Shadow and Bone takes a lot of creative liberties with its source material — even more so than many other fantasy TV adaptations — the most obvious being the race of its main character, Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li). In the books by Leigh Bardugo, Alina is described simply as a "pale" girl, but in the show she is half Shu — a fictional nationality roughly analogous to being East Asian in the "Grishaverse." Showrunner Eric Heisserer explained the reason for this change in an interview with The Wrap.
Alina's race is not a factor in Bardugo's novels, but in the show it is a driving force behind her social alienation. She is played by English actress Li, who is reportedly the daughter of an English mother and a Chinese-born father. Heisserer explained that this casting change was an intentional way to highlight Alina's outsider status, without having to over-explain things with dialogue. He figured that racism would be universally recognized, and more visual.
"Well, one of the things that we uncovered when we dug into the deep dive of the characters of both stories is that a common theme that binds a lot of our heroes, our scrappy, young kids, are these two thematic questions," Heisserer explained. "And one is, 'where do I belong?' And the other is, 'What is within my power?' In exploring that, we found that it worked from a story perspective for Alina to be mixed race and half Shu, so that she feels even more like an outsider, and visually so."
Shadow and Bone takes place primarily in the country of Ravka, which is inspired mainly by Russian culture and mythology. The rest of the Grishaverse is too, in some respects, though countries and cultures like Shu Han are clear references to other places. Ravka is at war on multiple fronts in the story, including with Shu Han, so it makes sense that this version of Alina would be met with enmity by many.
"She's told that she doesn't matter," Heisserer said. "These are parts that are already existing in the book, that we felt that, when you're doing an adaptation, if there is a way to communicate that without saying it, with using voiceover or having to lean into something in a forced way, that's the way to do that."
Bardugo was heavily involved in the adaptation of her books, and she told Entertainment Weekly that she not only approved of the change but thought it made up for some of her book's "shortcomings." She said: "I wrote this very white, very straight 'chosen one' story that was rooted in echoes of what I had grown up reading in terms of fantasy, but certainly didn't reflect the world around me or the world that I live in. We knew we wanted to make some changes there, and it made a lot of sense for us to write Alina as half Shu."