Battlestar Galactica. The 100. Game of Thrones. I’ve already sunk countless hours of my life into obsessing over will-they-or-won’t-they pairings in my favorite sci-fi/fantasy TV shows. And now I’m adding one more fandom to the list: Netflix’s Shadow and Bone.
This ambitious TV adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s best-selling fantasy novels combines storylines and characters from five books (Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, Ruin and Rising, Six of Crows, and Crooked Kingdom) across two different series (the Shadow and Bone trilogy plus the Six of Crows duology) set in one shared universe (the Grishaverse). And in season 2, fans are introduced to characters from two other companion novels, King of Scars and its sequel, Rule of Wolves.
Confused? Don’t even worry about it. All you really need to know going in is that these books are positively STACKED with shippable duos, and so is the show.
Inspired by Russian folklore, the Grishaverse features richly imagined settings, ruthless villains intent on world domination, and unlikely heroes with cleverness to spare. Bardugo has a knack for peppering her fictional universe with a wide array of personalities, similar to what Marvel pulls off in their Avengers franchise. Like those films do, she takes the time to get you invested in each individual character. Then she proceeds to raise the emotional stakes by letting you see them clash, team up, develop mad crushes on each other, or all of the above. It’s these satisfying interpersonal developments, more than the shocking plot twists (of which there are also plenty), that make each of her books a wild ride.
Which brings me back to the show: For Shadow and Bone to be even half as addictive as the books it’s based on, it had to get the characters and their complex relationships right. And by relationships, I mean romances, the reason we are gathered here today. In re-reading the books in preparation for the show, I settled on a list of the top 5 pairings whose onscreen chemistry would make or break this adaptation. Their unlimited supply of yearning gazes, delightful banter, and meaningful silences kept me glued to the page. I’m thrilled to say that, from what I’ve seen, they have all turned out to be OTP material on the show too…or will in future seasons.
In no particular order, here are my (admittedly very biased) picks for the 5 Grishaverse ships most deserving of hyperfixation in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone.
My be-all, end-all ship in the Grishaverse books—the pairing I would sacrifice all others to see become canon—is that of criminal mastermind Kaz Brekker and his wraith, Inej Ghafa. They’re two Ketterdam street urchins who bonded by necessity as kids (literally to stay alive), then remained together by choice. Where one goes, the other is bound to follow, even when that might very well mean a one-way trip. Case in point: Kaz spends most of Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom getting himself into deeper and deeper trouble. He’s that secure in the knowledge that his most talented spy, Inej, will help him pull off his grand heist. She does, because Inej is a badass, but their success does not come without cost; They nearly die multiple times, for one thing. Of course, the risk to their own lives concerns them less than the thought of losing one another.
Why? Because they are desperately in love, a fact they prefer to express in acts of self-sacrifice over words. Not that they suck at those, either. Kaz has been known to utter knee-weakening declarations like: “I would come for you. And if I couldn’t walk, I’d crawl to you.” (Guh.) Not to be outdone, Inej sneaks in powerful lines like: “I will have you without armor, Kaz Brekker. Or I will not have you at all.” It’s pure romance, baby! Especially since, for their own deeply personal reasons, they struggle with being vulnerable and inviting physical intimacy. As Inej once puts their relationship: “Two of the deadliest people the Barrel had to offer and they could barely touch each other without both of them keeling over. But they’d tried. He’d tried. Maybe they could try again.”
I hope one day they feel safe and comfortable enough to entrust their fragile hearts to one another. Until then, I pine right along with them, waiting with bated breath for even more of their scenes portrayed on screen by actors Freddy Carter and Amita Suman. At least I have excellent fan edits like this one to tide me over between seasons:
Sorry, Darklina fans: I’m staunchly Team Mal. The reasons are many, one being that Malyen Oretsev’s a good soul with exactly zero megalomaniacal plans to destroy the world. For another, he knows Alina Starkov better than anyone else. Alina, the heroine of the Shadow and Bone trilogy, has loved Mal for most of her life. Even the discovery of her Grisha talents as a Sun Summoner doesn’t change that.
Alina and Mal may not exactly burn up the pages with their passion in the Shadow and Bone trilogy, but to be fair, they’re carrying the fate of their homeland on their backs. They’ve also known each other since childhood, when they bonded as lonely orphans on the Duke’s estate and became an inseparable unit. The path from friends to lovers can be a bumpy one, marked by insecurity and jealousy, as Dawson’s Creek proved several times over. Nevertheless, their love is pure and true, as evidenced by how it survives all the Darkling’s machinations and attempts to keep Alina—and her newly discovered powers—under his thumb.
Based on their powerful scenes in seasons 1 and 2 of Shadow & Bone, it seems fair to say actors Jessie Mei Li (Alina), Archie Renaux (Mal), and Ben Barnes (General Kirigan, aka the Darkling) bring a whole lot of charisma to their bizarre love triangle onscreen too.
The sweetest pairing on this list, Jesper Fahey and Wylan Van Eck are also the easiest to love. The two meet in Six of Crows when Jesper, a Grisha and trusted member of Kaz Brekker’s gang (the Dregs), is tasked with tracking down Wylan, the privileged son of the book’s villain. His mission is to recruit Wylan for a part in Kaz’s scheme. Turns out, since Wylan’s not his father’s biggest fan, he doesn’t actually need much convincing to join the team, both as a demolition expert and as a potential hostage for leverage when dealing with his dear old dad. What he does need is for someone to show him the ropes of Dregs life. Gee, wonder who takes that role upon himself?
Working side-by-side to plot the heist of a lifetime may not be a traditional way of getting to know someone, but it works for these two. Jesper soon discovers that his new favorite hobby is teasing the sweet and sensitive Wylan, who seems oblivious to this foreplay…until he’s not. The attraction that simmers between the jaded sharpshooter and guileless artist in Six of Crows starts to boil over in Crooked Kingdom when a case of mistaken identity leads to a classic Big Misunderstanding. If you’re thinking, “That sounds like a rom-com,” you are spot on, right down to how it resolves with an epic kiss.
While Shadow & Bone season 2 rewrites a bit of Jesper and Wylan’s origin story, there’s no question that actors Kit Young and Jack Wolfe are perfectly cast. Jesper and Wylan sharing sexy glances and sweet kisses was totally worth the wait.
Like I said on the Ship Tease podcast, I didn’t go into King of Scars looking for another ship. In fact, I banished the very notion. The open-ended question of what the future held for my beloved Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom couples was more than enough to keep me up at night, thanks. No, I told myself, I only wanted to read this new installment of the Grishaverse to check in on them. What I didn’t realize was that Leigh Bardugo had other plans for me. Come to find out, the Crows weren’t actually even featured in King of Scars. By the time this possibility had occurred to me, however, I was already in thrall to the irresistible King Nikolai and his closest adviser, Zoya Nazyalensky. The handsome, silver-tongued monarch’s constant attempts to make his Grisha commander crack a smile were my undoing. Now they’re my second-favorite Grishaverse couple. Dammit.
In my defense, they’re just…so…well suited? Like, okay, they’re total opposites, but in a complementary sort of way. Think “the grumpy one is soft for the sunshine one” trope. Nikolai is an effortlessly charming, golden boy of a ruler with a wickedly dry wit. You want to hate him for being so insufferably perfect, but you can’t, because to make matters worse, he’s a truly good person whose first priority is his country. Zoya, on the other hand, is a hardened, no-nonsense soldier who’s discomfited by open displays of emotion but will fight to the death for those she holds dear. And as one of the most powerful practitioners of the Small Science in Ravka, she’s a force to be reckoned with. Good thing, too, since she’s one of the keepers of her king’s deepest, darkest (some might even say “monstrous”) secrets.
Nikolai’s feelings for Zoya are no great mystery—he flirts with her nonstop and even muses to himself that she’d make a great queen of Ravka. Her feelings for him are harder to gauge, however. Does she simply enjoy their banter and the frisson of anticipation they generate whenever they’re in the same room? Or is she as genuinely crazy about him as he clearly is about her? Luckily for all of us, The Rule of Wolves novel puts those questions to bed and confirms they’re both lovesick fools.
How will their relationship play out (and when) in the Shadow & Bone TV series? Well, that remains a mystery…for now. Actor Patrick Gibson wowed me as Nikolai in season 2, and my love for actress Sujaya Dasgupta as Zoya only grew. The two haven’t yet shared dialogue, yet the way Zoya checked out the king of Ravka in the season 2 finale gives me plenty of hope for the future. When Zoya says “I could fix him,” she has no way of knowing that soon she will love this man just the way he is—demon and all.
Who among us doesn’t enjoy a good enemies-to-lovers romance, huh? Nina Zenik and Matthias Helvar aren’t my favorite characters in the series, yet I’d be lying if I said I was unmoved by their star-crossed love story. In all honesty, I bawled like a baby when [redacted] [redacted] in Crooked Kingdom.
Intensely loyal soldiers on opposites sides of a longstanding conflict between their countries, the vivacious Nina and austere Matthias only cross paths in Six of Crows because she’s caught spying on his camp of Fjerdan warriors, the Drüskelle. As fate would have it, a vicious storm batters the prison ship transporting her to Fjerda, and she and Matthias both escape, washing ashore in the aftermath. His determination to recapture her makes for a deliciously antagonistic start to their grudging alliance, which extends to working together on Kaz’s heist. Somewhere along the way, all that forced proximity leads them to develop a bonafide friendship accompanied by some unexpectedly tender feelings.
But since nothing gold can stay, their truce gets compromised by what seems like the ultimate betrayal, followed by a grand-gesture rescue. Would you believe me if I told you things only get more exciting (and, fine, devastating) from there? Of course you would, because you’re a shipper who wears suffering like a badge of honor. It’s what we sign up for! This is why I predict that you’ll let this pair—played by Danielle Galligan and Calahan Skogman in the show—worm their way into your heart just like I did, if they haven’t already.
All right, I’ve shown you mine—now you show me yours! Hit me with your top Grishaverse couples in the comments. There you can feel free to shower me with praise for including your faves, or—if you must—explain why I’m missing out by not shipping Alina with the Darkling. I doubt you’ll change my mind, but you’re welcome to try. In any case, I think we can all agree that season 3 of Shadow and Bone can’t get here soon enough?
If you enjoyed this article, you may also like this Shadow & Bone-themed episode of the Ship Tease podcast, where my co-host and I chat about all the romantic possibilities of the Grishaverse. You can find the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you like to listen.