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Shadow and Bone's Jessie Mei Li Explains How Alina's Mixed-Race Heritage Deepens the Hero's Journey

"It adds a lot to sort of understanding to who she is as a person"

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Lindsay MacDonald

It's no secret that fans of Leigh Bardugo's Grishaverse novels live and die by these epic stories, but many of them will also openly acknowledge that the Shadow and Bone book series fell into an unfortunately common trope most fantasy narratives share -- it's just way too straight and way too white. Netflix's upcoming adaptation of the novel, however, aims to change that, most notably with the story's lead character, Alina Starkov. 

In the books, Alina's home country of Ravka is inspired by Tsarist Russia, making her and her fellow Ravkans presumably white characters. In the upcoming TV series, showrunner Eric Heisserer went with a different take on the character, casting biracial actress Jessie Mei Li. As an added layer to Alina's backstory, she is half-Ravkan, half-Shu, which has much deeper, character-driven implications for her.

"Obviously in the book, she's just a lowly Ravkan orphan, but they really in this series have kind of amped up the 'this is a war-torn country' kind of aspect of it," Jessie Mei Li told reporters during a visit to set in early 2020. "And obviously Ravka is at war with Shu Han. So I think they wanted to add a little bit more adversity to Alina's upbringing, you know, her being not only an orphan but also an orphan that looks like the enemy...They've added that and I think it adds a lot to sort of understanding [to] who she is as a person, and why she doesn't feel worthy." 

Alina won't be the only canonically white character benefitting from more diverse casting. Mal Oretsev, Alina's childhood friend and love interest, will also be mixed-race, played by Archie Renaux.

Shadow and Bone Boss Teases How the Six of Crows Characters Will Fit Into the Ravkan Civil War

"[Alina] was really ostracized at the orphanage where she grew up, and that's why [she] and Mal got together," they explained. "Obviously, they also wanted Mal to be mixed race, so they, the two of them, the two 'half-breeds,' as they say, sort of have more in common with each other. There are some scenes in the first few episodes where you sort of see Alina having people make racist comments to her and stuff." 

"We always talk about how progressive and just kind of what they're saying with this show about diversity and the range of characters and looks and ethnicities that they're putting into this world," added Sujaya Dasgupta who plays Zoya in the series. "Because it could be anywhere. It could be anywhere. They're adding a very rich texture having people from various different backgrounds and all over the world really in the show as actor[s]."

Shadow and Bone premieres on Netflix on Friday, April 23

(Editor's Note: Lindsay MacDonald went on this set visit and wrote this article before departing TV Guide in November 2020. She is now a Netflix employee. The article has been edited for clarity.)

Ben Barnes, Freddy Carter, Jessie Mei Li, Archie Renaux, Amita Suman, and Kit Young, Shadow and Bone

Ben Barnes, Freddy Carter, Jessie Mei Li, Archie Renaux, Amita Suman, and Kit Young, Shadow and Bone

Netflix