This has been coming for a while. In January, I reread the Shadow and Bone trilogy, and wow was I shocked by the degree to which Mal is manipulative, toxic, and generally no good. So for Valentine’s Day, to celebrate the After trailer that dropped, I posted something just briefly showcasing all the ways Mal is similar to Hardin Scott and so many other toxic new adult love interests (you can find that here). I didn’t go super in depth though, and every time I see praise for Mal show up in my twitter feed, my anger for him and my need to make this post grows. And here we finally are; let’s get into why Malyen Oretsev is super toxic and no good for Alina. Be warned, this will get into spoiler territory.
Also, because my roommate says I just hate Mal because I’m super biased, yes, yes I am. Is it possible to review a book without letting our experiences shape our views of certain things in a book? No, I don’t think so, and reading is a subjective experience, that we all agree on.
So let’s get into it. Also please accept my apologies for how this is kind of an inconsistent mess.
Shadow and Bone
In which we meet our dear orphans
We start this book learning that Mal and Alina are basically all each other has. They were raised together from super young because they’re both orphans. Nothing about this is bad, but the fact that they are essentially each other’s only family and yet people ship them with such fervency squicks me out. It’s not technically incest, but…
*insert Buzzfeed Unsolved gif about any time you have to say it’s not incest technically, it’s not great*
Yeah. Even if I had nothing against childhood friends to lovers, I’d still question this because they aren’t just childhood friends; they’re each other’s only family.
Apparently that’s a part of the reason some people ship them though? Which, you do you, I guess, but I thought we just had a conversation about incest shipping.
That doesn’t dig into Mal’s toxicity though; it’s just a reason why the two of them becoming lovers makes me uncomfortable as a person who isn’t a fan of shipping incest.
And honestly has anyone married their childhood best friend? I don’t think it’s super common; it’s just a trope that came up out of amatonormativity and heteronormativity because of course if a guy and a girl are friends at any point in their lives, it has to turn romantic.
Near the end of this book, Mal gives a big speech. It’s definitely meant to be romantic, but uh, I don’t find it to be at all.
So he’s apologizing for a bunch of stuff he did (what he said in the Little Palace, “everything else”), and we get into this whole passage (pages 297-298).
I squeezed his hand. “I knew we didn’t have much chance of finding the stag.”
“No,” he said, looking away from me. “No, not for that. I … When I came after you, I thought I was doing it because you saved my life, because I owed you something.”
My heart gave a little twist. The idea that Mal had come after me to pay off some kind of imagined debt was more painful than I’d expected. “And now?”
“Now I don’t know what to think. I just know everything is different.”
My heart gave another miserable twist. “I know,” I whispered.
“Do you? That night at the palace when I saw you on that stage with him, you looked so happy. Like you belonged with him. I can’t get that picture out of my head.”
“I was happy,” I admitted. “In that moment, I was happy. I’m not like you, Mal. I never really fit in the way that you did. I never really belonged anywhere.”
“You belonged with me,” he said quietly.
Okay, so we’re not even to the main part I wanted to discuss, but this exchange, although not terrible as one conversation, is one additional example of how Mal apparently doesn’t want to see Alina happy unless it’s with him, and especially not if it’s with another guy. And also that he thinks she belongs with him. Which yes. They spent ten years as each other’s only family. That makes sense. We know that’s not quite how he means it though, especially in the context of this scene.
“No, Mal. Not really. Not for a long time.”
He looked at me then, and his eyes were deep blue in the twilight. “Did you miss me, Alina? Did you miss me when you were gone?”
“Every day,” I said honestly.
Another brief comment: he doesn’t address the reason why she didn’t feel like she belonged with him (I assume that he kept flirting with and hooking up with other girls. Which from a friendship/family standpoint, would be annoying that your only friend is now abandoning you for girls he hasn’t known that long at all. From the romantic standpoint… I don’t even know what to say. Please decide are you family or are you lovers because this both makes me uncomfortable).
“I missed you every hour. And you know what the worst part was? It caught me completely by surprise. I’d catch myself walking around to find you, not for any reason, just out of habit, because I’d seen something that I wanted to tell you about or because I wanted to hear your voice. And then I’d realize that you weren’t there anymore, and every time, every single time, it was like having the wind knocked out of me.
I have no issue with this part of his speech. It’s even compelling for their friendship because wow if Mal and Alina weren’t both harboring romantic feelings for each other, I would be down for their friendship (because the romantic feelings is what makes Mal behave toxically).
“I’ve risked my life for you. I’ve walked half the length of Ravka for you, and I’d do it again and again and again just to be with you, just to starve with you and freeze with you and hear you complain about hard cheese every day. So don’t tell me we don’t belong together,” he said fiercely. He was very close now, and my heart was suddenly hammering in my chest. “I’m sorry it took me so long to see you, Alina. But I see you now.”
He lowered his head, and I felt his lips on mine. The world seemed to go silent and all I knew was the feel of his hand in mine as he drew me closer, and the warm press of his mouth.
So. Let’s get into this because I have a lot of feelings about it. Mal gives this whole long speech about how he’s in love with her whatever, listing everything he did for her, and how much he loves her. This is all fine. But then he says, “So don’t tell me we don’t belong together.”
Oof. I get it, he’s responding to her response to him saying she belonged with him. The thing is though, this still isn’t addressing why she didn’t feel like she belonged with him. He’s just assuming that she wants him, and proclaiming that he did all these things for her, so they belong together. And now he sees her, now he wants to be with her, no matter if now she feels differently. It may well be that she loves him and wants to be with him, but he doesn’t give her a chance to talk or enthusiastically say yes. He just says all this and then kisses her.
For the sake of transparency, none of Alina’s love interests in this series are great at asking for consent before they kiss her. Just because other people aren’t good at something though, doesn’t give someone else a free pass.
On page 331, Mal is actually kind of decent. In a rare move, he acknowledges his jealous asshattery and also says that if anything happened between Alina and the Darkling, it doesn’t matter to him––which like good. Yes. She wasn’t your girlfriend. You don’t get to be a pighead about what she does with other guys. He even acknowledges this fact too. I’m not going to get too into this, but I did want to acknowledge that yes, Mal does not in fact suck, every single moment he is on the page.
On page 351 though, our lovely controlling Malyen is back. He buys her clothes, fine, good. And then he says this:
“I never want to see you in black again.”
On one level, I get it. The Grisha are big on their colors and stuff, and black was the Darkling’s color, but on another, it is just a color. You’re really expecting her to not ever wear black again? Dude. And if Alina brought it up, that would be a whole other thing because it’s her trauma and stuff, but for him to bring it up and say it with the expectation that she just agree and not argue. Yikes.
Oh wow, the last sentence of this book really harkens back to my first issue with this pairing.
They are orphans again, with no true home but each other and whatever life they can make together on the other side of the sea.
No true home but each other. For ten years. Yeah, that’s super healthy and not at all borderline incestuous.
Siege and Storm
In which Mal is violent and possessive
Pages 152-155. Let’s set the stage.
Nikolai, Mal, and Alina are all sitting around a table in a tent. Nikolai proposes a political marriage between him and Alina. At this point he hasn’t said anything more than that he can give her the chance to change Ravka and bring her people hope by helping him unite the First and Second Armies by becoming his Queen.
And what does Malyen do? He shoves the table aside and slams Nikolai against a tent post.
It’s a political marriage, and this is how he reacts? And let’s get this straight, it’s not for any perceived infringement on Alina’s honor; it’s because he doesn’t want any other man remotely close to Alina.
Sturmhond straightened the sleeves of his uniform. “I’m not proposing a love match, you heartsick oaf, just a political alliance. If you’d stop and think for a minute, you’d see it makes good sense for the country.”
Mal let out a harsh bark of laughter. “You mean it makes good sense for you.”
“Can’t both things be true? I’ve served in the military. I understand warfare, and I understand weaponry. I know the First Army will follow me. I may be second in line, but I have a blood right to the throne.”
Mal jabbed his finger in Sturmhond’s face. “You don’t have a right to her.”
He is unreasonably angry at this proposal that is nothing but political at this point. Nikolai hasn’t even made any jabs about heirs yet. And this conversation is happening without Alina. She told them both to chill (specifically Nikolai to sheathe the weapon he got out when Mal threw him against a tent post and Mal to stand down) and Nikolai tucks away his knife and explains calmly with no jibes, but Mal has his fists still clenched and is most definitely not standing down. He’s upset about Alina not being wholly his, as she has been for the past ten years even when he was also off with other women.
Mal doesn’t have a right to decide things for Alina. And yet as this discussion continues, he does. Alina barely says anything; it’s a confrontation between a pretty calm and mostly restrained Nikolai and angry Mal, even when Nikolai is being accommodating and saying that he could stay in the palace, be the captain of her guard, still be with her.
Sturmhond gave a dismissive wave. “I’m a depraved monster, I know. Just think about what I’m saying for a moment.”
“I don’t need to think about it,” Mal shouted. “And neither does she. It isn’t going to happen.”
Mal has not once consulted Alina regarding this. He just decides this for himself and decides it for her. This isn’t the first time we see Mal just assuming things for Alina, let me remind you. There was the time when he assumed it was okay to kiss her, that she still felt the same way about him, that he assumes she’ll just be okay with not wearing black because he said so.
So Alina does say she won’t marry Nikolai, and then she says she will return to Os Alta with him. (She steels herself when she says this because she knows Mal will react poorly because she knows that he doesn’t want her anywhere near any other guys, and sure maybe Nikolai is flirty, but they haven’t known him for very long, and Alina has made zero indications that she is into him at this point. Absolutely none.)
Alina asks for the Second Army and both protest, but while Nikolai’s concerns are more about whether she is qualified for the position, Mal says “No,” and “It’s too dangerous. It would be like painting a target on your back.” Again he’s trying to make a decision for her. As one isolated incident this would be fine, he’s just trying to keep her safe, watch out for her, but it’s not an isolated train of events, and this isn’t the first time we’ve seen him try and do this, and it won’t be the last.
Pages 158 and 159. Interestingly, as Alina is talking about finding the third amplifier, Mal questions Alina’s assumption that it was what they both wanted. So I guess only he can assume what the both of them want because when Alina does it, it’s bad.
We also see Mal’s insecurity regarding Alina’s power showing itself:
You wanted to wear the second amplifier. You have it. You want to go to Os Alta? Fine, we’ll go. You say you need the firebird. I’ll find a way to get it for you. But when all this is over, Alina, I wonder if you’ll still want me.
And then he leaves before she can assure him that yes of course she will, thereby manipulating her and making her feel terrible for having ambitions and trying to do stuff for Ravka.
I’m trying not to do too much comparison between the Darkling, Nikolai, and Mal, but I think this is just worth noting. From Nikolai on page 251.
“I’m ambitious, Alina. I’m driven. But I hope . . . I hope I still know the difference between right and wrong.” He hesitated. “I offered you freedoms and I meant it. If tomorrow you decided to run back to Novyi Zem with Mal, I’d put you on a ship and let the sea take you.” He held my gaze, his hazel eyes steady. “But I’d be sorry to see you go.”
I like this for many reasons. First, he’s really thinking about his actions and stuff, words like hope meaning that he’s not 100 percent sure which makes me trust him more because he knows to be wary of the possibility of him taking things too far. Second, he would put her on a ship to travel and be with Mal. That’s way more than we would ever get from the uncompromising Malyen Oretsev. Third, he’d be sorry to see her go. He doesn’t say anything more than that. It’s a simple comment about his feelings that doesn’t intrude or assume much.
The pages before this also ooze with Mal’s insecurities about being normal and not powerful, and just being upset that Alina has greater worries than him, that her whole world doesn’t revolve around him like his does her.
“You chose this. You have a purpose. I don’t even know what I’m doing here anymore.”
“Don’t say that.” I swung my legs off the bed and stood. “We do have a purpose. We came here for Ravka. We––”
“No, Alina. You came here for Ravka. For the firebird. To lead the Second Army.” He tapped the sun over his heart. “I came here for you. You’re my flag. You’re my nation. But that doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Do you realize tis is the first time we’ve really been alone in weeks?”
Again we get Mal not letting Alina decide/assume things for the pair of them. And we get Mal being insecure and we get Mal proclaiming how much he loves her. It just really doesn’t seem healthy to me, and it also feels like a manipulation tactic.
Mal took a single tentative step toward me. Then he closed the space between us in two long strides. One hand slid around my waist, the other cupped my face. Gently, he tilted my mouth up to his.
“Come back to me,” he said softly. He drew me to him, but as his lips met mine, something flickered in the corner of my eye.
The darkling was standing behind Mal. I stiffened.
Mal pulled back. “What?” he said.
“Nothing. I just . . .” I trailed off. I didn’t know what to say.
The Darkling was still there. “Tell him you see me when he takes you in his arms,” he said.
I squeezed my eyes shut.
Mal dropped his hands and stepped away from me, his fingers curling into fists. “I guess that’s all I needed to know.”
Brief aside: Mal is curling his fingers into fists, yet again. This really seems to happen a lot, and the fact that this is happening because she stiffened when he kissed her… Yikes
“You should have stopped me. All the time I was standing there, going on like a fool. If you didn’t want me, you should have just said so.”
“Don’t feel too bad, tracker,” said the Darkling. “All men can be made fools.”
“That’s not it––” I protested.
“Is it Nikolai?”
“Another otkazat’sya, Alina?” the Darkling mocked.
So Mal immediately decides that the reason Alina must be stiffening when he kisses her is another man and refuses to listen to her when she tries to explain. And once he decides that it is because of Nikolai, he continues to talk over her.
Mal shook his head in disgust. “I let him push me away. The meetings, the council sessions, the dinners. I let him edge me out. Just waiting, hoping that you’d miss me enough to tell them all to go to hell.”
Because the only way she can be with him is if she tells everyone to go to hell? Why can’t she have friends and you, Mal?
I swallowed, trying to block out the vision of the Darkling’s cold smile.
“Mal, the Darkling––”
“I don’t want to hear about the Darkling anymore! Or Ravka or the amplifiers or any of it.” He slashed his hand through the air. “I’m done.” He turned on his heel and strode toward the door.
“Wait!” I rushed after him and reached for his arm.
He turned around so fast, I almost careened into him. “Don’t, Alina.”
“You don’t understand––” I said.
“You flinched. Tell me you didn’t.”
“It wasn’t because of you!”
Mal laughed harshly. “I know you haven’t had much experience. But I’ve kissed enough girls to know what that means. Don’t worry. It won’t happen again.”
The words hit me like a slap. He slammed the door behind him.
He controls all the conversation, and he controls all the conversation about what her flinching means, refusing to let her explain. And then he leaves, refusing to let her say anything else.
It’s disturbing that he just takes this flinch and runs with it, deciding the reasons for it without once letting Alina explain she hesitates to respond to his initial “what?”
He leaves Alina feeling terribly and also like all the problems in their relationship are on her. She is crying, and she’s wanting to make this right.
Mal’s reaction is more concerning.
Everytime Alina tries to talk to him, you know, because she feels that this is all her fault just because Mal wouldn’t let her explain (I don’t know how that works), Mal walks away from her. He also drinks more, and he sports bruises and cuts as if he’d been in a brawl. Mal’s reaction when he is upset with the dissolution of their relationship because he decided what Alina’s flinching when he kissed her meant and refused to listen to her, is to get drunk and violent.
Maybe it’s not directed at her, but it’s still not good.
And he also kisses Zoya. And only after he sees that Alina has witnessed this does he finally talk to her. He says Alina, stop. He wants the chance to explain it, even though he didn’t give Alina that chance.
He throws the flinching in Alina’s face again.
“At least she doesn’t flinch when I touch her,” he spat. “You don’t want me, so why do you care if she does?”
Despite her trying her best to tell him that’s not what it meant, he insists he knows best I guess and that she doesn’t want him. So Alina responds with “I don’t,” and also crying because at this point she’s still worn down and hurting over this whole thing.
She’s willing to do almost anything to be with him. She’ll compromise even though he won’t because he is stubborn and unwilling to listen.
“Saints,” he swore. “I wish we’d never come here.”
“Then let’s leave,” I said wildly. I knew I wasn’t making any sense, but I didn’t much care. “Let’s run away, tonight, and forget we ever saw this place.”
He let out a bitter bark of laughter. “Do you know how much I want the? To be with you without rank or walls or anything between us? Just to be common again together?” He shook his head. “But you won’t do it, Alina.”
“I will,” I said, tears spilling over my cheeks.
“Don’t kid yourself. You’d just find a way back.”
“I don’t know how to fix this,” I said desperately.
Why is it on her to fix this? She didn’t mess this up. Sure she flinched, but it’s on Mal for not listening to her and just deciding what that meant.
“You can’t fix it!” He shouted. “This is the way it is. Did it ever occur to you that maybe you were meant to be a queen and I’m not meant to be anything at all?”
He’s shouting at her while she’s crying. Also his insecurity is present again. Over the next page we get more of his insecurity, and then Alina says she can’t just be Alina again, and Mal says he wants her back.
“I can’t go back!” I screamed, not caring who heard me. “Even if you take away this collar and the sea whip’s scales, you can’t carve this power out of me.”
“And what if I could? Would you let it go? Would you give it up?”
This is all interesting because Mal doesn’t really seem interested in Alina in a romantic way until the Darkling shows up and wants her, and yet now he wants her back to the way she was.
And also he wants her to be something other than what she now is, and she won’t give that up, and he doesn’t want to compromise on that, to listen to what she wants. And though that image of carving is something she brought up, he’s like yes. Violence.
Ruin and Rising
In which Mal doesn’t do anything blatantly egregious, but he gets the girl he’s been nothing but toxic to in the past two books.
And now we’re to the last book. Everything that happened in the previous two books could have been fine if not for the ending this book gives us. Let’s get into what this ending is.
So we’re on page 23 and nothing really has happened yet, but we do get Alina feeling bad about the fact that she’s not normal because she knows Mal won’t have her as she is, and soon he’ll find a new girl. YAY.
I should note that right now it does seem like Mal is actually accepting who she is and who she’ll have to be and that she should marry Nikolai.
Alright so he is accepting who she’ll have to be, but because it’s hard for him, he’s not talking to her. Which like yes, understandable, but given his history of manipulation it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, especially since he says that’s the reason why (page 90).
Here is the infamous back tattoo: I am become a blade.
We get more of Alina being friendly, maybe even wanting him, and him shutting it down. He’s made his decision, that she will be Nikolai’s queen, without listening to her (again) so there will be nothing between him. Everything is on his terms (page 114).
I know I said I wasn’t trying to compare the men in Alina’s life, and that’s still true, but I just wanted to point out this quote from when Alina is talking to Nikolai (page 133):
I’d missed him. The way he talked. The way he attacked a problem. The way he brought hope with him wherever he went. For the first time in months, I felt the knot in my chest ease.
It’s that last part especially that is noteworthy. She’s had a knot in her chest for months, and Mal, obviously, has only been making it worse, and then there’s Nikolai and he makes her feel better, this doesn’t have to be in a romantic way at all. It’s just something that’s there.
Just a few pages later on page 140, Mal is actually a decent guy and deigns to allow Alina and Nikolai to eat dinner alone together. I hate that this is something we have to draw attention to because it just shows maybe right now he doesn’t treat her like a possession but earlier he did.
I felt a little pang, remembering the lonely days at Keramzin before Mal had arrived, the older orphans who’d had little interest in another scrawny refugee.
Page 144. This just serves as additional evidence that Alina really had nothing until Mal showed up. YAY INCEST.
Page 166. Mal and Alina are having a conversation. It doesn’t seem terrible at first but then Mal says some things.
“I wasn’t afraid of you, Alina. I was afraid of losing you. The girl you were becoming didn’t need me anymore, but she’s who you were always meant to be.”
Mal wants her to be powerless and to need him/that he’s afraid if she doesn’t have to rely on him she’ll leave him. Now I don’t know a whole lot about romance, but this feels really wrong to me. A relationship does not have to be made of a girl who needs a guy. I just don’t like it.
Page 227. Alina comes to think that she is very very distantly related to the Darkling and she feels sick and “like I needed a scalding bath.”
And like sure yes. But also how are you not okay with this but then you are chill with getting busy with your adopted brother, Mal?
The Darkling is like 500 years old, and if we say there’s 20 years in between generations, that would make them 25th cousins if they were related. I’m no incest shipper, but I have zero problems with 25th cousins being a thing.
Page 290. It’s brought up that the Darkling and Nikolai want Alina for her power. It is not brought up that Mal wants her without her power. He appears to be okay with it, but being okay with it isn’t the same as embracing it when the last thing he actually said on the matter was that he’d like to cut it out of her.
“You are all I’ve ever wanted,” he said. “You are the whole of my heart.”
Page 362. Mal says this right before they have sex. I just… They’re all each other has, and have been forever. That isn’t a good thing. But I know I’ve said that many a time, so I’ll not say any more.
This whole book, Mal appears to have made his peace with Alina’s powers and also her marrying Nikolai. But at the end of it all Alina loses her powers and stays mostly alone with Mal, giving him what he wanted. Maybe he did change, maybe he was actually okay with her powers, but we don’t really see that. Sure he tells her to kill him for the third amplifier, but that more seems to fall into the whole duty and honor thing this book has going on (the whole reason why Mal is encouraging her to marry Nikolai and be queen and whatever) In the end, Mal doesn’t ever have to change. Alina does.
There you go. That’s why I think Mal is toxic and no good for Alina (or any other girl. Come on dude). Please let me know what you think in the comments, and thank you so much for reading; it means a lot.