Spoilers for season 1 and 2 of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone below.
No fantasy series is complete without some physical manifestation of Bad™. For Lord of the Rings, it was the One Ring (or perhaps the Eye of Sauron, depending on which LOTR enthusiast you’re asking). For Game of Thrones, it was the White Walkers. For Harry Potter, it was Tom Riddle’s Horcruxes. And Netflix’s YA fantasy series, Shadow and Bone, is no different: For this particular romp, evil finds itself in the form of a literal curtain of darkness.
In Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels—and the show that grew from its source material—this pitch-black banner is known as the Shadow Fold, or sometimes the Unsea. Home to monstrous winged creatures known as volcra, the Fold cuts the country of Ravka in two, severing ties between West Ravka and East Ravka, not to mention ravaging trade routes and sending military strategists into a tizzy. West Ravka is bordered by enemy nations—Fjerda to the north, and Shu Han to the south—which makes traveling through the Fold the only “safe” way to gather resources. Paralyzed by this banner of shadow, Ravka is quickly losing ground in global conflict. So when Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a Grisha—a.k.a. a superhero-like human who can wield enormous power—appears with the ability to summon sunlight, the idea that she could destroy the Fold is heralded as gospel.
But first, she’ll have to understand exactly what the Fold is. And it helps for us eager audience members to know the same.
How was the Shadow Fold made?
In Ravkan history and legend, the Shadow Fold was created by a Shadow Summoner known as the Black Heretic, a Darkling similar to General Kirigan (Ben Barnes). In later episodes of Shadow and Bone, we learn it was actually Kirigan himself who created the Fold using merzost (a.k.a. “the power of creation,” a.k.a. black magic) to expand his own power. In the beginning, the Fold was not born of greed, but of Kirigan’s genuine desire to protect his fellow Grisha from persecution following the death of his lover, a Grisha herself. But, just like the One Ring and Horcruxes of fellow fantasy tales, such power ultimately corrupted him. Now he seeks to expand it, using the curtain of darkness as a tangible weapon—a force for geopolitical control.
What are the monsters within it?
Well, erm, humans. Or, rather, they once were.
When the Fold tore through Ravka, it “ate” the humans in its path, transforming them into hideous volcra who consume human flesh. No word yet on if there’s any way to reverse this tragedy…so far, that’s up to Alina to figure out. And it’s especially important for her to do so: Her parents were two of the humans swallowed by the Fold and, hypothetically, turned into volcra.
How does one travel through it without, y’know, dying?
Generally, they don’t! But out of desperation, the Ravkans have developed a system of “sailing” across the sand via a silent skiff that slowly moves across the land by following a series of markers. This contraption is capable of making safe passage through the Fold, so long as no one makes a sound or lights a lantern. If that happens, all bets are off.
Can one thrive in the Fold? What’s the real estate market like?
I would imagine the perpetual darkness and carnivorous beasts are probably a turn-off for most prospective buyers, though I suppose that doesn’t keep people from living in Alaska. The volcra seem to find plenty of opportunity for food and entertainment, and I’d guess they have to sleep somewhere? I’d imagine if you buy now, you’d probably have yourself a solid investment by the time the Sun Summoner (maybe) restores the land.
How did author Leigh Bardugo come up with the Shadow Fold?
In a 2021 interview with ELLE.com, Bardugo revealed that the entire Grishaverse series started with her own experience fighting off darkness.
“I was staying with some friends in the mountains at somebody’s house, and I was reading and I didn’t want to go to dinner. Everybody went to dinner, and I fell asleep reading my book. When I woke up, the sun had set and the house was pitch black,” she explained. “And my heart was racing. I was sure somebody was in the house with me. I had no idea where the light switches were, I couldn’t go to the kitchen and grab a knife, and I took my shoe off and was basically standing in the living room, like, Come at me.
“I couldn’t get this thought out of my head, this idea that no matter how old you get or how sophisticated you think you are, your fear of the dark really never goes away. And so I asked myself this question: What if darkness was a place? … I had gotten into bed, and I got up and I drew this little, very rough map of this country that had been torn in two by a swath of darkness, and that became the Shadow Fold.”
Can Alina destroy the Fold?
Everyone sure wants her to!
General Kirigan seems to think only Alina—with her ability to summon pure light—can pierce through the evil of the Fold, thus making her his magnetic opposite. Grisha have long awaited a Sun Summoner such as herself, going so far as to coin her Sankta Alina (“Saint” Alina) when she reveals her power to the world. But we’ll have to wait until a season 2 or 3 to see if the young saint can pull off the ultimate rescue mission—and what that would mean for Ravka’s future.
How did Arken survive long enough to cross the Fold, let alone build a railroad right through it??
Listen, I threw this question in at the end so I could complain. Hear me out: In season 1, episode 3, the smuggler Arken (Howard Charles), a.k.a. The Conductor, promises a safe pathway through the Fold to his three new Crow companions: Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young). (And the goat, if you count the goat, which of course you should count the goat. His name is Milo.) Arken’s helping smuggle them into West Ravka so they can kidnap Alina from the Little Palace. Easy enough!
Turns out, he’s rigged this whole contraption that runs on fire and prayers (*cough* “physics and engineering”), and it chugs through the Fold on a rail. (Loudly, I might add.) My question is: How? If a silent skiff can barely make it through unscathed, how on earth can this coal-belching beast survive multiple trips, even if it is reinforced with Grisha metal? And how did Arken build the railroad in the first place? Did he traverse through the Fold himself, nailing steel into the sand? How could he see, let alone fend off the volcra? Where is the logic?
And then, to stretch the limits of your belief even further, it turns out they don’t even have enough coal to make the trip over the tracks! And yet, miraculously, they push through to the other side of the Fold, battered but alive. All of this, I say, we owe to Milo. Mark my words: Without Milo, our precious Crows wouldn’t have lived to see another heist.
Is the Fold expanding?
In the new season 2 of Shadow and Bone, Alina is having some dreams that based in reality—the Fold is getting bigger, swallowing up even more of what she loves and care for in the world that still has sunlight touching it. This recurring nightmare turns out to be even more than a premonition. Alina arrives at Weddle Harbor with Mal (Archie Renaux) and they’re told by refugees that the Fold is rapidly expanding, sometimes in little and sometimes in big surges.
The Darkling still wants Alina on his side to keep this expanding darkness going, but she and Mal are on the hunt for “Amplifiers” that will increase her power. And with more power, Alina can hopefully decrease the Fold’s real estate, or maybe even destroy it for good. Considering the Shadow Fold is the biggest threat to these characters’ lives and future, speeding up its growth is a great way to raise the stakes.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE.
Aimée Lutkin is the weekend editor at ELLE.com. Her writing has appeared in Jezebel, Glamour, Marie Claire and more. Her first book, The Lonely Hunter, will be released by Dial Press in February 2022.