Warning: Mild spoilers ahead for the Shadow & Bone book trilogy and, possibly, the Netflix adaptation.
Netflix’s Shadow & Bone series is centered on a powerfully magic girl named Alina (Jessie Mei Li in the series); here are her powers explained. Based on Leigh Bardugo’s best-selling series of books, Netflix’s adaptation is one of the most hotly-anticipated series releasing in the first half of 2021. This is thanks to Bardugo’s richly layered mythology and strong world-building, not to mention a memorable cast of characters in both the original Grishaverse trilogy and the follow-up Six of Crows duology.
Of those characters, Alina Starkov anchors the original trilogy. When the books first open – and it appears the show my follow suit – Alina is a teenager living in an orphanage in Keramzin under the care of Duke Keramsov. Alina is relatively unremarkable and sickly, described as having lank, mousy hair and constant dark circles under her eyes. When a high-ranking Grisha – one of the magic users in their kingdom of Ravka – stops by the orphanage to test the children for magical powers, Alina displays no abilities. Thus, she and her best friend, Malyen “Mal” Oretsev (Archie Renaux), are conscripted into Ravka’s standard military, the First Army, where Mal trains as a tracker and Alina as a cartographer.
However, during a traumatic moment on a mission through the Shadow Fold, Alina displays a burst of magic that has never been seen before by any living person. No one knows what to make of it, but it quickly becomes apparent that Alina is a rare person as the only Grisha in the world with the kind of magic that could possibly destroy the Shadow Fold. It’s a lot to put on a young orphan’s shoulders, but with good reason. Alina’s magic is powerful and requires some explanation.
Once Alina’s powers are revealed, there’s initial confusion as they don’t fit neatly into the ordered ranks of Grisha magic. There are three orders of Grisha in the world: Corporalki, who can control the human body and bring death (Heartrenders) or life (Healers); Etherealki, who can control the elements of air (Squallers), fire (Inferni), or water (Tidemakers); and Materialki, who can control organic and inorganic substances, whether solid matter (Durasts) or chemicals (Alkemi).
Alina’s powers, however, don’t match any of those categories. Eventually, it’s decided that she’s a Sun Summoner, a type of Grisha thought to be extinct and thus technically under the order of Etherealki as her powers are tied to the natural world. With her powers, she has the ability to summon pure light, as well as manipulate it, including bending, refracting, and amplifying light. She also has the power to summon heat from the sun. Eventually, she’s also able to use a power known as the Cut, turning her light into a concentrated blade powerful enough to cut through anything and slice the tops off mountains. As the only one of her kind, she is the counterpart to the Darkling (played by Ben Barnes in the Netflix series), the only Grisha in the world who has the ability to summon shadows and darkness the way Alina summons heat and light.
Alina is the first Sun Summoner of that era, but she’s not the last. As it’s discovered later in the books, when Alina wears three specific amplifiers – magical objects that increase a Grisha’s power – her powers transcend her. She’s then able to bestow sun summoning powers to random people around Ravka, thus creating an entirely new branch of Grisha.
It’s a curious aspect of Alina’s powers manifesting in Shadow & Bone that, even when tested by powerful Grisha trained in the art of detecting magical ability, Alina comes up as a blank slate. Part of this was due to the fact that, because Alina was a brand-new sort of magic user, the Grisha may not have known what to look for.
But the larger explanation ties back to why her powers manifested in the first place: Mal. On their mission through the Shadow Fold, their unit’s sandskiff is attacked and Mal is horribly injured by a volcra, one of the carnivorous, winged monsters of the Fold. In her moment of terror and grief, Alina’s powers burst forth, lighting the darkness and obliterating the volcra before they could attack again. Alina later realized that she’d been subconsciously suppressing her powers all her life, as if she’d known that if she were discovered to be a Grisha, she’d be separated from Mal, her best friend and the only thing in the world that she loved.
It also helps to explain why Alina was so sickly her entire life. No matter how much she ate, she looked malnourished, tired, and frail. Suppressing her magic so thoroughly was making her sick; in the world of the Grishaverse, the more a Grisha uses their powers, the healthier and more whole they are as magic is a natural necessity like air. As Alina uses her powers and grows more comfortable with them, she grows healthier, filling out and becoming more refined in appearance – the person she was always meant to be. It’s not fully clear if the new Netflix TV show will incorporate this piece of the books, but it would be interesting if it did.
The Shadow Fold is a magical aberration, a scar that tears the land of Ravka in two. It’s a sea of impenetrable darkness that seems almost alive, hence Ravkans also calling it the Unsea. No normal light can penetrate it, and the pitch-black darkness is patrolled by a number of unnatural monsters and abominations ready to attack any sandskiff or caravan trying to cross the Fold to deliver desperately-needed supplies. The nastiest of these are the volcra, giant, ravenous creatures with leathery wings, jagged, serrated teeth, and dirty claws that can shred a person or leave them infected with a viscous darkness. The crews of any sandskiffs attempting to make a crossing must keep their mouths shut and their heads on swivels at all times in order to attract the attention of the volcra, who can smell human blood in the darkness from miles away.
As the Sun Summoner, Alina’s powers are the only thing that can banish the darkness of the Shadow Fold and destroy the volcra and other creatures that lurk in the blackness. She can’t do it alone, and the story of the Grisha Trilogy is all about Alina discovering the full extent of her powers in order to destroy the Shadow Fold for good and save Ravka. With Netflix’s new 2021 show looking to change a few things from the books, including weaving multiple stories together, it remains to be seen if Alina’s powers will manifest and play out exactly as they do in the books. Regardless, Alina’s journey to becoming Ravka’s powerful Sun Summoner in the series will be truly fun to watch.
Netflix’s Shadow & Bone premieres Friday, April 23.