Shadow & Bone: Ranking the Ships

Two pop culture critics discuss, debate, and celebrate the ships in Shadow and Bone’s first season.

Different Romantic Couples in Shadow and Bone
Photo: Netflix

This Shadow and Bone feature contains MAJOR spoilers for Season 1.

Netflix’s Shadow and Bone adaptation is rife with excellent shipping options. Adapted from Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse YA book series, there is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to romantic relationships. Whether you’re into the Enemies to Lovers vibes of Nina and Matthias (aka Helnik), the Slow Burn angst of Inej and Kaz (aka Kanej), or you just like to see Jesper having fun with the hot stableboy, Shadow and Bone has you covered. In the interest of covering the wide swathe of romantic ships on this show, and recognizing that everyone has their own subjective taste when it comes to storytelling, Den of Geek editor Kayti Burt and Den of Geek contributor Lacy Baugher are teaming up to discuss loving the love of Shadow and Bone. Welcome to our discussion, and feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments below…

Question: What was your favorite ship in Shadow and Bone Season 1?

Lacy: Matthias and Nina are my favorite ship in the books, and my favorite ship in Shadow and Bone. I’m actually kind of surprised by this though, because there are just so, so many ways that their storyline here could have gone off the rails and been truly awful to watch. Instead, their connection is really natural and develops carefully throughout the season. (I was really afraid it would just be some insta-attraction, but that’s not what happened at all.) 

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From Nina’s capture and  imprisonment aboard what is essentially a Grisha slave ship bound for Fjerda to Matthias over the top hatred of her “kind,” there’s just so much goodness for those fans— like me, lol—who love a good enemies to frenemies to OTP forever style romance. They’re both so good for each other, and I love how thoughtful the show is about showing us how they’re each expanding one another’s experiences and worldview. Also, waffles!!! 

Kayti: From the get-go, I was pretty much all in on Alina and Mal (aka Malina), which surprised me because they are… fine in the book. The decision to play this romantic connection as so obviously reciprocal from the beginning, even if Alina cannot see how Mal feels about her (and maybe vice versa), was so smart. In the first half of the season, which was the weaker part of this story for me, the yearning between these two is the narrative aspect that kept me emotionally engaged, even when the Little Palace stuff wasn’t as interesting.

Lacy: I love how hard Alina fights to go with Mal into the Shadow Fold in the first episode. That isn’t the way that happens in the books (they’re both basically just ordered to go) and that choice sort of crystallizes for me all the right things that this series does with their relationship. They’re both really active about how much they mean to one another and are constantly fighting to either stay together or get back to each other, I find that so romantic.

Aleksander and Alina in Shadow and Bone

Question: What was your least favorite ship in Shadow and Bone Season 1?

Lacy: I find the idea of Alina and the Darkling (aka Darklina) really off putting for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that his desire for her is almost completely and utterly self-serving. I know there are a lot of Shadow and Bone fans who love it for whatever reason and I support anyone shipping whatever they need to ship. (Also, Ben Barnes is certainly a looker.)  But, for me Alina deserves better than a man who seems to think he has some kind of right to her simply because their powers are similarly spectacular and rare. It is fully not Alina’s job or responsibility to save this man from his own darkness or loneliness or however he would describe the many moral failings that he expects her to somehow magically cure.

Plus, well, he’s a remorseless murderer who is basically trying to take over the world. But even if he wasn’t, the Darkling is still someone who lied to and manipulated Alina for his own selfish ends, and then forced her into compliance with his desires against her will. There is truly no aspect of that story that’s romantic for me, and I think trying to pretend that he’s in some way good for her is downright dangerous at points. 

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Kayti: Yes! It is not Alina’s job to fix the Darkling. She deserves support and love now, not some time in a possible future when she has managed to coach Aleksander through his pain. (That being said, Ben Barnes is an utter delight and I love him.)

I will say that, even though I don’t personally like this ship, I love how the series handles it. As a story, I don’t think the adaptation really ever romanticizes this relationship as anything other than what it is: a toxic, manipulative dynamic that, for Aleksander, is always about power and never about love. The series’ contextualization of their relationship (it only ever briefly entertains the idea of these two as a proper couple) honestly feels somewhat radical, especially because Alina/the Darkling is such a popular ship in the novel.

Additional note: I am not here to murder anyone’s ship. If you’re into the Darklina of it all, I say go for it. Shipping fictional characters is different than perpetuating toxic dynamics in real life, and if shipping Darklina brings you joy, I say go for it!

Alina and Mal on a ship in Shadow and Bone

Question: Which ship gets the “Most Improved” award from the books?

Lacy: 100% Mal and Alina! I’ve written about this at some length already, but I’m honestly a bit stunned by how well the show adapts this relationship for the screen. I did not expect it, but I love it and I honestly can’t wait to see how the show handles the events of the second book.

Mal and Alina’s relationship is so much more complex and interesting here than it is on the page, from the changes to their shared history (Mal and Alina aren’t just from the same orphanage, they’re both the only mixed race kids there who get bullied for being part Shu-Han) to the increased depth Mal’s presence throughout the story lends to his character. These two make so much sense as a couple here, and it’s all very natural and earned to me – and doesn’t at all come off like they’re only together because they books say they have to be.

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Kayti: Agreed! The adaptation made Mal a protagonist in his own right, outside of his value as a romantic interest for Alina, and it made their relationship so much more interesting to me. Getting to see Mal fight to get back to Alina, all while she thought he had given up on here, was quite powerful.

Lacy: Right? Like Mal is also…fine in the books, but he really comes into his own as a character for me here. I know part of that is just that the books are primarily Alina’s POV so she can’t know what she doesn’t know when it comes to him, but the downside is that Mal really comes off as a jerk at multiple points. (Like, oh, now he’s suddenly jealous of the Darkling? What?) 

Plus, I just love the repeated imagery of them choosing each other, not just once, but everyday. That’s what real love is, in my book—the decision to be with someone that’s a constant, conscious part of your life that you choose to uphold in big things and in small.

Nina and Matthias in Shadow and Bone

Question: Which ship has the most potential to be The Best Ship moving forward?

Kayti: As someone who has yet to read Six of Crows, I was very into the Inej/Kaz dynamic, which is more of a pre-romantic relationship in this first season. I love the angst of a Slow Burn, and I imagine this is one of the benefits of bringing in the Six of Crows characters ahead of the main plot of their books: we get to see how these characters’ relationships develop before their arcs come to fruition, or even properly begin. I also am glad these two didn’t start anything when there is the messy power imbalance inherent in Kaz paying off Inej contract. This will still be a factor moving forward, but feels less squidgy when Inej has the option of leaving.

Lacy: I think that the answer is probably also Mal and Alina? I can’t quite figure out how Shadow and Bone will incorporate the elements from Six of Crows moving forward so I’m not sure how big of a piece those characters will play in any second season—though don’t get me wrong, I am very much looking forward to however Nina manages to get Matthias out of Hellgate prison. 

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But, given the tensions that arise between Mal and Alina in the book Siege and Storm, I’m very curious to see how—or even if—the show handles/presents some of them. I fully expect that the more layered presentation of Mal we saw here will play into this, and I think that’s going to make a real difference in the story. (Which, unfortunately, often comes off on the page like romantic conflict that exists for the sake of propping up a love triangle.) 

Kaz, Inej, and Jesper in Shadow and Bone

Question: OK, rank your ships. Go!

Kayti: Why did I give us this question? It’s so hard! And now, since gushing about Mal and Alina at the beginning of this conversation, I have talked myself into Inej and Kaz as my #1. Plot twist! This just goes to show how many great romantic relationships (and other kinds of relationships) there are in this show. Here goes…

  1. Kaz/Inej
  2. Mal/Alina
  3. Nina/Matthias
  4. Jesper/that stableboy
  5. That ship they all end up on at the end
  6. Genya/David
  7. Alina/Aleksander

Lacy: There is Matthias and Nina and there is everyone else. 

This show has made me a hardcore Malina shipper though. So that’s new and exciting! 

I do have one shipping-related complaint, however, and that’s that Genya and David are a favorite pairing of mine from the books and I am truly not sure that they exchange more than a dozen words in the entire first season of the show? I fully believe there are viewers who probably can’t even easily identify who David is. (Unless you’re armed with the book knowledge that he’s the one who fuses the stag’s antlers to Alina’s shoulders.) 

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Kayti: Yeah, justice for Genya/David.

I love how much you love Nina and Matthias, and also think your enthusiasm has kept me from writing too much about them in favor of highlighting other ships. But let the record show: I am here for these two. Of the Six of Crows crew, they had the best and clearest arc, which is how their connection manages to support a whole subplot all on its lonesome. I wrote about this in our other Shadow and Bone conversation article, but these two give me Jon Snow/Ygritte vibes in the best possible way (hopefully, they get a better ending!), but I haven’t mentioned that watching them share that floating detritus post-shipwreck helped soothe the Titanic trauma I still hold from watching Jack freeze to death because he can’t fit on that door with Rose. (Um, Titanic spoilers.)

Question: Any final thoughts?

Lacy: Romantic or no, I just love the care that Shadow and Bone takes with all their relationships. Nothing happens on screen simply because it does in the books and everything feels really organic and true to who these characters are. 

That’s not easy, and there are a ton of shows—let alone adaptations—that are really, really bad at it. Shadow and Bone is really good at it, and I can’t wait to see what happens as things get more complicated from this point forward.

Kayti: The relationships on this show, brought to life by this charming and talented cast, are the heart of this adaptation. So many epic fantasy series brought to the screen bring the world or the plot without giving us a reason to care about the people, and that is a dealbreaker for me. One of the strengths of YA has always been the prioritization of relationships and emotional interiority, and to see those narrative priorities brought to the screen in an epic fantasy story makes me so happy. 

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Lacy: It’s such a rare thing, when you find a show where you can literally ship almost everyone in virtually any sort of arrangement or permutation, but if the entire cast just suddenly decided to make out I would not be mad. 

Kayti: The perfect conclusion to our conversation… and the show?