The Darkling is described as a tall handsome young man, appearing not much older than Alina despite his ancient age. He has ink-black hair, quartz gray eyes, and sharp, beautiful features.
As later revealed, The Darkling is an extremely dark and manipulative person. He is power-hungry and had created the Fold in order to use it against his enemies, but in the process created the Volcra which prevented him from expanding it. He is also ambitious. He wants the Grisha to be free from slavery and oppression and planned to use the fold as leverage against those people who built the pyre (where they burn Grisha), and not only against his own enemies. He feels the loneliness of immortality, causing him to fixate on Alina because she had the capacity to be like him.
The Darkling was born many centuries ago to Baghra, who raised him, and an unknown Heartrender. His age is never specified; he presented himself as around 120 while claiming to be the great-great-great-grandson of the Black Heretic. He is at least older than the Shadow Fold, which was created around 400 years ago.
Due to his and his mother's unique powers during a time of heavy persecution against Grisha, he had a nomadic childhood and lived in secrecy, rarely staying in one location under one identity for more than a month at a time for safety. His mother warned against showing off his powers or allowing anyone to touch him. Despite his powers, he was afraid of the dark, loved sunlight, and initially struggled with mastering his powers.
At 13, at the time under the name Eryk while stationed at a Grisha camp near the Fjerdan border, two other children at the camp attempted to drown him in a freezing lake after finding out he was an amplifier, one of whom he had befriended and trusted. He used the Cut for the first time and framed the nearby otkazat'sya village. His mother, at the time Lena, told him she didn't blame their kind for the desperation to protect themselves. It was at this moment that he swore to make a safe place for Grisha.
Over time, he became more corrupt. The Darkling's experimentation with power and darkness resulted in the creation of the Shadow Fold, in the period when he was still known as the Black Heretic. The Darkling served many kings over the years and faked his death many times. He planned to expand the Fold and gain power over Ravka but needed a Sun Summoner to destroy the Volcra and carry out his ambitions.
Alina Starkov was brought before the Darkling after a failed attempt to cross the Shadow Fold resulted in a mysterious light saving her and her friend Malyen Oretsev. After witnesses shared what they saw on the skiff, the Darkling did not believe that Alina was a Sun Summoner and decided to conduct a test. After covering the room in darkness, he tried to call out to the magic inside her, but she actively resisted. Instead of falling for her trick, the Darkling decided to use physical force, cutting her arm with a knife, and the pain triggered a response in Alina: a blazing white light that shattered the darkness he conjured.
Later it is revealed that the Darkling is also a living amplifier, a person who can increase a Grisha's powers. There are also inanimate objects that are used as amplifiers but only the Darkling's most favored Grisha are allowed to have them. The Darkling did not interact much with Alina again while at the palace, but he appeared one day at Baghra's hut and told Alina that he might be able to get her the most powerful amplifier ever.
After Alina finally accepted her powers, the Darkling visited her again during a training session. He had still not found the stag whose antlers he had promised her but he asked that she have faith in him, and then he kissed her to both of their surprise. After the King and Queen's winter fete, Alina learned that Baghra was the Darkling's mother, He was the Black Heretic who created the Shadow Fold, and that his plan was to use Alina to fend off the volcra that kept him from using the Fold.
When he caught Alina and Mal after they ran away, he used the stag's antlers to bind her to him, and then he revealed that he planned on having Mal killed by the volcra. He used Alina's powers to show his own powers over the Fold and easily scared the ambassadors and envoys that came along for the demonstration into submission. When he ordered for Mal to be thrown overboard, Alina broke free from his control and left the people on the boat to fend off the volcra themselves.
By the end of the book, it was not known whether or not the Darkling survived the volcra attack, but he has survived for so long that it would not be easy for him to be killed.
After Alina Starkov and Malyen Oretsev escape, the Darkling relentlessly works towards their capture. A trail of payments that Alina made using her golden hairpins leads the Darkling to them. He discovers that the pair have fled to Novyi Zem and have checked into a boardinghouse using one of the remaining hairpins. When Alina and Mal return to their home, the Darkling is seen seated casually upon a rickety chair as if he himself were royalty; surrounding him were his supporters who appear to be frightened by his presence. He commands Ivan to hold Mal hostage as he repeatedly expresses his "gratitude" to Alina for helping him further expand his power. However, surviving the Fold came with a cost. The Darkling now sports scars across his face from the volcra as a reminder of the origin of his new power and Alina observes that when the Darkling uses his power, it seems to be feeding off him, taking a toll on his physical health. He reveals to Alina that his ability to manipulate darkness evolved into manifesting abominations/ volcra-like creatures that cannot be destroyed by light (except for the Cut). The Darkling then brings both Mal and Alina on board the Verrhader, a stolen ship that belongs to an infamous privateer named 'Sturmhond.'
After Alina and the other Grisha are "captured" by the Apparat and stay underground in the White Cathedral, the Darkling rules Ravka aboveground. Alina visits the Darkling through the bond they’ve developed and he misleads her, claiming he’s going to plant an attack on West Ravka. Alina tells Nikolai and the twelve Grisha she traveled with. Just as Alina and Nikolai are about to leave, the Darkling attacks them instead. As revenge for Nikolai stealing Alina, the Darkling fills his lungs with merzost, which turns him into a volcra-like creature. After his mother's death, he calls Alina using the tether they share, but she refuses to answer. Later, he destroys Keramzin and kills the Grisha instructors, Botkin and Ana Kuya, and shows Alina their corpses hanging in the oak. His last apparition is at the end of the story, in the battle at the shadow fold. He engages in a fight with Alina, but when she loses her powers, he looks distressed. Alina uses this distraction to stab him in the chest with a Grisha steel dagger. After this, they share a last moment together, in which he asks Alina to burn his corpse because he didn't want his grave to be desecrated. His corpse is burned at the end of the story, along with Ruby's, which got disguised as Alina's by Genya.
The Darkling is mentioned multiple times throughout the book, the impact he made in some of the character's lives being one of the main focuses of the story. At the end of the book is revealed that Elizabeta kept his body preserved after the battle in the fold, hoping to revive him. Zoya Nazyalensky burns his body, but his spirit manages to flee and introduces itself in Yuri Vedenen's body while he was unconscious, killing him and coming back fully to life.
At the beginning of the trilogy, the Darkling is an implied love interest of Alina, both being intensely drawn to one another. Before Alina left the Little Palace, the Darkling kissed her abruptly by the lake, after he told her about the stag he was hunting. He then kisses and touches her at the Winter Fete, before they are interrupted. His betrayal and deceit are revealed not long after, leaving whether his feelings for her were genuine or not a mystery. It later becomes obvious that if not love, a deep physical and mental attraction to her remain throughout the series, making it known that it wasn't all a lie.
Throughout Siege and Storm, it was apparent that their connection was deeper and more complex as the Darkling can visit Alina at will in a tangible and accurate form: Alina was, of course, disturbed by their encounters and asked him why he won't leave her alone. His reply clearly implied that he sees Alina as his only companion and solace in the dark. Another proof of their unfathomable relationship was at the Chapel, in which Alina and the Darkling were able to manipulate each other's abilities through a particular bond. When they meet each other at the Chapel, he reveals that her visions were real and promises that he would never turn away from who she truly was, for they were alike as no one else was. She then pretends to accept his offer of peace and kisses him, distracting him enough to steal his nichevo'ya through their connection and try to kill them both, but failing.
In Ruin and Rising, Alina paid him a visit by the tether shared between them. He asked her why, only to say that she, in fact, wanted to see him. He told her that she was destined to be his balance and could make him a better man, to which she replied he could make her a monster. He offered her the throne sitting beside his, despite the fact that she attempted to kill him. His patience would appear as a manifestation of the affections he harbored for her. He told Alina his real name, which earned him a lighthearted laugh from her, commenting on how common his name was. The laugh was then returned with a genuine smile from the Darkling, who tries to kiss and touch her. She, even though feeling the strong beat of desire in both sides through their connection, resists his advances. At the end of the book, the Darkling panics and suffers over Alina's loss of power, realizing she was no longer his balance and he was truly alone in the world, being distracted enough to let her stab him with a knife. She cried over his body and obeyed his request to not have a grave that people could desecrate. The Darkling's corpse is later burned and Alina whispers his true name, Aleksander, above it.
The Darkling had a very difficult relationship with his mother, Baghra. She told Alina that Grisha used to be heavily persecuted even in Ravka and she was always shunned for being able to summon darkness, which was an extremely rare power, and never wanted her son to suffer as she did. She raised him to be hard and strong and gave him pride (teaching that he had no equal and was destined to bow to no man) and ambition (teaching that love was fragile, fickle and nothing compared to power) so he would rely on no one but himself. In The Demon in the Wood, the Darkling's prequel story, she praises his abilities in reading the flow of power, which would make him a great leader, and instructs him to never trust others or let anyone touch him, for that could be dangerous. She also refers to common Grisha and otkazat'sya as being dust, for her son would easily outlive all of them, and tells him she would burn a thousand villages and kill a thousand people to keep him safe. He vowed to make a safe haven for Grisha, which was the seed of the Second Army, but eventually, his thirst for power overcame him and his cruelty increased until the creation of the Shadow Fold. Baghra no longer supported him, criticizing and opposing him in every decision, and ultimately betraying him. She told Alina about his past and true intentions and urged her to escape the Little Palace, believing he could still be redeemed if he wasn't successful in his evil plans. It cost her dearly, as he ended up blinding her as a punishment, but she didn't regret it. She sacrificed her own life as a distraction, and despite her son's efforts, he was unable to stop her suicide. Alina later feels him grieving through their link.
Shadow and Bone
- "You're the first glimmer of hope I've had in a long time." - p. 85
- "I've been waiting for you a long time, Alina. You and I are going to change the world." - p. 172
- "I told you that you were my answer. And you are." - p. 218
- "The problem with wanting is that it makes us weak." - p. 221
- "Did you tell him, Alina? Does the boy know how willing you were to give yourself to me? Did you tell him what I showed you in the dark?" - p. 302
- "I've given you power beyond all dreaming, and you can't wait to run off and keep house for your tracker." - p. 324
- "Fine, make me your villain." - p. 325
- "You'll tire of hate soon enough. You'll tire of everything. You will wear that collar for the rest of your very, very long life, Alina. Fight me as long as you're able. You will find I have far more practice with eternity." - p. 327
- "There are no Ravkans, no Fjerdans, no Kerch, no Shu Han. There are no more borders, and there will be no more wars. From now on, there is only the land inside the Fold and outside of it, and there will be peace." - p. 341
Siege and Storm
- "I'll be certain you hear it when I make her scream." - p. 57
- "I've seen what you truly are, and I've never turned away. Can he say the same?" - p. 413
- "We are alike, as no one else is, as no one else ever will be." - p. 418
Ruin and Rising
- "There are two thrones on that dais. You could see me anytime you liked." - p. 72
- "I sought Morozova's amplifiers for you, Alina, that we might rule as equals." - p. 72
- "You might make me a better man." - p. 73
- "You were meant to be my balance, Alina. You are the only person who might rule with me, who might keep my power in check."- p. 200
- "I will strip away all that you know, all that you love, until you have no other shelter but me." - p. 323
- "Don't let me be alone." - p. 384
- "Someone to mourn me." - p. 384
- "Speak my name once more." - p. 384
- The Darkling is the only Grisha allowed to wear black.
- Leigh mentioned in an interview that there were a lot of uncertainties at the end of Ruin and Rising, as well as certain deaths that are not necessarily forever.
- In When Water Sang Fire, there is a scholar around whom "the shadows seemed to shift as he passed, pulled along by him like a tide." This is definitely the Darkling because of all the Morozova references made such as the Sea Whip and the worn leather-bound journal he carries. The physical descriptions also match up perfectly with the Darkling’s. Bardugo has also mentioned that "one of the characters you've met from the Grishaverse does make a brief appearance" in the Language of Thorns collection.
- The Darkling could speak "fluent Shu and Kerch, and could pass as either".
- The Darkling has a half-sister named Ulla as revealed in The Language of Thorns.