In a post Game of Thrones world, fantasy TV shows are dominated by grimdark, pseudo-Medevial British worlds. Netflix’s new series, Shadow and Bone breaks the mold, introducing readers to a lush, Russian-inspired steampunk fantasy realm. A worthy adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s beloved Grishaverse novels (which span the Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows and King of Scars duologies), Shadow and Bone strikes a pitch-perfect balance between compelling characterization, exciting action sequences, and enchanting world-building. Whether you are a diehard fan of the books like me, or a newcomer to the Grishaverse, Netflix’s Shadow and Bone is an enthralling ride from start to finish.
Shadow and Bone takes place in Ravka, a fictional nation inspired by tsarist Russia, where individuals known as Grisha have the power to manipulate elements such as wind, fire, metal, and human bodies. For centuries, Ravka has been split in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of pure darkness crawling with flesh-eating monsters called Volcra. Pinned in on either side by enemies, Ravkans have no choice but to risk crossing the Fold if they want to move from the Eastern to the Western side of the country. The situation has been devastating for Ravka’s economic and industrial development, costing many lives and leaving their country increasingly vulnerable. But everything changes when Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a lowly mapmaker in Ravka’s First Army, discovers that she has the power to summon sunlight on her first crossing of the Fold.
In mere moments, Alina goes from being a disposable nobody to the center of her world: the long-rummored Sun Summoner with the power to banish the Fold for good. Soon, there’s a bounty on Alina’s head and a gang of criminals–Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young)–on her tail. General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), leader of Ravka’s all-Grisha Second Army and a powerful sorcerer with the ability to summon shadows, whisks Alina away to train to use her powers at the Little Palace so that she might one day destroy the Fold. Separated from her childhood friend and closest confidante, Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux), Alina is thrust into a world of political intrigue where it is difficult to distinguish between friend and foe.
Readers of Shadow and Bone will know that the Netflix series diverges from the books quite a bit, introducing characters from Six of Crows, a book that takes place several years after the events of Shadow and Bone, into the TV show’s story. If Shadow and Bone is a dark and complex yet gorgeous take on a classic chosen one story, Six of Crows is a fantasy crime caper, a grittier, more grounded saga that combines elements of classic heist stories like Ocean’s Eleven with magic and mobsters.
Like many readers, I was both excited and apprehensive to see how the TV show would change the Grishaverse’s timeline and combine these tonally very different stories. I’m happy to say that, for the most part, Netflix’s Shadow and Bone sticks the landing effortlessly, bringing Kaz, Inej, and Jesper (Remember the gang of criminals I mentioned earlier? They’re ½ of the group that will become the Six of Crows) into Alina’s story in a way that is incredibly exciting but does not feel contrived or hamfisted. Viewers even get a subplot revolving around Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan), a Grisha spy, and Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman), a witch hunter from Ravka’s rival nation Fjerda, two more key characters from Six of Crows.
Shadow and Bone has a LOT of heavy-lifting to do when it comes to world-building– introducing audiences to a vast fantasy realm with its own magic system, languages, politics, and geography– but the show pulls it off with grace. Viewers are given exactly as much information as they need and nothing more. Shadow and Bone trusts its audience enough to leave some details unexplained rather than bowling them over with exposition. There are lots of fun allusions to characters’ backstories and hints at future moments from the books for fans, but the story stands on its own without that knowledge.
Another notable change to Shadow and Bone is that, while Alina and Mal are both simply described as Ravkans in the trilogy, in the series they are half-Shu (Shu Han is a rival nation inspired by China and Mongolia that borders Ravka to the South) and played by biracial actors. This adds an additional layer of commentary on xenophobia and racism to the show’s already nuanced exploration of power and privilege. It is both refreshing and groundbreaking to watch a fantasy series where the protagonists are not all white men and heroism (and anitheroism and villainy too!) comprises a range of different races, genders, sexualities, and body types. Furthermore, it is nice to see the feminist spirit of Bardugo’s books kept alive in the show’s depiction of an array of flawed-yet-humanized, complex female characters, each of whom are strong and powerful in different ways.
Clearly, Shadow and Bone was made to be binged, with propulsive pacing and ever-increasing stakes that make its eight episodes, each of which are around one hour, speed by. With a cliffhanger ending that perfectly sets up a potential second season, many viewers will likely feel that Shadow and Bone is over all too soon. However, the show is so detailed and full of story that it readily invites multiple viewings while audiences wait for news on a second season. Which, if the show’s lengthy stint at #1 most watched on Netflix around the globe is any indication, should hopefully be coming soon.