From Alina’s childhood memories of Keramzin to the menacing Fold that pervades the characters’ lives, the first few moments of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone makes it clear that this show not only understands the source material but has successfully elevated and enhanced the characters and overall world. The series, like the books it’s based on, is compelling and propulsive, taking viewers on remarkably human and fantastical eight-episode journey.
Shadow and Bone is set in a world at war. For Ravka, a fragile country inspired by Czarist Russia, hope for its people exists in the destruction of the Shadow Fold, a swath of terrible and deadly darkness that has split the country in two. Ravka depends on its Grisha—elite soldiers with powers from their practice the Small Sciences. Their abilities shift and manipulate matter to protect them and keep the darkness at bay.
The country needs a miracle and one that General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), leader of the Grisha, is desperate to provide. When army cartographer, Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) enters the Shadow Fold along with her best friend and tracker, Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux), her power—the ability to summon light—saves them from the Fold’s deadly pterodactyl-like Volcra.
Alina finds out that she is a Sun Summoner, the rarest of Grisha and equal only to General Kirigan, as a Shadow Summoner. Together, he tells her, they can banish the Fold and save Ravka.
Soon, Alina is whisked off to the Little Palace, the most secure place in all of Ravka, where she will be trained on how to defend herself and how to wield her power. Isolated and alone, Alina struggles to gain control over her power with the help of Baghra (Zoë Wanamaker), a Grisha trainer. At the heart of her struggle is the denial of the gift, just another thing that makes her an “other” and apart from Mal, the boy she grew up with at the orphanage in Keramzin.
Parallel to Alina and Mal’s story, viewers are introduced to a motley crew of con-artists, thieves, and sharp-shooters in a city called Ketterdam, in a country bordering Ravka’s western border. The gang is made up of the brilliant and ruthless Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), the loyal and masterful, Inej (Amita Suman), also known as the Wraith, and brilliant and delightful sharpshooter, Jesper (Kit Young).
Viewers also meet Grisha Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan) and a Fjerdan witch-hunter known as a Druskelle, Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman), who must work together to survive after a shipwreck, despite being mortal enemies. We’re given less time with these two then the others across the eight episodes, but their storyline is intriguing and ties in well to the overall narrative.
Though I was initially skeptical of how the two book series—Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows—would come together, I was pleasantly surprised by how they seamlessly blended both casts of characters. The story shifted into a plausible melding of the timelines and one that new viewers and established fans can both appreciate. The pacing of the narratives also perfectly built up to the final inevitable confrontations that made the wait more than worth it.
Soon after the title card, in the first scenes, we learn of two things: that this world is full of darkness and that Alina is considered and sees herself as an outsider. “I’ve never been welcome here,” she says of Ravka. “I looked like my mother and she looked like the enemy.” Alina is part Shu, one of Ravka’s bordering countries that they are in conflict with. Her features are remarked upon often, and I thought this was a timely, if too real and upsetting commentary. Even in a fantasy world where Grisha maintain power over matter and the elements, racism persists in all its ugliness.
Much of these powerful moments are owed to Jessie Mei Li’s terrific performance. She has incredible chemistry with everyone she acted with and truly embodies Alina as book fans imagined her to be. She has Alina’s sarcasm and wryness that I loved in the books. Ben Barnes’ performances also deserve recognition, as he is the perfect General Kirigan, playing up the moral ambiguity and weight of his character. Freddy Carter, Amita Suman and Kit Young all deserve heaps of praise for their portrayals of some of the most beloved characters in YA fiction.
Particularly, Kaz Brekker is a difficult character. Although he is well loved by readers, they also experienced his arc and point-of-view over the course of two books. How would Freddy Carter complete a nuanced performance and endear viewers to a character who, on the outside, is just a brooding teenage criminal up to no good? I was impressed by how much depth Carter gave Kaz in a few episodes. And his chemistry with the other Dregs in his gang was also fantastic.
To that point, I don’t remember the books being quite as funny but points should be awarded to the moments of levity among all the dark. Kit Young’s Jesper was so spot on, that I wish we could just watch eight more episodes of him interacting and reacting to everything. Shout out to his very fun scenes with Milo the goat.
Leigh Bardugo has referred to this world as “Tsarpunk” for its Eastern culture and steampunk influence. This was definitely reflected in the overall feel of the show, from the set designs, backdrops, and costumes that also provided the right ambiance and atmosphere. The grit and darkness of this world reflects the one described in the book series. That said, it is hard to overlook some of the overdone visual effects in the beginning episodes where Alina uses her power. Her glowing white face as she encountered her Sun Summoner powers and later when she used them jarred me out of the story, where otherwise it was hard to look away. As the episodes progressed, so did the look of Alina’s ability (and other Grisha’s) appeared.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a human story about love amid the darkness, about found family and finding your people and persisting despite the odds. This comes across in the way the relationships take center stage in the show. Mal and Alina’s bond is not only believable but endearing and something you root for throughout each episode. The Dregs’ camaraderie make every moment that they are on screen together so fun to watch. Credito also goes to showrunner Eric Heisserer and Bardugo for picking the best of the books and transforming them for the screen. Viewers will be delighted and captivated by the ways these characters orbit each other and collide.
As a fan of the series, I felt that I was given a gift. It was absolutely incredible to see these unforgettable characters come to life and to get more time with them since finishing the books. It felt like bonus that I didn’t know I needed. I am grateful as a reader and fan to have enjoyed this show so much, and I cannot wait for the next season. I know that established readers of the Grishaverse will love this series, and new viewers won’t be disappointed. And like with Bridgerton, Netflix has set a new standard for all literary adaptations. I can only hope that they plan on adapting more brilliant young adult fantasy, especially from BIPOC and diverse authors with the skill and care given to Shadow and Bone. Until then, I will be eagerly awaiting season two!
Shadow and Bone is available on Netflix globally on April 23rd.