Ruin and Rising Summary, Characters and Themes

In the captivating finale of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy, “Ruin and Rising” immerses readers in a tale of magic, power, and destiny. 

The story resumes with the protagonist, Alina Starkov, a formidable Grisha capable of summoning light, confined in an underground city. Far from the sun, her source of strength, and still reeling from a previous battle with the Darkling – her nemesis who commands darkness – Alina grapples with her diminished powers.

Full Summary

The underground city, ruled by the Apparat, a former royal advisor with his own agenda, becomes a cage for Alina. Despite her weakened state, she manages to escape with the help of loyal Grisha and her childhood friend, Mal. 

Their journey to the surface is fraught with dangers, including tunnel collapses and the ever-looming threat of the Darkling, who has usurped Ravka’s throne.

Alina’s quest to find Nikolai Lantsov, the rightful heir to the throne, proves challenging. 

Nikolai, in hiding after a close encounter with the Darkling, is critical to their plans. When Alina and her allies are betrayed and captured, it is Nikolai who daringly rescues them, taking them to a secret mountain fortress in one of his flying airships.

In the fortress, Alina’s power grows under the guidance of Baghra, the Darkling’s mother. 

Revelations about her lineage and the true nature of the amplifiers – magical items that enhance a Grisha’s power – add depth to the lore of Bardugo’s world. 

Political intrigue intensifies as Nikolai positions himself to reclaim the throne, proposing a strategic marriage to Alina. 

Yet, Alina’s heart yearns for Mal, leading to a poignant acknowledgment of their feelings.

Disaster strikes when the Darkling attacks, transforming Nikolai into a shadow creature. 

In a dramatic sacrifice, Baghra plunges to her death, taking the shadow creatures with her and giving the group a chance to escape. 

This escape leads Alina and her companions on a quest for the third amplifier, believed to be a mythical firebird. The revelation that the true amplifier is not the firebird, but Mal himself – a descendant of Baghra’s magically empowered sister – adds a tragic twist. 

Alina faces the harrowing choice of sacrificing Mal to gain the power needed to defeat the Darkling.

The climax unfolds in the Shadow Fold, a realm of darkness created by the Darkling. Alina, armed with her newfound power and the love for Mal, confronts the Darkling in a final showdown. 

In a twist of fate, the soldiers of Ravka gain the ability to summon light, tipping the scales in their favor. The Darkling is defeated, Nikolai regains his humanity, and Mal is miraculously resurrected.

“Ruin and Rising” closes with Alina and Mal, choosing a life away from the grandeur and politics of the Grisha world. 

They return to their roots, rebuilding the orphanage where their story began, dedicating their lives to nurturing and teaching the next generation.

Ruin and Rising Summary


Alina Starkov

Alina Starkov is the central protagonist and a powerful Grisha, able to summon and manipulate light. 

Her journey in “Ruin and Rising” is marked by her struggle against her nemesis, the Darkling, and her own internal conflicts about love, power, and destiny. Alina emerges as a symbol of hope and resilience, facing challenging decisions for the greater good of her nation.

The Darkling

The Darkling, Alina’s primary antagonist, is a formidable Grisha who commands darkness. He usurps the throne of Ravka and becomes a tyrant, using his shadow soldiers to enforce his rule. 

His complex relationship with Alina, marked by both conflict and a strange connection, drives much of the trilogy’s tension.

Mal Oretsev

Mal, Alina’s childhood friend and love interest, is a key character whose loyalty and bravery are constant. He is revealed to be the true third amplifier, a living testament to the series’ theme of sacrifice and love. 

His character arc encompasses a deep internal struggle with feelings of unworthiness and a profound love for Alina.

Nikolai Lantsov

Nikolai is the charismatic prince of Ravka and a strategic thinker. He is crucial in the rebellion against the Darkling and proposes a tactical marriage to Alina. 

His transformation into a shadow creature by the Darkling and subsequent return to humanity adds a tragic yet redemptive layer to his character.


Baghra, the Darkling’s mother and a powerful Grisha in her own right, serves as a mentor to Alina. Her revelations about the amplifiers and her own family’s history add depth to the narrative. Baghra’s sacrifice to save Alina and her companions from the Darkling’s attack is a pivotal moment in the story.

The Apparat

The Apparat is a religious leader who initially appears as an ally but later reveals his own ambitions to control Alina. His character represents the theme of power and manipulation in religious and political spheres.


1. The Burden of Power and Leadership

“Ruin and Rising” delves deeply into the complexities of wielding great power and the responsibilities of leadership. 

Alina Starkov, as a powerful Grisha, embodies this theme. Her journey is not just about harnessing her extraordinary abilities but also about understanding the weight and consequences that come with such power. 

The narrative explores how power can isolate individuals, as seen in Alina’s struggle with her increasing strength and the accompanying distance it creates between her and others. This theme is further complicated by the character of the Darkling, who represents the darker aspects of power – its ability to corrupt and the temptation to use it for personal gain. 

The novel also scrutinizes the challenges of leadership through characters like Nikolai, who must navigate political intrigue and the burden of reclaiming a throne, and the Apparat, whose leadership is driven by self-serving motives.

2. The Nature of Sacrifice and Love

Bardugo’s novel intricately weaves the theme of sacrifice with the complexities of love. 

The characters are often faced with difficult choices that test their loyalties and affections. Alina’s relationship with Mal is a poignant illustration of this theme. Their love is not just a source of strength but also a path laden with sacrifices. 

Mal’s revelation as the third amplifier and the subsequent moral dilemma faced by Alina – the prospect of sacrificing the person she loves for the greater good – brings this theme to a heart-wrenching climax. 

The theme of sacrifice extends beyond romantic love, encompassing the sacrifices made for friends, country, and the greater good. 

This is echoed in the decisions of characters like Baghra and Nikolai, who make personal sacrifices for the sake of defeating the Darkling and restoring peace to Ravka.

3. Identity and Self-Discovery

Throughout the text, the theme of identity and the journey of self-discovery are prominently featured. 

Alina’s evolution from a mere orphan to a powerful Grisha and then to a leader is marked by her constant struggle with her identity. The story illustrates how her powers, while defining her, also bring about a crisis of self, where she grapples with the question of who she is beyond her abilities. 

This quest for identity is not limited to Alina; other characters, like Nikolai and the Darkling, also face their own journeys of self-discovery, each dealing with their heritage and the roles thrust upon them. 

The theme is a poignant reminder of how circumstances and inherent abilities can shape one’s sense of self, and how the journey to find one’s true identity is often fraught with challenges and revelations.

Final Thoughts

“Ruin and Rising” masterfully wraps up the Shadow and Bone trilogy with a blend of high-stakes fantasy, deep emotional resonance, and rich character development. 

Leigh Bardugo skillfully balances the themes of power, love, and sacrifice, culminating in a satisfying and bittersweet finale. The novel excels in its exploration of the moral complexities faced by its characters, particularly Alina, as she navigates her destiny and relationships. 

Bardugo’s vivid world-building and her ability to weave a compelling narrative make “Ruin and Rising” a memorable and impactful conclusion to this beloved fantasy series.