When True Love Doesn’t Conquer All in YA: A Reexamination of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy

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.

33 thoughts on “When True Love Doesn’t Conquer All in YA: A Reexamination of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy

  1. bookwormmuse says:

    Oh my god, yes!!! Thank you for writing this post, it’s bugged me so much that people don’t seem to see this side of the argument. When I said to someone in the fandom that it was really awesome of Bardugo to add this layer to Mal and Alina’s relationship, all they offered in return was their preferences for Darkling and Alina and how they strongly disliked Mal. I had to kinda let go of that discussion. The ending felt kinda right for me but for them it was a let down.

    Sorry if I babbled but I have some very strong feelings about this matter and I haven’t had the chance to talk about it in a post. 😂


    • Krysta says:

      Whenever an author breaks YA convention like this, it’s a risk because it’s going to upset readers who have come to expect the kind of pat relationships and plots YA books typically give us. That’s exactly why I’m so interested in Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, even if I think it’s not as well-written as the Six of Crows duology. Bardugo is doing a lot of interesting things that break convention, such giving us a love triangle with the Darkling that ends up with Alina outright rejecting him because he’s evil and manipulative, instead of hoping she can save him through the power of love. It’s a really nuanced and realistic look at relationships. And YA readers seem to hate it!

      This is interesting, too, since so often YA relationships get criticized for romanticizing abuse and such, and yet here Bardugo doesn’t do that and also gets criticized! Sure, the Darkling is sexy and all that. That’s the point. Manipulative and abusive people lure victims in because they’re charming. If they didn’t know how to make themselves appear attractive, victims would run away instead of being ensnared. Alina IS attracted to the Darkling because he’s very good at making her feel attractive and desired, but she doesn’t let that cloud her better judgement once she realizes his true character. Readers should be celebrating her escape.

      Liked by 1 person

      • bookwormmuse says:

        Exactly, Grisha trilogy is not her best work, maybe but it’s still pretty awesome on its own with its concepts as well as the way Bardugo handled certain aspects of the story. I think, she showed us the realistic outcome quite bravely and even while I was just as enchanted by Darkling, I understood why Alina might not have been happy with Darkling.

        Quite a number of YA books (especially fantasy, I think) show that weird controlling, obsessed and frankly, horrid male character being chosen just so that the female character could make him better, and maybe in some cases ( I say this very reluctantly) it could work out well but frankly, with Darkling, I had no doubt as to what the outcome would be. So, I was pleasantly surprised and happy to read the end of the trilogy. ☺️


        • Krysta says:

          I was initially enchanted by the Darkling, too! I think most readers probably are! But, yeah, Alina made the right choice there, I think!

          Yeah… Sure, it’s not impossible that you could have a misunderstood character who is lead into the light through love. But not all of them. And I think it has to be done appropriately. Maybe like in Brigid Kemmerer’s Letters to the Lost or More Than We Can Tell. The characters are hurting and angry and misunderstood. But they’re not, I don’t know, actively harming other people like a bad boy vampire draining people dry for kicks. I can see that someone being open to them and loving them might inspire them to choose a different path. But bad boy vampire needs to sort out his own life before he gets into a serious relationship, I think! 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Jheelam says:

    This is a great POV.

    Though I find Mal downright nagging and would always root for Prince Nikolai, your stand is refreshing- amidst the ho-hum of Goodreads reviews that brought up men-hating-women-on-top, gaslighting, mansplaining and whatnot.


    • Krysta says:

      Sometimes I think it’s interesting to flip the genders in my head and imagine what readers would think of a romance then. If, for instance, Mal was the one with high social standing and incredible powers, but the female love interest didn’t want to enter his world, would we automatically perceive her as being intimidated by someone more powerful? I don’t think so. I think if she said, “You’ve become someone different and I don’t fit into your world anymore,” readers would perceive this as a sign of her strength. She’s not going to change who she is just to get a man. So I wonder, why can’t a man say something like that?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    Baaaah! I want to read this post SO BADLY. But I just got a copy of the Grisha trilogy this past weekend. So I’m not reading this post. Yet.

    I just missed you. So I felt it was important to comment and say I stopped by. Hi. I’m sure this post is awesome. After all, you wrote it, Krysta!


  4. Kelly Brigid says:

    This is such a lovely, well written analysis of the romance between Alina and Mal in this trilogy. I also thought it was neat how Bardugo took this approach, and refreshing to see how realistic Mal’s reactions were. My issues with Mal aren’t because of his concerns regarding Alina’s social status, but rather, his constant nagging and dull personality. He just wasn’t my favorite. Haha.

    Wonderful post, as always! ❤


    • Krysta says:

      I suspect Mal is no one’s favorite. No one I have seen! Even I think he’s kind of annoying. Sure, we get your perspective, Mal. You don’t have to be rude about it!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Michael J. Miller says:

    I’ve always been fascinated with how love and romantic relationships are depicted in novels and films. I’m especially intrigued by trying to do something like that in a YA novel. Between my comic reading, regular novels, and nonfiction reading I don’t get as much “YA” in each year as I could but you’ve made this sound like it’s worth picking up, for how Bardugo presents the characters’ relationships alone.


    • Krysta says:

      I’ve been reading less YA as it’s all starting to sound derivative to me. I’m tired of reading the same characters and plot devices, like there’s a machine pumping out YA novels. So I do appreciate when authors do things like Bardugo does here, breaking the mold. The Grisha trilogy isn’t nearly as strong as her Six of Crows duology, but I love how the protagonist doesn’t try to save the “bad boy” of the love triangle and how Bardugo recognizes that, yes, social class can create problems in romantic relationships.

      In fact, people I’ve known in relationships with a wide gap in income/social class generally haven’t stayed together. Sometimes because the higher income person was fearful that the other person just wanted their money. Sometimes because the person in the lower social class didn’t want to live how the other person assumed they would. One woman didn’t want to be told she wasn’t supposed to have a career after she left college. So I appreciate that Bardugo is realistic about the potential obstacles.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        I’ve always loved the film ‘(500) Days Of Summer’ with Zooey Deschnal and Joseph Gordon-Levitt for that exact same reason. It takes the rom-com genre and subverts it in unexpected ways to portray a more realistic vision of relationships and their problems. The tagline is, “This isn’t a love story. It’s a story about love.” And BOOM! They nail it. The best part is, as you watch, you totally buy into all the expectations you have for a romantic comedy but the filmmakers do so much more with the narrative. It’s also genuinely funny at times as well as being very thoughtful at others.

        YA novels feeling derivative is a problem for me too. I was blown away when I first stepped into the genre (things like the commentary on war and society in ‘The Hunger Games’ or the use of a surprisingly deep knowledge of theology and myth in ‘The Mortal Instruments’) but then I got to the point where I felt a sameness. I know I’m like one of only seven people in the world who didn’t love the Divergent series but I thought, “Hm, the dystopia is very Hunger Games and the tattoos are all the Mortal Instruments and the factions are so Harry Potter…” and then I was just grumpy about it :). But I get what you mean. So I try to reserve my YA reading for what seems unique so I can appreciate the genre.


  6. saraletourneau says:

    Wow. I was aware that many Grishaverse fans didn’t like Mal, but I never really understood why. (Nor did I ever make an effort to find out why.) Personally I never had any issues with him as a character (though I do agree he was rude at times), and all of your points here make perfect sense. Plus, I love how all of your Grisha discussion posts so far have explained different reasons as to why Leigh Bardugo is not only such an incredible writer, but also why she’s so necessary for YA fantasy. She’s clever as well as pragmatic – she doesn’t throw away believability or logic for the sake of entertaining her readers.


  7. SERIESous Book Reviews says:

    You know, I never thought about this before–or at least to this depth. It’s a great point though and does make me see their romance in a different light. I will admit Mal’s reluctance to pursue a relationship with Alina after her change in social status did reaffirm that he wasn’t all that into her. (I always felt like it was Alina who was more in love than Mal). However, I just never saw the connection between them so I wasn’t a fan of their romance from the start.


    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, the book does say that Mal isn’t initially interested in Alina. He’s sleeping around with other women while Alina pines for him. So I think it is fair to say Alina is more love than Mal.

      I agree I didn’t feel any connection between the two….

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Shalece says:

    This is perfect! You said it exactly right!! I’ve been trying to figure out what was bothering me about their relationship (besides the fact that Mal is just a butthead sometimes and Alina being Alina) while I was reading it and still now after I’ve finished the series. I was rooting for them to be together and then as the series goes on I was starting to think that they wouldn’t end up together. It was hard to see how it would go the way I wanted, but I really enjoyed that with these books. I would have expectations of certain things happening and they would turn out completely different. There were so many surprises in these books! I am a huge fan of Leigh Bardugo now and I haven’t even read Six of Crows yet!


    • Krysta says:

      I think I would have wanted the two of them not to end up together! Resetting Alina to her original social class seems like the only viable way the match would have worked, at least to me. Still, I’m not sure I find the ending satisfactory. It feels too easy to me. But I do love how Bardugo plays with reader expectations!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Shalece says:

        I totally get that! I’m a sucker for a happy ending and I usually end up liking the person that the MC is in love with. But I went back and forth about wanting it to work out because of the ways they both changed throughout the books. It was hard for me to stick to a decision!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    Though I liked this post before, I didn’t have anything to say as I haven’t read books at that time but now coming across this and rereading it, I both agree and disagree.

    I agree about Mal’s hesitation and insecurity because of social class and think she might lose her interest after some time because of social class changes and sudden power and popularity she gained and also her feeling hindered because her letters didn’t reach him but at the same time Alina also didn’t receive his letters and based on that she also should feel the way as he did. And Alina has to go through sudden change along with separation from best friend and only person she could call family and still it was Alina who approached him, tried to talk while he reaction was rude and jcame out as total jerk.

    I know his character made love story more realistic but I still don’t think his actions and reactions were totally reasonable (maybe in small amount but not totally). Also Alina never showed she was above him or gave any reason to make him feel she would lose interest. Alina and Darkling’s relationships were complicated but Mal wasn’t all pure and flaw free.

    For instance, he ignored her and chased other girls before Alina got her powers and then in second book when Darkling haunted Alina he didn’t bother to push Alina a little more about what was happening to her and when she actually told him, he didn’t believe him and kissed Zoya. If he really loved Alina why would he kiss Zoya in front of everyone and then making it look like it was because of Alina, ugh!!

    I don’t want love last forever. I often said while reading the book throw both Mal and Darkling in shadow fold and let’s focus on Nikolai. I would be happy if Nikolai didn’t even make her queen.


    • Krysta says:

      I can agree with this! Mal is very flawed and, frankly, I often didn’t really like his character, even if I could understand where some of his insecurity might be coming from. I also think that, while it is understandable that he would be uncomfortable at court and uncertain about his role there, he could have and should have communicated with Alina more. So often he wanted to make choices for her/them, without consulting her or listening to her. One of my biggest pet peeves in literary relationships is the old, “I’m doing this/breaking up with you/running away/whatever for you,” when the other person doesn’t want that at all.

      And, yeah, Mal was always chasing other girls. I don’t think he can really blame Alina for finding someone else instead of waiting around for him forever.


  10. Sumedha @ the wordy habitat says:

    I haven’t read the books but I have seen the opinions about Mal, especially in posts that compare the show and the books where it was mentioned often that Mal in the show is more likeable.

    First, “a dash of realism” — this made me chuckle. I like how you phrased that.

    Secondly, “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.” that is a new perspective that I wouldn’t have considered if I had read the books. I admit, I would have seen him as unrelenting and would have been dissatisfied with his actions but this is true as well.
    “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.” — very interesting, and I guess it is mainly a comment about how our standards for love are and how a happy relationship is much more than just love, it is about the background, the status, the awareness of position, and the compromise both sides have to make to meet in the middle.

    Books are forms of escapism for us and they’re one place where things ~can~ go right all the time and love can conquer all but I agree that it really colours our vision sometimes. From expecting too much from relationships in real like to rejecting realistic situations and reactions in fiction—our views are coloured. We’re not hopeful but downright demanding of certain compromises, especially from the guy’s side! I won’t lie, I have been seeing romance books (they’re my main genre, so talking about them) where the guy does basically EVERYTHING for the girl and she just.. stays with him. Where is the care in return, where is the compromise, where is the change? Actions matter! Okay I might be going onto another tangent altogether.

    Anyway, great post!


    • Krysta says:

      So true! Books are escapism, so we often want to see certain matches work out, even if we know it’s not realistic! I just finished one where the maid is in love of the handsome son of the family she works for. I kept wanting to yell, “No, sweetie, no! It’s never going to work out! Run and be independent and happy with someone in your own social class!” But the book clearly wants me to believe that chasing your heart’s desire is what matters most and society can go take a walk, haha.

      And, yes! I do find myself baffled by romances full of big gestures on the guy’s part and nothing from the woman. Real-life partnerships tend to be more equal in nature, with both sides expressing care for the other and performing acts out of love. It’s not just the woman sitting around waiting for the guy to serenade her under her window or to stop the football game so he can get the band to play for her!

      Liked by 1 person

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