Alina, a pale, lonely orphan, discovers a unique power that thrusts her into the lavish world of the kingdom’s magical elite—the Grisha. Could she be the key to unravelling the dark fabric of the Shadow Fold and setting Ravka free?
The Darkling, a creature of seductive charm and terrifying power, is the leader of the Grisha. If Alina is to fulfill her destiny, she must discover how to unlock her gift and face up to her dangerous attraction to him.
But what of Mal, Alina’s childhood best friend? As Alina contemplates her dazzling new future, why can’t she ever quite forget him?
The book starts off with two children (Alina Starkov and Malyen Oretsev) arriving at Duke Keramsov's estate to learn to read, write and to learn a trade. After some time, it is winter and the Grisha come to examine them. The two eavesdrop on the conversation between the Grisha and Ana Kuya, the Duke's housekeeper, but are quickly caught. When the test is about to begin, Alina and Mal grab each other's hands because they do not want to separate from each other even if it's to go to a better place with "the finest clothes, the finest food".
In the next chapter, Alina and Mal are older and have left the orphanage to train in the army at Poliznaya. Their regiment is two weeks march away from Poliznaya, but they first need to cross the Shadow Fold. Alina is worried but Mal is comforted by the Grisha pyros and Heartrenders that the King sent to aid their regiment. Their conversation is interrupted when The Darkling's carriage suddenly drives by them and Mal gets distracted by a female Grisha. He then leaves with his friends, Mikhael and Dubrov, and Alina heads into the small city of Kribirsk towards the Documents Tent.
When Alina enters the tent, she starts talking to Alexei, a fellow junior cartographer's assistant who wants to hear more about the coach. That night, Mal and his two friends stop by Alina's cabin before heading over to the Grisha pavilion. The two talk for a bit and reminisce about the orphanage and Ana Kuya. After the brief moment together, Mal leaves with his friends and Alina heads back to bed.
The next morning, the regiment boards skiffs to cross the Fold. All seems well at first, but then Alexei and Alina hear flapping wings and suddenly hundreds of Volcra are around them. In the battle, Alexei is taken away by one of the volcra. Alina is about to be taken too when Mal comes to her rescue and pulls her away. He then gets attacked but the two are able to work together to kill the creature. Mal is badly wounded, however, and Alina is scared that he is going to die. As she closes her eyes and is ready to die in another attack, a sudden light appears and she falls to the ground, hitting her head and falling unconscious.
When Alina wakes up, she is still on the deck, but she has a gun pointed at her. Everyone is looking at her warily, and no one seems to want to touch her even when she stumbles as the skiff moves. It turns out that they are docking back in Kribirsk and the soldiers march Alina off the boat and up the road. She is eventually led to the Grisha pavilion and taken to the Darkling. It turns out that the source of light had been Alina, and, after a test from the Darkling, Alina is revealed to be a Sun Summoner. The Darkling then orders that she be taken to his coach and seen to by a Healer.
On her trip away from Kribirsk to Os Alta, Alina learns from Ivan that the Darkling is a living amplifier. Even though she was tested for powers, the examiners were unable to find the magic that she had. With her Sun Summoning, Alina could potentially open a path through the Shadow Fold or destroy it. With this power, Alina is now a target for enemies like Fjerda and the Shu Han, which is why her carriage gets attacked on the way.
During the attack from the Fjerdan, Alina runs away into a forest but is pursued by an attacker. As he is about to harm her, the Darkling rides up with enforcement and uses his mysterious shadow powers to attack the assassins. As he blinds them, his soldiers cut down the blinded men. Alina is still being held down though, and her attacker threatens to kill her but, as his knife strikes down, the Darkling kills him quickly by slicing him in half with the darkness. A few days after the attack, the Darkling sits with Alina after they make camp to answer some questions. Alina learns that his great-great-great grandfather was the Black Heretic who accidentally created the Shadow Fold, and every Darkling since his time has tried to fix the mistake. The Darkling believes that Alina could be the person to help him do so.
Not long after, the group finally arrives at the Little Palace, but Alina has to meet the King the very next day. Genya, another Grisha, helps Alina to prepare by "beautifying" her because the King likes beautiful things. Genya then brings Alina down to the Court and asks that she not tell anyone how she helped to change her appearance. Genya is apparently not allowed to work on anyone due to the Queen's orders. After some bickering among the Grisha about who Alina should walk in with, the Darkling interrupts and states that she will walk in with him.
After getting introduced to the King, Alina is asked to demonstrate her power again which she does with some help from the Darkling, and the King is sufficiently pleased. As he walks away with the Darkling, Alina gets swarmed by members of the court until Genya comes by to bring her to the Queen who wants to meet her. After they leave the room, the Darkling comes by again to tell her that the King was pleased with the display. He then tells Genya to get Alina fitted for her kefta and states that it should be in black, which would show that she is on equal footing with him since only the Darkling is allowed to wear that color. Both Grisha are shocked when she refuses and asks that her kefta be blue since that is the Summoner color. Alina explains that she does not want to remain conspicuous and above the others.
Back in her room, Alina asks Genya to stay and eat dinner with her. While the servant agrees, she also tells Alina to be careful because the other Grisha would not approve of Genya eating with her. After dinner, Genya leaves and Alina gets ready for bed, but the only thing she can think of when she falls asleep is Mal. When Alina wakes up, she gets dressed for the day and her new kefta has arrived. It is a midnight blue with gold embroidery on the cuffs, but Genya makes sure to mention that she would have looked better in black. After breakfast, Genya takes Alina for a tour of the Little Palace, including the Darkling's library. When they head to the Fabrikators' workshops, the two girls pick up some glass disks for Alina. Afterwords, she takes Alina to the Summoners' pavilion to meet Baghra.
Baghra is another living amplifier, and she tries to teach Alina to call on her powers without the help of an amplifier like herself or the Darkling. After a few tries, she is exasperated with Alina and shoos her away. Alina then spends the majority of her day in the library but learns that her schedule for the rest of the day consists of other classes like Combat Training. She heads over to the training rooms with some other Etherealki named Marie and Nadia where they meet the instructor, Botkin Yul-Erdene.
Days pass filled with training, but Alina is still struggling to access her powers. The Darkling does not offer her any help and she still has not heard from Mal despite the many letters she has sent to him. Eventually, Zoya, the girl that had her eyes on Mal at the camp arrives at the Little Palace. Zoya clearly has some kind of vendetta against Alina and attempts to put her down whenever she can. In the combat training classes, Botkin pairs the two in hopes that Zoya can train Alina. When Alina actually knocks her to the ground, Zoya's temper gets the best of her and she uses her power to slam Alina against a wall and break a rib.
In the Infirmry, Alina later hears from Marie and Nadia that Zoya got in trouble with Botkin and with the Darkling, and someone claimed to have seen her come crying from the Darkling's rooms. Marie and Nadia explain to Alina that Zoya hates her because she is jealous that the Darkling favors her for being a Sun Summoner. While in the Infirmary, Alina is visited by The Apparat who tells her that people are already making altars in her honor because they believe that she is their hope. Hearing this news only makes Alina more nervous because she now realizes that her inability to reach her powers would hurt more than just the Darkling or Baghra.
The next day, Alina asks Genya to check on Mal's status on the casualty lists and then goes to Baghra's hut where the Darkling is arguing with the teacher. Apparently he wants to get Alina an amplifier, but Baghra is against it. The Darkling's men have reported sightings of a stag from Morozova's Herd, and he believes them. If they found the stag, the antlers could be made into an amplifier necklace, and it would be the most powerful amplifier ever known.
Later, Alina finds out from Genya that Mal has been stationed in Tsibeya and is alive, but this does not make her feel any better that he has not returned any of her letters. A fight with Baghra afterwards makes her realize that Mal is the only person she has in the world ever since they both lost their parents and were sent to the orphanage. Ever since she suppressed her powers during the Grisha examination, she had dark bags under her eyes, and she cannot summon her powers because a part of her still wants to go home to Mal. After this realization, she decides to accept her powers and the light finally comes easily to her without Baghra's help.
Once she accepts her powers, Alina's life is much easier. She can summon the light, isn't as tired all the time, and she finally has an appetite again. She is even able to finally keep up in all of Botkin's classes and can use the glasses that the Fabrikators gave to her so long ago. One day, Botkin gifts her with a knife encased in a steel and leather sheath, and says that she earned the Grisha steel.
After a night of practicing with Baghra, the Darkling appears again. He walks with Alina back to the Little Palace and asks that she trust that he can find the stag. When she asks why he would care what she thinks, he says he does not know and then kisses her, and they are both surprised but have no time to react when Ivan suddenly interrupts them.
With the King and Queen's fete coming up, the Grisha Summoners are expected to put on a performance and everyone is practicing, but Alina can only think of the Darkling and how she has not seen him in a while. On the night of the fete, Genya is helping Alina to get ready when the latter's kefta for the party arrives. It is all black and has the Darkling's symbol hanging off of it, and, when Genya finishes putting makeup on Alina, she looks completely different from the girl that came to the Little Palace with the Darkling.
When Alina arrives at the ballroom with her friends, she coincidentally runs into Duke Keramsov who does not remember her at all, but the chance meeting unfortunately reminds her of Mal. When Genya finds her, she is sad, but she still has to perform with the rest of the Grisha. The Darkling appears right before their turn, and they combine powers to create a light and shadow show for the crowd. As soon as the show is over, the Darkling leads Alina to another room where he starts to kiss her. When a drunken group interrupts the moment, the two separate with the Darkling heading to Ivan and the others in the war room while Alina goes back to the ballroom, but on the way she happens to see Mal.
It turns out that Mal's group was the one to find the stag from Morozova's herd. When it doesn't seem like he is very happy to see her, Alina mentions that she did not get any response from her letters to him and Mal replies that he never received any letters. As the conversation continues, the two start fighting with Mal accusing Alina of enjoying the Darkling's attention too much. The fight ends with Mal leaving and Alina crying.
When Alina is back in her room, she suddenly receives a visit from Baghra who drags her away and tells her that she must leave. Baghra tells her that the Darkling is planning on using the Shadow Fold as a weapon by expanding it. Whoever does not bow to him will see the Fold take over the land and destroy everything that it touches. When Alina does not seem to believe her, Baghra reveals that the Darkling is the Black Heretic, the one who created the Shadow Fold, and she is his mother. He has faked his death many times and has been waiting for the Sun Summoner in order to take control of the Fold.
The Darkling needs Alina because the volcra in the Fold are vulnerable to sunlight. Once they are subdued, he can enter the Fold and be even more powerful than he is now. After Baghra explains that he needs the stag's antlers to control Alina, she finally realizes that the old woman is telling the truth. When she asks what needs to be done, Baghra tells her that she needs to head to West Ravka, which means she needs to cross the Fold.
After changing out of her kefta into simpler clothing, Alina runs away and hides in a theatrical troupe's wagon. She ends up in Balakirev, a town directly west of Os Alta, but continues traveling on her own. One night, she gets accosted by a drunk man and has to use her sunlight to protect herself, but it draws the attention of a soldier who is dressed in the charcoal uniform that the Darkling's guard wears. She runs away before he can grab her but is chased and falls into a stream.
When she thinks that she is safe, she hears something and it turns out that Mal has tracked her down. Instead of giving her away to the other soldiers, he leads her to safety and she learns that they have not found the stag yet. After a night of rest, she explains to Mal why she ran away and why the Darkling wants the stag so badly. Later, Mal announces that he is taking her North to Tsibeya. If they can get to the stag before the Darkling, Alina can claim the antlers for herself and become powerful enough to fight him.
After some more traveling, Mal and Alina finally reach a village on the northwest side of the Petrazoi and are unnerved by how empty the houses they past are. It turns out that it is butter week. A week before the spring fast, every nobleman is expected to ride out in a cart filled with "sweets and cheeses and baked breads" to pass out to villagers, and it is a happy celebration for everyone. While in town during the festival, Mal and Alina are accosted by some muggers who rob them. When the thieves tell Mal to open his bag, they see his military-issued rifle and they are immediately suspicious. A fight soon breaks out and Alina has to use her powers so they can escape, but they luckily only lose Mal's rifle and wool blanket.
In the end, the fight ends the tension that had existed between Alina and Mal and, while not everything is back to normal, the two are friends again. Now as they travel further north, they talk about Alina's life at the Little Palace. One night, Alina asks that Mal not let the Darkling's men take her if they get caught. Essentially, she is asking that Mal kill her before letting that happen. Met with his refusual, Alina pushes the subject until Mal ultimately promises to take her life if need be.
When they think that they have finally found the stag, Mal and Alina set up camp for the night, and Mal reveals that Mikhael and Dubrov were both killed in Fjerda while tracking the stag. Mal had volunteered to go look and the two volunteered to go with him. Nine soldiers crossed the Fjerdan border for the stag, only two returned. The next day, Mal finally admits his feelings for Alina and they kiss. Not too long after, does and the stag from Morozova's herd enter the clearing.
As Mal is ready to kill the stag, Alina tells him to wait and walks over to the stag that is staring at her. She knows she cannot kill it. The Darkling arrives in the clearing and does not hesitate as one of his soldiers fires an arrow at the stag. When he goes to kill the stag, Alina covers the stag's body with her own. Knowing that she won't give up without a fight, the Darkling uses his darkness to cover the area and they struggle with each other, but Alina is not as strong and is about to fall. She tells Mal to kill her but he cannot do it. The Darkling overpowers her and Mal easily.
He then kills the stag to take pieces of his antlers and calls David forward. When Alina refuses to wear the antlers, the Darkling threatens Mal and forces her to obey him. David uses his powers to create a collar out of the antlers, and Alina is now tied to the Darkling and forced to obey. When he tells her to use the light, her body cannot refuse the order.
After arriving back at Kribirsk, Genya comes to Alina and reveals that the King has fallen ill and the Apparat is ruling in his stead. Alina then realizes that Genya is no longer wearing a white and gold kefta. Instead, she is wearing Corporalki red with blue embroidered cuffs. Alina then realizes that Genya is involved in the Darkling's plans, but she still tells the latter that she forgives both her and David.
Later, Alina is brought to the Darkling's tent where he asks her why she betrayed him. When she begs for Mal's life, the Darkling seems to be merciful enough to let her see him, but then he reveals that he plans on bringing Mal into the fold with them and feeding him to the volcra. Ivan takes Alina to see Mal, and the two spend the night reminiscing about their childhood and their time together after the orphanage. When morning comes, Alina is taken away to get ready for crossing the Fold.
It turns out that the Darkling had gathered ambassadors from Fjerda, Shu Han, and Kerch to see her powers. As they enter the Fold, the Darkling uses Alina's powers as soon as the volcra get close to their ship, and she easily drives the creatures away with the power from the stag's antlers. Minutes pass and they are already almost through the Fold, and Alina can see the other side of the Shadow Fold. As soon as the boat is about to dock, the Darkling uses his powers to combine with the Shadow Fold and makes the Fold spread, and the volcra quickly attack the innocent villagers.
When Alina tries to call on her light, nothing comes and she is forced to watch. The Darkling stops but the message is clear to the ambassadors that crossed the Fold with them. He threatens them with the Fold and says that there will now be peace. Before leaving, the Darkling orders that Mal be thrown overboard. Alina can only watch as the Darkling commands her light to leave Mal so that he can be taken by the volcra.
When Alina hears Mal scream, she is brought back to the memory of the stag and finally realizes that she has earned her amplifier just like the Darkling did. While he killed it, she had spared it's life. She feels back in control over her powers and immediately uses the light to save Mal, and the Darkling, angry, commands his soldiers to attack her. When the Grisha come towards her, Alina demonstrates her new strength by using the Cut, a powerful technique that only the Darkling uses, to split the skiff's mast in two.
Alina asks the people around her for help, but they are too scared of betraying the Darkling. Seeing that no one will help her, Alina decides to jump off the boat and runs for Mal, leaving the rest to fend for themselves against the volcra. When she is safe with Mal, she uses the Cut again and slices the skiff itself in half while running away with Mal into West Ravka.
The book ends with Mal and Alina on a boat running away on the sea to whatever is on the other side.
- The Duke would have recognized that look...He knew the look of a man defending his home with nothing but a rock in his hand. - p. 7
- "There is something more powerful than any army. Something strong enough to topple kings, and even Darklings. Do you know what that thing is?"
I shook my head, inching away from him.
"Faith," he breathed, his black eyes wild. "Faith." - p. 161
- It was time to let go. That day on the Shadow Fold, Mal had saved my life, and I had saved his. Maybe that was meant to be the end of us. - p. 182
- "Your power serves you because that is its purpose, because it cannot help but serve you". - p. 185
- Then the memory of the Darkling's kiss blew through me and rattled my concentration, scattering my thoughts and making my heart swoop and dive like a bird borne aloft by uncertain currents. - p. 198
- The sad, sickly girl with hollowed-out cheeks and bony shoulders was gone. In her place was a Grisha with sparkling eyes and shimmering waves of bronze hair. The black silk clung to my new form, shifting and sliding like sewn-together shadows. And Genya had done something marvelous to my eyes so that they looked dark and almost catlike.
- I wanted to run after him, to take back what I'd said, to beg him to stay, but I'd spent my life running after Mal. Instead, I stood in silence and let him go. - p. 231
- I saw the ghost of what must have once been a beautiful woman, a beautiful woman who gave birth to a beautiful son. - p. 237
- He didn't laugh as easily as he once had. But when he did, some of that grim coolness lifted from him and he seemed a bit more like the Mal I used to know. It gave me hope that he might not be lost forever. - p. 280
- We'd been robbed. We'd almost been killed. We were being hunted by the most powerful man in Ravka. But we were friends again, and sleep came more easily than it had in a long time. - p. 280-81
- The moment our lips met, I knew with pure and piercing certainty that I would have waited for him forever." - p. 299
- This is the truth of him, I thought as I squinted in the dazzling light. Like calls to like. This was his soul made flesh, the truth of him laid bare in the blazing sun, shorn of mystery and shadow. This was the truth behind the handsome face and the miraculous powers, the truth that was the dead and empty space between the stars, a wasteland peopled by frightened monsters. - p. 338
- He could have run, could have wept, could have clung to the sides of the skiff until the darkness took him, but he did none of those things. He stood unflinching before the gathering dark. - p. 343
- The stag had been showing me my strength--not just the price of mercy but the power it bestowed. And mercy was something the Darkling would never understand. I had spared the stag's life. The power of that life belonged to me as surely as it belonged to the man who had taken it. - p. 344