Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Light and Dark as Opposing Forces 

While light and dark are often used as opposing forces in literature, Shadow and Bone takes this beyond the metaphorical, with both light and dark acting as forces that can impact the world in a physical way. The interplay of darkness and light truly comes to the forefront of the novel after the light causes the volcra to retreat. In this moment, the volcra illustrate that light itself isn’t just an abstract concept, but a force capable of causing a physical reaction. Likewise, the Fold itself is a place where the darkness has a tangible power.  

The book often uses darkness to evoke secrecy or things that are hidden. Likewise, light functions to designate understanding and knowledge. In the broader field of literature, the use of light and darkness is often associated with the struggle between good and evil. This thematic tradition is carried through the whole book, though the comparison between darkness and evil is much more overt than the comparison between light and goodness. While Alina can wield light, she doesn’t have the same one-to-one connection with it that the Darkling does darkness. As a result, where the Darkling’s evil is straightforward, Alina’s goodness is more complex.  

The Allure of Power

Power takes many forms in Shadow and Bone: magical, personal, political, and social. The characters are continuously negotiating and maneuvering through various power structures, especially in the inner circles of the capital city. The antagonist of the novel is particularly driven by the pursuit of power and exudes such power himself that he exerts a physical pull on other Grisha. At its core, the central story can be seen as the consequence of the Darkling’s search for more power, for it is this hunger that drives him to action.  

For much of the book, the power at the forefront of the story is Grisha power, but the book expands on this theme throughout. Alina begins the story as a person stripped of most dimensions of power. Over the course of the story, however, she comes to learn that she has had tremendous power inside of her all along. When she stops holding herself back, she’s able to tap into her Grisha power, and reclaims what should have belonged to her since childhood. What’s more, Alina realizes that she possesses a power that the Darkling refuses to embrace in her ability to show mercy. Alina’s mercy becomes a power in itself, which enables her to break free of his control.  

The Necessity of Self-Control 

While the issue of control is a general concern in Shadow and Bone, the more specific question of control over the self is a central, driving theme of the novel. Beginning with Alina’s ability to exert so much control over her power that she’s able to hide it from even herself, the book explores many permutations of self-control. An anxiety about one’s ability to exercise this kind of control pervades the novel. Most often demonstrated through Alina’s experiences, this manifests in all avenues of her life from the physical control over her body Alina lacks when her power is hidden away, to the control over her emotions that she loses to the Darkling when he overwhelms her with his powers.  

As the plot progresses, Alina’s ability to exert control over herself vacillates from her being gloriously self-possessed to being completely under the Darkling’s control. This continuous change in Alina’s ability to maintain control over herself points to a difficulty that is at the center of Alina’s experience. She is always under a threat of losing control of herself in one way or another, but the ultimate betrayal that is enacted against her is when the Darkling seizes control of her powers by yoking her with the amplifier. As evidenced by the promise that she asks Mal to make should the Darkling get to the stag before them, Alina would prefer death to losing self-control.  

The Arbitrary Nature of Class 

The issue of class is brought up continually throughout the novel. Having grown up in significant poverty, Alina Starkov is surprised by the aspects of Ravkan high society she witnesses after becoming the Sun Summoner. When she first enters the Grand Palace, she finds herself questioning how such opulence can exist at the same time as the poverty she witnessed growing up. The elite of the country are physically separated from the common people by a man-made canal, which shows how the nobility see themselves as removed and separate from the common people. 

Not only is Ravkan society demarcated by class imbalances, a strict hierarchy is enforced among the Grisha. The colors that each wears on their kefta immediately signals their standing. Yet there seems to be no overt reason behind why the Corporalki outrank the Etherealki or why the Etherealki outrank the Materialnik, which suggests an artificiality to the whole system. At the highest tier is the Darkling, who has effectively transcended the pecking order of the Grisha. At the very bottom is Genya, who is an outcast despite her unique abilities. When Alina arrives, her instinct is not to stand above the rest of the Grisha like the Darkling, but to place herself with the other Etherealki, which further situates her as someone who threatens to subvert this strict class system in favor of egalitarianism.  

The Immutable Power of Mercy 

Mercy functions as an antidote to the ruthlessness and cruelty that is displayed throughout the novel. Directly connected with the thematic concern of power because if its role in freeing Alina from the Darkling’s control in Chapter 22, mercy acts as a crucial force at the climax of the novel. The concept of mercy truly comes to the forefront the morning before the sandskiff’s departure from the grove in Chapter 20. Alina laments that she brought this terrible fate on herself—and the rest of the world—by showing the stag mercy. This stance shifts dramatically when she realizes that it was this mercy that empowered her with control over the antlers.  

Notably, the Darkling is given several opportunities to show mercy to people throughout the book and chooses not to do so each time. One example of this is when Alina begs the Darkling to show Mal mercy when they return to the Shadow Fold and the Darkling refuses. The fact that the Darkling either will not or cannot show mercy proves to Alina that he is beyond redemption.