It is I, your favorite nitpicky, never-satisfied, hyper-critical, especially-when-it-comes-to-female-characters blogger … and I have Things to Say about Inej Ghafa in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone adaptation.
Before we go any further, let me be clear: this is not a critique of Amita Suman’s performance. Amita Suman is an acting goddess. She showed a deep understanding of Inej’s character, and threw every ounce of her energy into making Inej come to life onscreen. From the moment she slipped through the open window, removed her headscarf, and softly said, “Hello, Kaz,” I was ready to sell my soul to her. She was brilliant. ❤
My complaints lie not with the acting, but with the writing. Not all of the writing, either! Some of Inej’s dialogue, even the non-canon stuff, was pretty darn good. But one specific choice the showrunners made bothered me tremendously, and I cannot rest easy until I’ve inflicted my botherations on my devoted followers. 😛
So here we go …
The Shadow and Bone miniseries is based on the YA fantasy novels of Leigh Bardugo. Shadow and Bone combines characters from two different sets of Bardugo’s books, the Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows duology, for an epic crossover adventure. Inej Ghafa hails from Six of Crows. A former sex slave turned deadly assassin, Inej is one of my favorite YA heroines, hands down. So it’s not surprising that I have #thoughts and #opinions about her portrayal in the show.
Because the Shadow and Bone trilogy takes place several years before Six of Crows, the SoC gang’s inclusion in the show is advertised as a prequel of sorts. “We’ll show you what these characters were like before you met them in the books!” Thus, the writers feel at liberty to make some significant changes to Kaz, Inej, and the others.
This is all fine and dandy … as long as the characters’ choices are consistent with their future selves (their “canon” or book selves). But if their choices contradict the people they later become–the people we book fans know them to be–we’ve got a problem.
In the books, Inej Ghafa, a former prostitute, works as a spy and assassin for Kaz Brekker, Ketterdam’s most feared mob boss. Kaz bought her contract from the brothel, and Inej is working to pay him back. Her goal is to earn her freedom so she can go on a mission to hunt sex traffickers.
In the show, Inej is still a former prostitute, and she still works for Kaz as a spy, but she refuses to serve as an assassin. In fact, she refuses to use lethal force, period. Her character arc is about overcoming her resistance to violence and making her first kills.
Now, in theory, and especially if you haven’t read the books, these two arcs could fit together, couldn’t they? A religious teenage girl becomes a ruthless assassin. She must’ve had some resistance to the idea of murder, right? How did she reconcile her personal beliefs with her actions?
Here’s why saddling Inej with a reluctance to kill doesn’t work in practice, though.
First, it makes her look naive. You have to understand, Inej Ghafa is one of the most heavily armed female characters in YA. She wears about a dozen concealed knives at any given time. Why? Because she’s an assassin! Those are the tools of her trade! In the TV show, Inej is still wearing about a dozen knives. In fact, there’s a scene where she removes her knives one by one and places them in a tray, so we can see exactly how many there are. We can also see how sharp they are. 😛 It’s very difficult to reconcile those lethal weapons with Inej’s stated “non-violent” principles. You can’t tell me this girl is walking around the most dangerous city in the world, working for one of the most dangerous guys in the city, completely strapped, armed to the teeth … and somehow believing she won’t need to kill anyone. It just makes her look naive.
Inej Ghafa was sold into sex slavery at fourteen. She’s anything but naive. She knows how dirty and brutal Ketterdam is, and she knows what it takes to survive there. If you’ve made her look naive, you’ve fundamentally mischaracterized her.
Second, it weakens her self-reliance. Shadow and Bone establishes Inej’s aversion to violence by making her ask Jesper (another member of the gang) to kill someone FOR HER, since she doesn’t want to do it herself. Needless to say, this makes Jesper uncomfortable. It made me extremely uncomfortable while watching, because the Inej I know and love would never ask a man to do her “dirty work” for her. Inej relies on herself. She takes responsibility for her own actions, no matter what. Again, Inej knows what it takes to survive and thrive in the harsh environment of Ketterdam. She knows she’ll sometimes be called upon to kill. She doesn’t agonize over it, but rather, accepts it as a fact of life.
Third, it shifts the focus away from Inej’s autonomy, and places the emphasis instead on her feelings for Kaz. In the show, Inej swears she will never take a life. So when she finally kills someone, it’s a big character moment for her. And why does she do it? To protect Kaz! Kaz is losing a fight, his opponent is about to stab him … until Inej throws a knife and kills the guy. It’s a spur of the moment decision, and she doesn’t really have much choice. It’s either stand by and do nothing, or save her best friend (and crush ;)) from being turned into chopped liver.
In the books, when Inej becomes a killer, there’s nothing hasty about it. Inej makes a calculated choice to accept Kaz Brekker’s job offer as a spy and assassin, in exchange for her freedom from sex slavery. Kaz hires her because he recognizes her talents and knows she’ll be an asset to his team. It doesn’t make sense for TV-Kaz to respect Inej’s scruples to the extent that he never asks her to kill. Kaz is a shrewd businessman who only pays for what he needs … and he needs a spy and an assassin.
In the books, Inej’s new job as an assassin comes as a relief, not a moral burden. She feels secure for the first time in years. She’s proud of her lethal abilities. She’s proud of being useful to Kaz. She’s proud of earning her freedom from prostitution, rather than simply being given it. Inej doesn’t want to be Kaz Brekker’s charity case or his pet victim. She is his valued employee, his partner in crime. Yes, part of her job is killing people, and yes, killing is immoral. But in this case, it’s also a young girl’s first steps toward reclaiming the autonomy that was so brutally stolen from her.
“You may still die in the Dregs.”
Inej’s dark eyes had glinted.
“I may. But I’ll die on my feet with a knife in my hand.”
Finally, it over-simplifies Inej’s complex religious beliefs. I think the Shadow and Bone writers assumed that because Inej is devoutly religious, she must be consumed with guilt over the violence she inflicts. But in the books … she really isn’t? Six of Crows tells us Inej “believed her Saints saw and understood the things she did to survive.” Crooked Kingdom gives us the marvelously raw line, “Innocence was a luxury, and Inej did not believe her Saints demanded it.” Inej has evolved a personal relationship with her faith which nurtures and sustains her in the harsh environment she finds herself in, rather than paralyzing her with guilt. It’s one of the most intriguing aspects of her character. I just wish the show hadn’t diluted it.
I’ve talked a lot on this blog about agency for female characters. Agency doesn’t just mean letting characters make their own choices. The best kind of agency involves characters who make interesting and UNIQUE choices. Choices which set them apart from other characters. Choices which cut to the heart of who they really are.
The choice which Shadow and Bone presents Inej isn’t all that unique. In the show, Inej must choose between sticking to her moral principles and covering her friend’s back in a fight. The thing is–most characters would make the same choice she does. Most characters, no matter how scrupulous or squeamish or tender-hearted, would be willing to kill to save a loved one from Imminent Danger of Being Sliced in Half by Some Rando. Throwing that knife and rescuing Kaz doesn’t set Inej apart.
But voluntarily becoming a hired killer to liberate herself from sex slavery? That’s unique. That’s meaty. That’s complicated. That’s messy and morally gray and, above all, interesting.
I think the television writers made the mistake of reading Inej through the lens of a traditional female protagonist. “I am the heroine. That means I am Good and Innocent and Idealistic, and I don’t want to kill anyone.” But Inej doesn’t see herself as the protagonist. She doesn’t claim to be anybody’s heroine. She’s just an ordinary girl, doing what she must to live another day and get paid at the end of the week. Inej Ghafa is confident, pragmatic, and ruthless when she has to be. Above all, she’s a survivor.
And I respect her for it.
Have you read Six of Crows?
What did you think of Shadow and Bone?
Let me know in the comments!