From the series’ opening scenes, we learn that Alina and Mal’s relationship is the crux around which almost everything else in Shadow and Bone will turn. The pair is both the lens through which we are introduced to this fantasy world and the first relationship we are asked to believe in. And in a story full of twists and increasingly deadly threats, their connection becomes an important and necessary constant.
More importantly, the show does the work of binding these two to one another emotionally, without ever making it feel as though their connection takes place simply because it also happens to exist in Bardugo’s novels. Shadow and Bone adds some much-needed depth and dimension to both characters by shaking up their histories. Unlike the novels, in the Netflix series, both Mal and Alina are mixed-race—part Ravkan, and part Shu-Han (in real life, Alina actress Jessie Li Mei is a Chinese-British actress, while Mal actor Archie Renaux is White English)—two countries that have long been at war with one another. Both would likely have been ostracized enough for the simple fact of being orphans with no real wealth or prospects to speak of, but their mixed-race status makes them even more obvious targets for the ire of those around them.
Both Alina and Mal are mocked as “half breeds” at their orphanage, called “rice eaters” and bullied by their peers. Their army camp is covered in wartime propaganda posters that depict their Shu Han enemies as uncomfortably angry, vaguely racist caricatures, and even the other soldiers in Alina’s squad of cartographers make rude comments about how she doesn’t belong with them.
This new backstory not only adds new depth to Alina as a character, but it further underlines why she and Mal are so important to one another – he’s not just her friend, he’s the one person in her regiment, and one of the few in a predominantly White Ravka, who really understands her and who shares her experiences at a base cultural level. It explains why they’re so loath to be apart, and why each fights so hard to get back to the other whenever they’re separated.
In the sort of small-but-significant shifts from the book narrative that come to define this series adaptation, it is the order to send Mal’s regiment across the Shadow Fold that spurs Alina to find a way to accompany him, costing several of her unit their lives and ultimately unleashing her Grisha abilities. (In the novel, they’re both simply assigned to the skiff that is sent across the Shadow Fold.) It is the first example of a trend that will run throughout the series, in which so many of both Alina and Mal’s decisions will be defined by the other’s presence or absence and motivated by the fact that neither can bear to lose the other.
Shadow and Bone also manages to flesh out Mal himself as a character in a way that the book series does not. Since Bardugo’s novels are told from a first-person perspective—Alina’s—we necessarily spend much less time with Mal in the book version of Shadow and Bone than we do in the Netflix series. This means that he’s technically absent for half the story in the book and, as a result, often feels bland and underdeveloped when compared to other characters who don’t disappear for huge swaths of the novel.