Featuring stellar performances, Netflix’s Shadow and Bone merges the stories and characters of “Shadow and Bone” and ”Six of Crows” to create something different, yet true to the Grishaverse.
It’s never easy to transpose a beloved book series onto the screen, especially if the novels in question take place in a world that is so utterly original, detailed and vast that each book begins with definitions and maps that are meant to help you navigate what fans now know as the “Grishaverse” — a universe that spans over many countries, and that is populated by orphans, soldiers, royals, criminals, and a magical military elite divided into many, many orders.
If you’ve read Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy and Six of Crows duology, you already know that the elite in question is the Grisha, also known as the “Soldiers of the Second Army”, and their Orders take on the most unusual, intriguing names. There’s the Corporalki, the highest ranking Grisha, who wear red uniforms (or, as they call them, keftas) and can do anything from stopping your heart (“Heartrenders”) to healing you (“Healers”) and changing your appearance (“Tailors”). The blue-clothed Etherealki have the ability to either summon fire (“Inferni”), create storms (“Squallers”), or control water (“Tidemakers”), while the purple-clothed Materialki either craft armors (“Durasts”) or concuct poisons (“Alkemi”). And then there’s the Head of the Second Army, and the only one who’s permitted to wear black: General Kirigan, played by Ben Barnes in the series. He’s a Shadow Summoner, but we’ll get to that later.
The Grisha serve the kingdom of Ravka, a nation that is held together by a very delicate balance. Not only is Ravka torn apart by civil unrest, but it is also quite literally split into two by a “bleak and shapeless cloud” of darkness populated by disfigured, deadly monsters, the volcra. But The Shadow Fold, or The Unsea, isn’t just a terrifying tear of darkness whose origins are unclear and that not many dare cross: it’s also constantly growing, erasing entire cities, and slowly but inexorably threatening Ravka’s future. And, if the kingom itself is divided in more than one way — with its capital, Os Alta, located East of the Fold, its main trade port, Os Kervo, west of the Fold, and entire cities, such as Kribirsk and Novokribirsk, divided in two by the Fold — the Unsea is not the only threat to the Grishas’ survival.
Many are the neighbouring kingdoms threatening the order: to the North, the nation of Fjerda trains holy soldiers (drüskelle) to become witchhunters and fight the Second Order; to the South, Shu Han, a country of mercenaries, intends to steal Grisha powers. And then there are Kerch, whose capital, Ketterdam, is a hub of international trade filled with criminals, and Novyi Zem, the safest place in the Grishaverse, home to many non-magical people (the otkazat’sya) who managed to flee Ravka.
So why am I telling you all this? Because, if you’re not familiar with the books, you’re going to need a quick crash course to the Grishaverse if you want to appreciate Netflix’s Shadow and Bone for the remarkable adaptation it is. Leigh Bardugo’s intriguing world is populated by fascinating characters and gorgeous locations, but it is also incredibly vast, filled with characters that are not only situated across many kingdoms but also constantly travelling from one to the other, and dense with unfamiliar vocabulary whose meaning is likely to get lost if you haven’t been initiated to this universe. The good news, however, is that, as soon as you familiarise with the geographical locations of Ravka, Fjerda, Shu Han, Ketterdam and the many cities mentioned in the show, and become acquainted with the Grisha’s ranks, magical powers, uniform colours and vocabulary, you’re going to adore Shadow and Bone.
Netflix’s Shadow and Bone
Just like the first novel of Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling trilogy, also called “Shadow and Bone”, Netflix‘s series revolves around Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li, of Last Night in Soho), a soldier who lost her parents to the Fold during the war, and who works as a cartographer in Ravka’s First Army — the kingdom’s first line of defense against bordering nations, and the only army made of otkazat’syas, non-magical soldiers. But there’s something else that differentiates Alina from the other soldiers, something she carries with her at all times, and that constantly earns her the scorn and distrust of her fellow Ravkans: not only was our protagonist born on the border between Ravka and Shu Han, two nations at war with one another, but she is also half-Ravkan and half-Shu. Life is not always easy in a war-torn world when “your mother looked like the enemy”, and Alina knows that all-too-well, having struggled her whole life to find a place where she can truly belong.
When we first meet our protagonist, she is about to embark on a relatively safe mission with her best friend, Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux, of Voyagers), who’s also a soldier in the First Army. But their mission gets sidetracked, and they soon find themselves on a journey to the West, through the Fold, in the company of powerful Etherealki Zoya Nazyalensky (Sujaya Dasgupta, of I May Destroy You) and more Grishas. Needless to say, the journey through this terrifying “darkness” has its own perils, and Alina and Mal soon come face to face with the very real monsters living in it. But something unexpected happens: just when all seems to be lost, Alina somehow unleashes an extraordinary power — a raw, uncontrollable force she didn’t even know she had, that comes in the form of blinding rays of light pouring out of her. And so, the confused girl is separated from Mal — the only “home” she has ever known — and taken back to East Ravka, to the only person who might be able to find out what she is: General Kirigan (Ben Barnes, of Westworld and Jackie & Ryan), otherwise known as The Darkling.
Alina’s encounter with the Darkling confirms that she has the power to summon light, which is the exact opposite of what the General can do, since he’s a Shadow Summoner — a Grisha who can manipulate darkness. Not only that, but it’s also a kind of ability that no one else possesses, and that has always been associated with legends, rather than reality. As news spread in the kingdom that a “Sun Summoner” — in their eyes, the key to destroying the Fold — might have been found, Alina soon realises that she might have more in common with the Darkling than she thought she would. Not only is General Kirigan the only Grisha whose power matches her own, he’s also the only one who would seem to understand what it’s like to have the country’s hopes, and faith, rest on one person alone — a person who doesn’t even want to possess that kind of magic.
And so, just like in the novel, Alina is taken to Ravka’s capital, Os Alta, to begin her training as a Grisha, with the powerful but strict Grisha trainer Baghra (Zoë Wanamaker, of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) as a teacher, and soon has to deal with the expectations of a nation, as well as the not entirely welcoming world of the Royal Palace she now calls her home — a place where nothing is what it seems and no one is who they say they are.
The “Six of Crows” Gang
But Alina’s disadventures are only a fraction of what happens in Shadow and Bone. If Netflix’s series successfully captures the magical atmosphere of Bardugo’s “Shadow and Bone” novel, it also differs from it in many ways, starting from the fact that Alina’s storyline is not the only narrative thread in this spectacular show. An array of compelling characters and intriguing worlds that are unknown to Alina are also introduced in Episode 1, and those characters come from the first novel of another book series altogether, Bardugo’s “Six of Crows” duology.
And so, while Alina attempts to come to terms with her newfound abilities, we travel to the criminal underworld of Ketterdam, a Tortuga-reminiscent hub with a western feel where everyone is constantly trying to outsmart the other. There, we meet charismatic, cane-holding criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter, of Pennyworth and Wonder Woman), dangerous spy Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman, of Doctor Who) and witty sharpshooter Jesper Fahey (Kit Young, of National Theatre Live: A Midsummer Night’s Dream). But Kaz, Inaj and Jesper won’t stay in Ketterdam for long, as they’re on a journey of their own – an adventure that involves wealthy merchants, shady businessmen, and money to be made, and that might even take them closer to our favourite Ravkan soldiers.
But that’s not all: on entirely different missions are also Fjerdan witch hunter (drüskelle) Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman) and kind, magnetic Heartrender/spy Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan, of Game of Thrones), two very different people, each raised to despise the other, whose destinies are bound to eventually intersect.
Combining the “Shadow and Bone” trilogy and the “Six of Crows” duology into one series was a bold, ambitious choice on the part of showrunner/executive producer/writer Eric Heisserer (Arrival, Bird Box) and novelist Leigh Bardugo (who also executive produced the show), even more so considering that the events depicted in “Six of Crows” take place years after the end of the “Shadow and Bone” trilogy. When they wrote the script for the series, not only did Heisserer and Bardugo face the challenge of transposing the events of one book onto the screen in a way that was accurate and true to the novel: they also had to create a completely new story – a prequel to “Six of Crows” – and make the show feel cohesive as a whole. Ultimately, their risktaking certainly paid off, as Shadow and Bone absolutely works.
Why Shadow and Bone Works
Somehow, Heisserer accomplished the impossible task of creating a show that is, at the same time, completely different from the novels and one hundred percent true to the Grishaverse. Even though Shadow and Bone focuses on at least three very separate narrative threads, it still manages to hold our attention through eight fast-paced episodes that are as action-packed as they are full of surprises. Thanks to the show’s captivating, stunning worldbuilding, its many unexpected twists, and a screenplay that gives each character a chance to shine, you’d never tire of watching Shadow and Bone‘s well-rounded, believable protagonists regardless of whether they’re off to save a kingdom or simply having a conversation.
Shadow and Bone‘s fantastic cast plays a huge role in the show’s success, starting from Jessie Mei Li, who gives us a protagonist who might be struggling to understand who she is and where she belongs, but who is still fierce, opinionated, and the opposite of helpless. Throughout the series, not only does Alina often find herself dealing with demanding royals, unfriendly Grishas and a whole lot of expectations from friends and enemies, but she’s constantly reminded that she doesn’t look like she should belong in Ravka — or anywhere else, for that matter — by everyone’s reactions to her being half-Shu. Having been born in England to an English mother and a Chinese father, Mei Li knows exactly what that’s like, and expertly weaves these emotions into a character whose diversity makes her stronger. Even if Alina is often alone, in an unfamiliar world and far away from the only person she has ever relied on, she doesn’t need anyone to rescue her and to tell her who she is. Alina grows and finds herself on her own, earning her rightful place in the fight for Ravka’s freedom, and ultimately becoming who she needs to be in a way that is entirely her own, and we are always with her on this journey.
As the enigmatic General Kirigan, Ben Barnes is exceptional. An expert at tackling characters who are often neither bad nor good, but somewhere in between, Barnes effortlessly shows us the many sides of a man who can be highly authoritative, incredibly charming, and even, at times, surprisingly tender, all at the same time. It’s through nearly imperceptible facial expressions and movements that The Darkling demands your attention, even more so when he’s with Alina. The chemistry between Barnes and Mei Li is undeniable, and, even if the two don’t often appear together, those scenes are more than enough to effectively transport you to their world, your eyes glued to the screen and your heart wishing for an entire show revolving on those two alone.
But Barnes and Mei Li aren’t Shadow and Bone‘s only standouts. Amita Suman excels at showing us the many sides of Inej, another fierce female character with a troubled past who grows a great deal during the series and never fails to have our sympathies. Freddy Carter is magnetic as charismatic criminal Kaz, conveying to us all those emotions that the character keeps hidden, and making us care a great deal for a resourceful man who won’t let his disability — the reason why he limps and needs to rely on a cane to walk — define him, nor make him any less dangerous. Kit Young provides a great deal of comic relief as Jesper, ensuring our favourite trio’s misadventures are always enthralling and never boring, showing us a character who shines with humanity but who also has his own demons to deal with.
Though Grisha trainer Baghra has a very limited screentime, Zoë Wanamaker imbues her with enough intensity to make her every scene memorable, and, while heartrender Nina Zenik and drüskelle Matthias Helvar only make an appearance in the latter part of the show, Danielle Galligan and Calahan Skogman make their respective characters both intriguing and incredibly relatable. Mal Oretsev is probably the character who benefited the least of the show’s format, as, perhaps to leave room for the “Six of Crows” gang, Alina’s childhood friend doesn’t feature in as many scenes as fans of the novels might expect, and the little screentime he has often finds him writing letters to Alina that are undoubtedly the least engaging part of the show. However, Archie Renaux manages to earn our sympathies nonetheless, and makes up for the lack of screentime with more than one memorable scene towards the end of the show.
Also remarkable are Shadow and Bone‘s special effects. Some of the magic on display in the show is subtle, like the Heartrenders slowing or speeding up someone’s heartbeat, or the Squallers controlling the wind to manoeuvre the skiffs crossing the Fold. But there’s also that kind of magic that requires spectacular worldbuilding, and Shadow and Bone has plenty of that. From the look of the disfigured monsters that inhabit the Fold to a Ketterdam that looks so realistic that you can almost touch it, the series has plenty of frightening magical creatures and fascinating locations, crafted with such accuracy that more and more details will emerge with every watch. But it’s the Grishas’ displays of their abilities that will impress you the most, starting with Kirigan’s power to summon a kind of darkness that seductively, yet implacably, envelops everything around him, soon making its way to our own reality.
Since Shadow and Bone originates from two very distinct series of novels, Netflix’s show was bound to be different from the books, and there’s no denying that, had Bardugo and Heisserer opted to tackle one novel at a time, they would have enabled viewers who are unfamiliar with the Grishaverse to get properly acquainted with its many characters, locations and customs, as well as its vocabulary. However, if viewers are willing to do a little research before pressing play, they’ll be enthralled by a riveting, stunning series whose every character deserves a spin-off of their own, and whose magical locations will inhabit your mind long after the credits roll. A delight for fans of the novels and a pleasant surprise for the uninitiated, Shadow and Bone‘s Season 1 is breathtaking, binge-worthy storytelling, and a worthy adaptation of Bardugo’s beloved novels.
Season 1 of Shadow and Bone premiered globally on April 23, 2021. Read our review of Season 2 of Shadow and Bone.