Shadow and Bone is a masterful interweaving of Bardugo’s stories, with captivating characters set amidst a beautifully realized fantasy world.
Based on the popular Grishaverse novels by Leigh Bardugo, Netflix’s Shadow and Bone brings the fantasy world filled with powerful Grisha to life with stunning clarity. Created by Arrival and Bird Box writer Eric Heisserer, the eight-episode season follows Bardugo’s first novel in the Shadow and Bone trilogy, but includes characters from the Six of Crows duology as well – with their story in the show set before the events of that first book. As such, Shadow and Bone is a mixture of storylines that will be familiar to fans of Bardugo’s books as well as to those completely new to the series. Shadow and Bone is a masterful interweaving of Bardugo’s stories, with captivating characters set amidst a beautifully realized fantasy world.
Shadow and Bone season 1 follows Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a simple cartographer serving in the Ravkan army who, after her and her childhood best friend Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux) are attacked in the Shadow Fold, discovers she’s a Sun Summoner – a Grisha with the ability to summon and wield light. As a type of Grisha so rare they weren’t believed to be real, Alina is quickly taken under the protection of General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), who himself has the rare power to summon darkness. But together he believes they’ll be able to destroy the Shadow Fold, a blight of darkness separating Ravka from the rest of the country. Meanwhile, gang member Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) learns of a lucrative thieving job that requires he cross the Fold, enlisting his most trusted accomplices: sharpshooter Jesper (Kit Young) and the wraith-like spy Inej (Amita Suman). A third storyline follows the Grisha Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan) who’s captured by an elite Fjerdan soldier named Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman).
Because the characters of Shadow and Bone are spread so far out across the world (and, in the books, throughout the timeline), Heisserer was faced with no small feat to tell a complete and cohesive story. Bringing the Crows to Ravka to cross the Fold and establishing a link between Nina and General Kirigan’s Grisha army are smart ways to connect the disparate story threads, though it requires some changes to certain aspects of the books that fans may take issue with. Still, for much of Shadow and Bone’s first season, the characters are spread far and wide, forcing the story to jump around in terms of setting and tone. While Alina is following the now-archetypal journey of a YA heroine who must save the world, the Crows are sneaky criminals who pull off multiple heists. Then there’s Nina and Matthias, who confront the Fjerdans’ prejudices against Grisha, whom they try and execute as witches. Though it can feel a little disjointed at times, Shadow and Bone cleverly uses the world to unify the stories so that they become different perspectives set within that world.
What also helps to keep viewers engaged are the strong characters and the performances from the main cast. Li has perhaps the biggest role as Alina, and she carries off the YA heroine well enough. Still, Alina is sometimes overshadowed by the characters she’s surrounded by, though Li manages to hold her own. Barnes as Kirigan is magnetic and fascinating, playing the tortured character exceptionally well, evoking sympathy and fear at all the right moments. Renaux is also extremely charming as Mal, bringing a balance to Li’s portrayal of Alina that gives the characters’ relationship a tender quality. As for the Crows and Nina and Matthias, while they’re given a little less to work with, they’re just as compelling, with Young a particular standout as the roguish Jesper. He plays the mischievous foil to Carter’s Kaz and Suman’s Inej, both of whom are more serious (though about very different things), but all three have plenty of fun moments and their friendship is a highlight of the season. Lastly, Galligan and Skogman have plenty of chemistry as the antagonistic Nina and Matthias and their scenes, though most removed from the rest of the action, are a delight to watch as the characters engage in plenty of verbal sparring.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of Shadow and Bone is the fantasy world Bardugo, Heisserer and the rest of the team have created for these characters and their stories to play in. Part of this comes from the groundwork laid by Bardugo in her novels – the mythology of the Grisha and the Fold as well as the politics of Ravka, Fjerda and Kerch is all well-established in the books. But the way in which the world is brought to life, from the texture of Alina’s Sun Summoner powers to the gritty setting of Ketterdam, it helps the audience become completely entrenched in the Shadow and Bone world – and it’s an enchanting world. Heisserer has seen to every detail of the show down to the intricate designs of the Grisha’s keftas and it pays off by giving Shadow and Bone a distinct look and feel that’s uniquely Grishaverse. Though it’s unclear what the budget of Shadow and Bone was, they used every penny to make sure the various Grisha powers and the world looks exceptionally real and tangible.
All told, Shadow and Bone is a thrillingly exciting fantasy drama, with some moments of levity weaved in to create an all around entertaining season of television. Because the first season is a mixture of new and known stories, there’s something for fans and Grishaverse newcomers alike; even those that have read the books will find plenty to discover in Heisserer’s series. In fact, Shadow and Bone may even deepen fans’ appreciation for Bardugo’s novels. And with the Shadow and Bone season 1 ending paving the way for plenty more story – including the main plot of the Six of Crows novels – this is just the beginning of what could be another fantasy hit for Netflix. Given the charming characters, compelling actors and well-crafted world, Shadow and Bone is worth a watch (and a rewatch).
Next: Shadow & Bone Trailer
Shadow and Bone premieres Friday, April 23 on Netflix.
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