Spoilers for Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy below!
A popular YA book is never without it ships. Often the female protagonist–along with the readers–is torn between the boy next door and the bad boy hopefully on a path to redemption. In these cases, the result of the love triangle is. predictable and presumably the majority of readers receive the sweet satisfaction of knowing they were rooting for the ship that was meant to be. In her Grisha trilogy, however, Leigh Bardugo complicates the cliched plot device by adding something YA readers are not quite accustomed to–a dash of realism in Mal’s reluctance to court Alina once she rises to a higher social class. This decision has upset many a reader who longs for escapism and wants to believe, at least this time, that true love can conquer all. Yet is also raises the Grisha trilogy above the hackneyed narratives currently saturating the YA market.
Posts and comments on the book blogosphere suggest that a not insignificant number of readers dislike Mal’s reactions to Alina’s new social status. A good argument can in fact be made that Mal comes across as petulant at times and insufferable at others–especially when he declines to take Alina’s feelings and thoughts into account, and instead informs her what he thinks is best for the two of them. However, I also contend that Mal’s reactions, if potentially annoying, are also supremely realistic. Dating someone who has a vastly different social status, a higher education, and a higher income (all of which could be said to apply to Alina) comes with certain obstacles that dating someone from the same background does not. Mal is simply more alert to the obstacles than Alina is.
As someone who has quickly risen to the top of the social ladder, Alina seems to believe that social identities are malleable. Since she broke through the ranks, presumably Mal can, as well–especially if she, one of the Darkling’s favored ones, sponsors his rise. Alina, however, is, as readers discover, surprisingly naive about her place at court. Even though she possesses great power, she overestimates the social clout her Grisha powers give her. She does not know how to play the game of court politics and others are pulling her strings. She believes that being a Grisha gives her the ability to do whatever she wants. Mal recognizes that being a Grisha makes Alina too important for the court to ever allow her to marry a commoner. Alina is nothing more than a political pawn.
However, even if Alina were given the freedom to marry whomever she wanted, Mal rightly worries that the social divide between them has grown too great for them to be happy together. Alina has accustomed herself to a certain lifestyle that comes with certain values and attitudes that Mal does not share. He is uncomfortable with the opulence of the court and prefers his outdoor lifestyle. It is difficult to see him, a rough soldier, transforming into a courtier waited on by servants, fawning over the right people, giving cuts to the wrong ones. Mal simply is not that cunning or calculated, nor does he want to be. If he married Alina, he would always be aware that he is not the type of person that Alina, willingly, associates with everyday. He is not “one of them.”
Mal’s reluctance to court Alina is not merely about his feeling threatened by her sudden acquisition of power. It is about his fear that Alina no longer wants to associate with people like him, now that she has accustomed herself to hobnobbing with the elite. She may one day decide that he is boring, that he is useless, that he is embarrassing, or that he is hampering her career. Because Alina’s letters are withheld from him, he has no reason to think otherwise. As far as he is aware, at least at first, Alina voluntarily cut off contact with her old life. But even after he helps her escape from the court, Mal can never forget that they come from too separate worlds. He has seen how comfortable she is performing for the court, and he knows he can never live like that.
Typically, YA books feed readers the narrative that true love conquers all. If Mal and Alina loved each other enough, the story usually goes, the class divide between them would not matter. But real life does not work that way. Social divides typically come with value differences, which are much more difficult to bridge. Mal is not a man discontent with being a social inferior to his wife, but a man discontent to give up everything he believes in. Most readers know intellectually that pretending to be someone a person is not will not result in a good relationship. Mal is simply living that recognition out, refusing to pretend to be a courtier in order to date a woman.