"Before" and Chapters 1 & 2


A boy and a girl are onboard a ship named the Verrhader. The passage is rough, the cargo stinks, and their fellow passengers are rude sailors who speak Kerch, a language the boy and girl do not understand. The boy quickly adapts to life at sea, but the sailors remain wary of the girl, who holds a scarf tightly around her neck. The boy and the girl stargaze together at night as the girl tries to stay awake to avoid nightmares of a prince kissing her neck and summoning her power over light. When the ship docks in Novyi Zem, the boy and girl do not see any signs of Heartrenders, Summoners, or Ravkans.  

Chapter 1 

In the harbor town of Cofton, Alina and Mal look for employment, even as Alina works temporarily packing jurda, a flower locals chew as a stimulant. Cofton is under construction, but Alina sees signs of luxury such as glass windows and rich fabrics that are hard to find in her home country of Ravka, which remains at war. Alina believes she spots a Corporalki and pulls a weapon before realizing it is just a girl wearing a red dress. Without the ability to use her power, Alina is growing weak. Alina wonders how much longer she can wear a scarf to hide her amplifier, Morozova’s collar, and wonders what has happened with the Darkling since she stopped him from using the Fold to take over Ravka. She feels guilty about dragging Mal with her into hiding. She meets with him at the communal fountain. The local washerwomen flirt with Mal, but he rebuffs their advances and he and Alina hide in an alley for a brief embrace.  

Alina is disconcerted by the quiet of the normally raucous boardinghouse at which they live. When she spots a stranger across the street, she warns Mal to be careful. They are rapidly overtaken outside by Ivan, soldiers from the Second Army, and the Darkling. He warns Alina not to use her power and shows her one of the golden hairpins he had used to track her. Alina is surprised that the Darkling’s underlings seem afraid of him and at how battle-worn and tired he appears. He removes her scarf and caresses Morozova’s collar before plunging the room into darkness. Alina throws light at the abyss, but a creature emerges from it. Alina quickly defeats it, yet more emerge. She wields the Cut against one but is bitten. She passes out as the Darkling thanks her for helping him attain a new level of power. 

Chapter 2 

Ivan and Genya force Alina to drink something that renders her helpless. She slips in and out of a dream state, in which she and Mal ride in a pony cart with Ana Kuya up a hill alongside a man and his wife. The wife carries a heavy load, and Ana reminds Alina that she too might have to labor were it not for the Duke’s generosity. Alina sees herself reflected in the pony as Baghra tells her to be grateful. On the hill, she drops her burden and takes the shape of a bird, flying over Mal, Ana, and Baghra. Alina wakes briefly twice, once to realize the Darkling has her onboard a ship and a second time to find four figures standing over her. One is a foxlike man, one is Sturmhond, and the other two are a giant man and woman with golden eyes, Tolya and Tamar.  

Alina wakes to find Genya and Ivan watching over her. Alina wears irons that make it difficult to move and learns she has been at sea for a week. She demands to see the Darkling. Alina confronts the Darkling about Mal, who is heavily guarded and quickly led away. As she surveys the Darkling’s fresh scars, he caresses her wound, causing a visceral response from this symbol of both her pain and her power. Ivan roughly leads Alina away, and Tolya and Tamar defend her, claiming that that they work for Sturmhond, not the Darkling. Alina knows Sturmhond by reputation as a Ravkan pirate. Sturmhond stops Ivan from using his power as a Heartrender against Tolya. Alina and Sturmhond banter as he returns her to her cabin, where she talks to Genya about the Darkling. Genya remains aligned with him, despite the violence he wreaked on Novokribirsk and the fact that he created Ravka’s greatest danger, the Fold. Alina feels guilty about the people she killed and those she left behind. Before parting, Genya reveals that she never delivered Alina’s letters to Mal while she was confined.  


Before is largely about contrasts between the familiar and the unfamiliar. These contrasts suggest that the world is on the cusp of a great change and highlight the looming struggles Alina must face. Mal and Alina, referred to as the boy and the girl throughout the section, sail on a sea unlike the sea they once imagined in childhood, which poses their fantasies in opposition to their reality. Worse, Mal quickly fits in with life onboard, while Alina must be confined below deck because she frightens the crew. Their different interactions with the social and natural environments in which they find themselves illustrate Alina’s uncertainty about how much of the familiarity they used to share has been stripped away. Mal and Alina still find comfort in being together, but they do so only at night. Alina is haunted by nightmares in which these contrasts continue to prevail. By coming to her in her dreams as a vampire-like prince, the Darkling seeks to subvert her power and bring it under his control. The dreams thus reinforce Alina’s anxieties about the possibilities her power raises for her future. All these contrasts are reinforced as Mal and Alina leave the ship, searching for familiar faces while also fearing what (or who) they might find.  

An Alina who cannot fully self-actualize by using her power is not an honest, authentic Alina, as evidenced by her feelings of alienation and uncertainty. In the city of Cofton, Alina feels disoriented and estranged, and these feelings intensify her longing for safety and stability. Alina cannot acclimate to the people of the city and their customs, and she has not made any friends. She has a job packing jurda flowers, but she is uncertain how long she can hold onto it. The scarf she wears to hide her collar is growing increasingly uncomfortable as the weather warms, but she fears being recognized if she removes it. The temporary home she shares with Mal is so dirty, crowded, and uncomfortable that they call it “The Pit.” However, without her power, Alina has little control over such basics as her food, clothing, and shelter. Alina is alienated from her power, unable to use it without alerting the Darkling to their presence and placing herself and Mal in danger. Unable to unite with her power, Alina feels estranged from home, from Mal, and especially from herself. 

Alina’s personal insecurities cause her to doubt her romantic relationship with Mal. In this strange place, her boyfriend Mal should be a source of comfort, but Alina finds him disconcerting in comparison to herself. He’s physically healthy, good-looking, and makes friends easily. Women find him desirable and tease him for being with such a scrawny specimen as Alina. By contrast, Alina can barely contribute to their welfare with her menial job. To hide their identities, she must dress in unflattering ways. And she cannot even summon her power, making her feel drained of all energy and alienated from herself. Doing so might allow her to blossom the way that Mal appears to be doing, thriving in the adventure of life on the road. Under these circumstances, Alina struggles to convince herself that she is worthy of his love, instead of relying on him to make her feel at home. In this context, it is uncertain whether Alina and Mal are truly in danger or whether she is simply too distraught and traumatized to allow herself to relax and enjoy her relationship with Mal.  

Alina’s dream reveals the uncertainty she feels about her relationship with her power and the way it shapes her relationships with other people. The pony cart feels directionless, much like the boat she is not yet aware is adrift and headed to an uncertain destination. In the pony cart are two women and a man—Genya, Baghra, and Mal—whose status in her life is uncertain. She cannot determine whether they are guardians or malevolent forces as each has a stake in her power. She also sees an unfamiliar man and his wife trudging up the hill by the side of the cart. Alina feels a connection to both the pony pulling the heavily laden cart and the wife who, in lieu of a donkey, carries a burden. In response to Mal’s suggestion of marrying her, Alina uses a power she did not realize she had, growing wings and flying above the scene and beyond its implications. The wings foreshadow the firebird she seeks as a third amplifier to attain a new level of power that may literally remove her from the people in her life just as she flies above them in her dream. Baghra’s warning suggests that the firebird’s power might not offer Alina the freedom she seeks but might instead become another source of bondage.  

Alina is confused at her standing among the mix of people on the whaling vessel in terms of social status, loyalties, and principles. When she slips into wakefulness, she sees Genya, Ivan, the pirate Sturmhond, and the golden-eyed twins, Tolya and Tamar, each of whom could be friend or foe. Alina is especially uncertain about Genya, as she once treasured their friendship but now mourns its loss now that Genya has sided with the Darkling. Amid the fallout of the Darkling’s attempt to take over Ravka, Alina does not know where she stands or with whom to align herself. She cannot deny that her power results from the Darkling’s machinations, nor that their powers are connected, but she is reluctant to align herself with his Grisha followers. In the middle of this conundrum is Sturmhond, who works for the Darkling and uses Grisha to power his ship but openly stands against him in a way that others do not. He, Tolya, and Tamar are in Alina’s bedchamber while she is drugged, but they protect her from the Darkling’s lapdog Ivan. Alina’s struggle to understand where she stands on the ship mirrors her doubt about where she stands in society at large.