As long as an adaptation maintains the spirit of the characters and story, changes and timeline shifts aren’t the end of the world. That’s the credo many fans of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books have adopted in the Netflix adaptation Shadow and bones, one that the showrunners also proudly proclaim. And yes, as long as the core of the story is respected, changes can be good.
But when it comes to the second season of Shadow and bones, it’s clear which characters the writers understand and which have been reconstructed to be used as puzzle pieces in the larger frame. To add to the ever-popular Six of Crows characters and accelerate Alina’s quest to defeat the Darkling, two of the books’ most dynamic female characters, Genya Safin (Daisy Head) and Zoya Nazyalensky (Sujaya Dasgupta), were added. collateral damage, their storylines reduced to almost nothing. In the books, they both represent a deconstruction of what we typically expect from the YA tribal character of the Beautiful Cool Girl. In the show, it’s the tropes, not the deconstruction, and any nuance their arcs would have takes a backseat to the more traditionally exciting characters.
(Ed. remark: This piece contains spoilers for Shadow and bones season 2, as well as the Grishaverse books.)
When Leigh Bardugo introduces Genya and Zoya in the first Shadow and Bone books, she puts a lot of emphasis on their beauty. However, that is not positive. In the first book, Alina constantly emphasizes her own plain appearance so that anyone who is beautiful becomes someone she cannot identify with. Due to Alina’s limited first-person perspective – not to mention Bardugo’s fledgling writing – Zoya in particular initially suffers the most from reductive tropes. In her very first appearance in shadow and bones, Zoya is presented as arrogant, beautiful and jealous of the attention the Darkling gives to Alina (while Alina is jealous that Zoya hugged Mal). A lot of the Shadow and Bone series got bogged down by little romantic jealousy arcs like this one, and it has Zoya’s character holding the bag. She is the epitome of the Beautiful Mean Girl trope, existing in contrast to our more relatable protagonist. That 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 initially came across as one note. Zoya is mean and beautiful, yes, and she kisses the boys Alina likes, but she is also intelligent, cunning, a skilled military leader, and fiercely loyal to her country. Eventually, Zoya becomes Alina’s trusted ally, and Alina appoints her to a high leadership position in the final book. When she stars in the Nikolai duology, with her own POV chapters, she’s smart, ambitious and capable – but she also never compromises on her fierceness and caustic attitude. She is never watered down and rarely villains, even as she learns to lean on other people and let them in. Her ultimate fate in the most recent books completely dismantles the tropes she initially represented.
But in the show, this is all brushed off as Zoya isn’t even around for most of the war. We barely see her interacting with Alina, or even see the side of her that is supposed to step up and lead the military. She’s sent off to babysit the Crows in Shu Han, which is her own struggle, yes, but one that doesn’t showcase her abilities as a leader, or show the complex relationship between her and Alina. 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 she doesn’t feel like she deserved it. Even if future seasons delve more into Zoya’s character, what’s been set up so far doesn’t even establish her as a central character. She’s lost in the shuffle.
Unlike Zoya, who is undoubtedly powerful in the books, Genya’s ability to beautify and alter appearances is dismissed as in-universe trivial – 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 Zoya, this is dismantled in the books. Genya is the first Grisha to share her particular talent, and she is curious, knowledgable and friendly. But she is also used by the Darkling to endear herself 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. Many of the choices she makes in the books are acts of defiance against the people who once controlled her. The show reduces them all to beats because of the rushed romantic arc.
Saving Alina and standing up to the Darkling becomes saving her love interest. Being brought before the King and Queen to learn her destiny as a traitor and fearlessly revealing the King’s sexual assault turns into a quick falling-out with the Queen, the King not even alive to hear the accusations. David still gets to tell Genya a romantic story from the books about how she is stronger than she thinks; Genya doesn’t understand her most famous line, after which, after the king tells her that she is ruined, she whispers to him: ‘I am not ruined; I am a downfall.’ Her relationship with David builds over the course of three books, and it is notable because David is one of the few people Genya doesn’t reject because of her beauty. In the show, this is rushed in a big way – going from brief glances in season 1 to a whole sacrifice in the third episode of season 2. Instead of someone becoming resilient and winning herself back, Genya turns into someone who needs saving.
As a television program Shadow and bones stands for the classic impossible adaptation task of translating a story for the screen And satisfied fans. There are so many characters – especially when you factor in the sequel novels – that some fall by the wayside. In this case, that means the more traditionally exciting Crows characters get an all-new storyline that isn’t in the books, while the two character arcs that dissect and dismantle stereotypical portrayals of young women are completely lost in the shuffle. Perhaps Zoya and Genya will get the chance to star in future seasons, especially now that the Crows are on their own potential spin-off show. Or maybe they will exist as the one-note tropes they had to face.
Both seasons of Shadow and bones are now on Netflix.