It is a truth universally acknowledged that a fairly high-budget genre show in possession of any fantasy elements must be referred to at least once as the “next Game of Thrones” – and so it’s been for Netflix’s long-awaited adaptation of Shadow and Bone, the first in a series of “Grishaverse” novels by American author Leigh Bardugo.
As is often the case the Westeros comparison isn’t particularly apt in this series, which follows a rather more traditional hero’s journey albeit in an intriguing setting (a sort of alternate “Tsarpunk” Russia and Asia) and with a compelling magic system that’s well brought to life onscreen.
Overall, as a series Shadow and Bone looks set to intrigue and satisfy fans – though it may be a little confusing for outsiders. Unusually, I got to see it from both perspectives. When I first began watching the series I was a complete neophyte, and was slightly buffeted and bewildered by the mass of worldbuilding and information presented to me.
However, after the fifth episode (incidentally, by far the strongest of the series) I had a long gap before watching the final three, in which time I went back and read Bardugo’s various Grishaverse books and began to grasp more of the detail that had eluded me the first time around. By the time I watched the remaining episodes, I was far more tuned in to what was going on – though as a downside, I was also more aware of the cuts and odd changes that had been made to the deeply entertaining books.
My conclusion? This is a series best arrived at fresh, but with someone sitting nearby who can explain any and all details that are confusing to you (thanks, Sarah). And to be fair, there’s quite a lot to get your head around.
To wit: Shadow in Bone is set primarily in a kingdom called Ravka, one of a few fictional nations (also including the Shu Han and Fjerda among others) where certain people have the ability to manipulate the elements. Called Grisha or the “Second Army”, these elite warriors can variously “summon” and manipulate forces (fire/water/air/light/shadow), “fabricate” items (specifically chemicals or metals, making them able to build complex machinery) or control the human body (healers, face-altering tailors or deadly heartrenders), and are feared and respected by outsiders.
Into this milieu is thrust our hero Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), who leads the Shadow and Bone cast as an orphaned mapmaker of little note who suddenly takes centre stage in Ravkan politics after she’s revealed to have latent Grisha abilities, specifically those of a Sun Summoner. However, unlike most other Grisha, her power is incredibly rare, with her mastery over light and the sun only whispered in legend.
And the reason she’s even more important? For generations, Ravka has been bisected by a mass of dark, roiling shadows filled with monsters, forming a kind of deadly ocean that’s extremely dangerous to cross. Called the Shadow Fold or the Unsea, it was created by a rogue Grisha centuries before – and now Alina could actually have a chance of destroying it, uniting both halves of Ravka and staving off a civil war. Assuming she can actually learn how to use her Grisha strengths, of course.
It’s a lot to take in – but for many fans, this background is only half the story. Because even while she’s being inducted into the world of the Grisha Alina’s thoughts are usually turning to the two men she’s fascinated by: her oldest friend and fellow orphan Mal (Archie Renaux), a tracker who she’s been in love with for years, and the mysterious and intriguing General Kirigan, played by Ben Barnes.
In the books, Kirigan is called The Darkling (an epithet only occasionally used to describe him in the show) but his backstory remains the same. Like Alina he’s an extremely rare Grisha, specifically a Shadow Summoner, whose ancestor created the Shadow Fold and who now leads the Grisha “Second Army”. Without giving too much away he’s a character of many contradictions, who Barnes (the best-known actor in the largely unknown cast) inhabits with a kind of flouncing excess that is very entertaining to watch.
In typical Young Adult literature fashion there’s a bit of a love triangle here which develops as the series continues, though there are a few bigger twists along the way that change how you see what’s come before (as much as possible, I’m avoiding spoilers here). Fans may also be happy to note that while Kirigan is fairly close to his book counterpart both Alina and Mal have been given a bit of an overhaul, making Mal a little less controlling and borderline unpleasant, while the meek Alina is given a bit more gumption, as well as a new subplot involving her Shu Han heritage.
Altogether, it makes this trio interesting to watch – though perhaps not the trio many viewers will be most interested in watching. And sorry if you’ve been scanning this review looking for the Crows, wondering when on earth I’d get to the characters you actually care about. They’re here now!
You see, Shadow and Bone’s Netflix adaptation also makes the surprising move of incorporating characters from Bardugo’s other Grishaverse books, from stories set in a different time period and location to the main Alina story.
Specifically, Shadow and Bone includes characters and material from the Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom duology, which stars a gang of charismatic thieves and con men hailing from an Amsterdam-esque city across the sea called Ketterdam. In the Netflix version of the story, we join three characters from that series – master thief Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), marksman Jesper Fahey (Kit Young) and acrobat/spy Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman) – a couple of years before we met them on the page, ready to spring a different heist that ties more closely into the main Shadow and Bone story.
It’s not hard to see why this was done – on the page, Shadow and Bone is a remarkably simple story, and including material from another series allows for more characters and subplots befitting a TV show. Plus, the “Crows” gang are incredibly popular characters, so it’s a definite boost for the series to feature them alongside Alina et al.
Still, in the series itself, the success of mixing both stories is, well, mixed. While there are some good performances among the Six of Crows gang (most notably Young’s Jesper, who feels like he leapt off the page) their grittier, more cynical world feels a little strange lying alongside Alina’s grand fantasy journey, a little like if the Mandalorian had joined Luke Skywalker in the attack on the Death Star.
When it works, it works – as noted, the fifth episode is an example of both parallel storylines working well together, rather neatly combining both worlds – but sometimes, the Six of Crows characters just feel shoehorned in and out of place. And it doesn’t help that some performances are a little less than stellar, feeling more like fans cosplaying as the characters than convincing onscreen versions in their own right.
This is a criticism that can be applied across the series as a whole – given how many relative newcomers there are in the cast, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise – and alongside some key changes to the source material that I won’t go into, it makes for a rather thinner experience than I had reading the books.
Of course, this is true in some respect of almost all book-to-TV adaptations. To bring us back to the ever-cited Game of Thrones, few would argue that David Benioff and Dan Weiss didn’t streamline, simplify and often radically rewrite George RR Martin’s text for the benefit and to the detriment of the story. But oddly, in the case of the more complex Shadow and Bone series the action and characterisation feels less convincing than it did in the simpler, less sprawling book story, almost like the rush to expand the story left it contracted in the ways that really matter.
In a way, then, perhaps Shadow and Bone could be another Game of Thrones – a series tricky for newcomers to follow entirely, while still less rich and involved than fans of the books would have come to expect. And of course, both full of romantically conflicted “Crows”.
Want more show content? Read our breakdown of the Shadow and Bone map.