Television adaptations of fantasy books tend to have a bad reputation. Many fans of such novels are so protective of their favorite characters and storylines that there is added pressure for studios to get the story right. So when Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling novel Shadow and Bone was first announced to be made into a television series for Netflix, all eyes were on showrunner and executive producer Eric Heisserer to bring this world to life in a way that would do it justice. Heisserer took on the difficult task to not only adapt Shadow and Bone into eight episodes, but to also include the characters from Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology, which is set at a different point in time in the novels. With Bardugo consulting on the script and phenomenal casting, Shadow and Bone is absolutely remarkable.
At the start of the series, we are immediately introduced to the world of Ravka through the eyes of army mapmaker and orphan Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li). “I live in East Ravka, but I’ve never been welcomed here,” says Alina, who is part Shu. “Because I looked like my mother and she looked like the enemy.” Alina became an orphan after her parents were killed during the Border Wars between Ravka and Shu Han. Many of the children at the orphanage lost their parents because of this war, which explains why Alina is bullied so much. Fortunately, Alina isn’t alone in her journey. She has always had her childhood friend, Mal (Archie Renaux), who serves as a tracker for the army. The chemistry between the two ‘best friends’ is instant and natural. It’s hard to deny the attraction and sincerity between the two and all within the first ten minutes of the series.
We are also introduced to the Grisha army, which consists of superpowered humans who have the ability to summon the elements. The first episode introduces the three types of Grisha: Summoners, who control elements like water, wind and fire; Corporalki, who can manipulate the human body; and Fabrikators, who work with chemicals or solid matter to invent magical items. It is obvious there is tension between the humans of the First Army and the Grisha of the Second Army, controlled by General Kirigan aka The Darkling (played by the alluring Ben Barnes). But the armies share a common goal: to find a way to get rid of the mysterious and dangerous Shadow Fold, a monstrous shadow filled with creatures that splits the country of Ravka into two separate lands. But legend has it that only the Sun Summoner can destroy the fold from within.
Alina and Mal are assigned a quest through the Fold to provide goods to the people of West Ravka. The journey through the Fold proves difficult as many are killed off by the volcra, the creatures of the Fold. When Mal is attacked, Alina rushes to his side only to be attacked by the volcra as well. This is when Alina begins to radiate light from her body, causing the volcra to flee and saving the rest of the crew. It turns out that Alina is the legendary Sun Summoner.
Once Alina is found out to be Grisha and forced to train at the Little Palace, the Grisha training grounds under General Kirigan’s care, the story gets even better. We are introduced to the Crows from the Six of Crows duology, which enhances the Shadow and Bone storyline. The writing on this series doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to both the Grishaverse and Crows character development. When we are introduced to the Crows — Kaz (Freddy Carter), Inej (Amita Suman), and Jesper (Kit Young), there is an immediate charm radiating from their presence. Although one could say Young was the standout performer from the series, it is only because of his charismatic chemistry with Carter and Suman. Fans need not worry about how their beloved Crows are portrayed as all three actors perfectly embody what makes the characters so loved from the novels. Even viewers who have never read the books will find these characters absolutely delicious.
I cannot stress enough how strong the chemistry is between all the characters, including Alina’s relationship with Kirigan. The thought of Alina being in love with anyone else other than Mal in the series is difficult to bear, but with Barnes as the seductive Shadow Grisha, it’s pretty easy to feel the attraction and passion for the Darkling. Barnes exudes sexual appeal as the character to the point where it may leave fans feeling feverish. It’s no wonder that Barnes was everyone’s fan choice for the role. But the series’ true relationship comes in the form of Mal and Alina’s companionship. While I usually despise romance in a heroine’s journey, Mal and Alina’s camaraderie feels earned and is carried throughout their childhood to now as they always find a way to get back to each other. In an early scene, the night before Mal has to board the ship to cross the Fold, Alina tells Mal to be careful and to come back if anything goes wrong. In one of the most touching moments in the series, Mal tells her, “I’ll find my way back to you. Promise.” Reader, I felt so many romantic emotions in that moment. For fans of the Harry Potter series, this felt like the equivalent to–or maybe even stronger than–the “Always” moment when Snape reveals his patronus to Dumbledore.
In addition to the romance and the adventure, the series also touches on the idea of being other. As a person of mixed heritage, Alina cannot avoid the discrimination and harassment that comes with her appearance. Even when she is discovered to have powers that could change the world, she is constantly reminded that she is different. The constant question of “what are you” comes up by multiple characters as she questions her identity as both mixed-Shu and Grisha. In the end, Alina is able to figure out who she is in a very satisfying conclusion that still leaves viewers wanting more. Seeing as the story only covers one of the books from the trilogy, we will hopefully see more of these characters and the expansive world of the Grishaverse.
With the world being set in 19th century Imperial Russia with an Eurasian feel to the design, the costume designs in the series are absolutely stunning. Differentiating each individual kefta worn by different types of Grisha, costume designer Wendy Partridge really outdid herself on the details. It wouldn’t surprise me if the series is nominated for Outstanding Costumes for a Series in the next round of Emmy nominations.
Although I am enthusiastic about the series, Shadow and Bone is not perfect. At moments, the CGI felt off, especially for the creatures of the series. I just didn’t feel as afraid of them as I should have been. The simple special effects — such as creating a gust of wind or the sun beams from Alina’s skin — worked well. Thankfully, with the exception of Kirigan who uses his shadow powers as weapons, the Grisha do not require much CGI. They really just require good acting skills.
In the end, Heisserer was able to take two beloved books and meld them into eight episodes without taking away what makes those characters so loved. It is an ambitious feat, but the world is well-conceived and the writing never falters. Shadow and Bone is definitely worth the watch.
Rating: 5/5 stars
Shadow and Bone premieres on April 23 on Netflix.