Adapted from Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling fantasy series, Netflix’s Shadow and Bone is a massively engaging hit
Starring Jessie Mei Li, Archie Renaux, Freddy Carter, Amita Suman, Kit Young, Ben Barnes, and Zoë Wanamaker
There’s a lot about Shadow and Bone that feels like it should be familiar, and yet the product manages to be incredibly unique and utterly absorbing. An adaptation of a popular book series, within the Young Adult genre and standing alongside many other attempts by Netflix to launch epic fantasy series, there were many potential pratfalls for Shadow and Bone succeeding, but it excels within every comparison.
Book adaptations are deceptively tricky to get right. For every Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, there’s a Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; for every Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, there’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. While there’s understandable overlap between televisual and written narratives, narrative structure and pacing are far removed from each other. It simply just isn’t enough to create a carbon copy of a book on screen, nor does it behoove creatives to reinvent the source material too substantially else risk alienating the loyal, passionate fanbase.
Shadow and Bone comes from the Young Adult genre. In times gone by, around the time of massive franchises such as Twilight and Hunger Games, many other movies tried to gain the same success. Audience interest soon waned, however, resulting in Divergent, The Mortal Instruments and The Maze Runner not achieving quite as much cultural significance as either of these mammoth blockbuster hits. While Shadow and Bone features many familiar tropes of this genre, such as a love triangle and a Chosen One, it eschews expectation through its rich, well-realised and well-rounded universe and its highly three-dimensional, nuanced characters. It never feels as if plot twists come out of left field, but are rather thoroughly rooted within the history of the universe. Each action has a reason and a consequence, and it helps the other-worldly fantasy reality feel that much more real.
Shadow and Bone also joins a list of attempts by Netflix to create a fantasy anthology that rivals that of Game of Thrones and, despite The Witcher proving massively popular, other attempts such as Cursed and Fate: The Winx Saga have been less well-received.
Taking its name from Leigh Bardugo’s 2012 debut novel, which formed the first instalment in the Grisha Trilogy, Netflix’s Shadow and Bone not only adapts the events of this volume, but also incorporates characters from Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology, another series set in the same universe. It’s a canny move, allowing the writers greater freedom to play with the original material and give viewers who have a brilliant knowledge of Bardugo’s universe already extra Easter Eggs and allusions while also remaining accessible to newcomers.
Shadow and Bone takes place in the Russia-inspired land of Ravka, which is blighted by a magical terror: that of The Fold – a stretch of purest darkness, inhabited by vicious, terrifying creatures known as the volcra. The Fold separates Ravka in two: East and West Ravka, and is perilous to cross. Ravka also has a highly active army, who serve the King: The First Army, a more traditional fare, including soldiers, and the Second Army, which is made up of so-called Grisha, who are able to use magic. While Ravka uses its Grisha to fight, other countries in this universe have differing views: the Drüskelle are a team of Fjerdans who are specifically tasked with killing Grisha.
Serving in the First Army as a cartographer is Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), who purposefully gets herself on a ship across the Fold when she discovers that her childhood best friend, Malyen Oretsev (Archie Renaux) – otherwise known as Mal – has been chosen to cross to West Ravka. Inseparable since their shared upbringing in a Ravkan orphanage, Alina’s life forever changes when she reveals mysterious powers inside the Fold, revealing her as a foretold Sun Summoner, and perhaps the only person in the universe who could destroy the Fold once and for all.
When she is revealed as a Grisha, Alina is taken from the First Army and to the Little Palace in East Ravka where she will be trained in her abilities. Watching closely over her is the ominous and brooding General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), whose powers are the exact opposite of Alina’s. Yet there’s something about Kirigan that seems to entice Alina, and she finds herself increasingly drawn to him.
While all of this is fascinating enough, Eric Heisserer’s team also interpolated the group known as the Crows from Six of Crows, seamlessly weaving their history with that of Alina Starkov. A criminal group from Ketterdam, the capital of Kerch, the Crows are offered a sizeable prize should they kidnap Alina, which sends leader Kaz (Freddy Carter), skilled shooter Jesper (Kit Young) and spy Inej (Amita Suman) on a heist to steal Alina away from the most secure building in Ravka.
It’s a wise move by the writers. Not only does it give the series far more depth and lend such richness to the wider universe, but it also helps to balance out Alina’s story with other threads. With more character journeys juggled throughout the series, it means that none of the plotlines are in danger of stagnating, helping the series feel refreshing, pacy and engaging. The Crows also provide much needed levity, in particular wise-cracking and optimistic Jesper, even when Alina’s storyline becomes increasingly dour and intense.
The entire cast is absolutely sublime, such that it’s nearly impossible to single out particular performers. It’s undeniable that the success of the series is most keenly felt on Jessie Mei Li’s shoulders. As the chief protagonist, she has her work cut out for her. With Shadow and Bone being told from Alina’s perspective, there’s far more room for interpretation, but Mei Li lends Alina a steely inner strength, a lack of self confidence and a tremendous loyalty. While in many series, the Chosen One character ends up feeling the least enjoyable, Mei Li makes Alina tremendously likeable.
Ben Barnes also manages to add some much-needed nuance and complexity to his role as General Kirigan, who could easily have been played as more black-and-while when it comes to his morality. Barnes wisely keeps the audience guessing as to his character’s allegiance and inner feeling and manages the turns in his demeanour in a grounded and truthful way.
The Crows all contribute massively to the appeal of the series: Jesper is tremendously light hearted, Inej massively skilled, but torn in her desire for freedom, though also her sense of duty and obligation to Kaz. Perhaps out of all the core cast, the only character who feels somewhat lacking is Mal, who just appeals relentlessly “good”, while other characters tread a far more moral grey area.
Shadow and Bone massively benefits from having such a rich, detailed universe within Bardugo’s expanded works. From the costumes, to the sets, to even the language used by the characters, Ravka feels completely unlike other fantasy series. Netflix’s budget continues to shine, from the elaborate views to even the CGI regularly enhancing the storytelling and never proving jarring. At a nice length of 8 episodes, all of the plotlines nicely interact and bounce off each other. The pace never seems to lag and the ending keeps audiences wanting more.
While Netflix is yet to announce Shadow and Bone‘s fate, it’s safe to say that it created an assured first run that illustrates a faith and trust in Shadow and Bone‘s longevity. Here’s to many seasons more to come.
Shadow and Bone Season 1 is available to stream now on Netflix.