as the Grishaverse books.]

zoya looking totally bored Photo: Dávid Lukács/Netflix

When Leigh Bardugo introduces Genya and Zoya in the first Shadow and Bone books, she places much emphasis on their beauty. That isn’t a positive, however. In the first book, Alina emphasizes her own plain looks constantly, so anyone beautiful becomes someone she cannot relate to. Through Alina’s limited first-person perspective — not to mention Bardugo’s fledgling writing — Zoya in particular does suffer the most from reductive tropes initially. In her very first appearance in Shadow and Bone, Zoya is presented as arrogant, beautiful, and jealous of the attention that the Darkling gives Alina (while Alina is jealous that Zoya was smooching Mal). A lot of the Shadow and Bone series was bogged down by petty romantic jealousy arcs like this, and it leaves Zoya’s character holding the bag. She’s the epitome of the Beautiful Mean Girl trope, existing in opposition to our more relatable protagonist. That just makes her ultimate arc all the more satisfying.

By the end of the first series, it’s clear that there’s more to Zoya than just being a Mean Girl. As Bardugo’s characterization improved, so did characters who came off as one-note initially. Zoya is mean and beautiful, yes, and she kisses the boys Alina likes, but she is also intelligent, shrewd, a proficient military leader, and deeply loyal to her country. Eventually, Zoya becomes Alina’s trusted ally, and Alina appoints her to a high leadership position in the last book. When she stars in the Nikolai duology, with her own POV chapters, she is smart, ambitious, and capable — but also never compromises her fierceness and caustic attitude. She’s never toned down and rarely villainized, even if she does learn to lean on other people and let them in. Her eventual destiny in the most recent books fully dismantles the tropes she initially represented.

zoya kneeling in a chinese-style courtyard Photo: Dávid Lukács/Netflix

But in the show, all of this is sanded down, because Zoya doesn’t even get to be around for most of the war. We barely get to see her interact with Alina, or even see the side of her that is supposed to step up and lead the military. She gets sent away to babysit the Crows in Shu Han, which is its own struggle, yes, but one that doesn’t show her capabilities as a leader, or show her and Alina’s complex relationship. Instead, she gets a speech from Nina about opening her heart to love. Alina does put her in charge of training the Grisha at the end of the show, but it comes without the feeling that she earned it at all. Even if future seasons dive more into Zoya’s character, what’s set up so far doesn’t even posit her as a central character. She’s lost in the shuffle.

Unlike Zoya, who in the books is undoubtedly powerful, Genya’s skill of beautifying and changing appearances is dismissed as trivial in-universe — even if it is more precise and technical than most realize. If Zoya is set up to be the Beautiful Mean Girl, Genya is set up to be the Beautiful Fool. But like with Zoya, this gets dismantled in the books. Genya is the first of all Grisha to share her specific talent, and she is curious, knowledgeable, and kind. But she is also tool used by the Darkling to endear himself to the royal family by gifting her talents to the queen (and making her body easily accessible to the king, who sexually assaults her). She is constantly dismissed by the other Grisha as nothing more than a servant. A lot of the choices she makes in the books are acts of defiance against the people who once controlled her. The show reduces all of them to beats for its rushed romantic arc.

genya, with red hair, scars, and an eyepatch, holds hands with david in front of a group of grisha Photo: Dávid Lukács/Netflix
genya, disheveled and sitting on the floor of a dirty jail cell Image: Netflix

Saving Alina and standing up to the Darkling becomes saving her love interest. Being brought before the king and queen to learn her fate as a traitor and fearlessly revealing the king’s sexual assault turns into a quick aside with the queen, the king not even alive to hear the accusations. David still gets to give Genya a romantic spiel from the books about how she is stronger than she thinks; Genya does not get her most famous line, where after the king tells her she is ruined, she whispers to him, “I am not ruined; I am ruination.” Her relationship with David builds up over the course of three books, and it is notable because David is one of the few people who doesn’t dismiss Genya because of her beauty. In the show, this gets massively rushed — going from brief glances in season 1 to a whole sacrifice in the third episode of season 2. Instead of someone who becomes resilient and reclaims herself, Genya turns into someone who needs to be saved.

As a television show, Shadow and Bone faces the classic impossible adaptation task of translating a story for the screen and pleasing fans. There are so many characters — especially if you take into account the sequel novels — that some of them do fall by the wayside. In this case, that means the more traditionally exciting Crows characters get a whole new storyline that does not appear in the books, while the two character arcs that dissect and dismantle stereotypical depictions of young women get completely lost in the shuffle. Maybe Zoya and Genya will get their chance to shine in future seasons, especially with the Crows off on their own possible spinoff show. Or maybe they’ll exist as the one-note tropes they were supposed to defy.

Both seasons of Shadow and Bone are on Netflix now.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon