Leigh Bardugo’s beloved Grishaverse series, which started with the Shadow and Bone Trilogy (published 2012-2014) and continued with the paired books Six of Crows (2015)/Crooked Kingdom (2016) and King of Scars (2019)/Rule of Wolves (2021) has now been adapted into a big-budget Netflix show, hoping to replicate the success of Game of Thrones, The Witcher and His Dark Materials. Although called Shadow and Bone, it has incorporated Six of Crows (which centres around a trio of thieves and a heist plotline) into the story of the first book, centred around two orphans – Alina and Mal – and a villain known as The Black Heretic. Given that the two Six of Crows books seem to be the fan favourite and more acclaimed of the series, this was probably a wise decision. The series is set in a world not unlike ours, with thinly-veiled versions of real countries in the Northern, cold climates – there is Ravka (based on Russia), Fjerda (based on Scandinavia), Shu Han (based on Mongolia/China) and Ketterdam (based on Amsterdam). The world is divided by a mysterious dark force known as The Fold, which was created by the Black Heretic – crossing The Fold on skiffs (ships) is treacherous and it is accepted that there is a high fatality rate.
Eric Heisserer, writer of Arrival and Bird Box, is the showrunner and Lee Toland Krieger (director of The Age of Adaline) directs a couple of episodes, which is perhaps a small clue that romance is going to feature (but more of that later). The world building needs to be a big selling point in any fantasy series and a good job is done here, with Ketterdam being a convincing hive of villainy and the Little Palace in Revka being suitably sumptuous. Packing more than one book’s worth of history, context and mythology into an eight episode season was always going to be unwieldy though and it does lead to some clunky exposition-filled scenes where a LOT of information is conveyed. There is a whole host of lore surrounding the Grisha, much of which is delivered by The Apparat (Kevin Eldon). The Grisha are an army of people with magic abilities including healers, heartrenders (who can affect other people’s internal organs), squallers (who can manipulate the wind) and inferni (who can manipulate fire).
This season (presuming that there will probably be more) revolves around Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) – an orphan who grew up in Ravka with her best friend Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux). Alina is part-Shu and she is ostracized and vilified for this – something that is going to strike an uncomfortable chord, considering the recent Anti-Asian attacks in the US. Alina grows up to become a cartographer and Mal grows up to become a tracker (both in the Ravkan army) and one day, they must cross the dreaded Fold. Meanwhile a trio of thieves in Ketterdam (the crows) – Kaz (Freddy Carter), Jesper (Kit Young) and Inej (Amita Suman) are plotting a heist in order to make a million kruge. The other two characters who come into it after a few episodes are Nina (Danielle Galligan), a Grishan heartrender and Matthias (Calahan Skogman), a Fjerdan soldier.
One of my favourite things about Shadow and Bone is the romantic tension between several of the characters. Alina and Mal have grown up together and have always had a close sibling type relationship, but now they are adults, they are clearly having feelings of a different kind for one another. Nina – one of the best and feistiest characters – turns the tables on her captor, Matthias and rescues him from a shipwreck. They both end up developing Stockholm Syndrome type symptoms for the other, a relationship that starts with hate and distrust but becomes something else. Therefore Shadow and Bone features both the friends-to-lovers and enemies-to-lovers romantic tropes, which is a huge bonus in my eyes. Jesper, a sharp-witted gay character who is proficient with revolvers and Inej, an extremely beautiful acrobat who is proficient with knives are two of the best characters and the show certainly livens up a lot every time the Crows are onscreen. And Kaz and Jesper wear excellent coats and hats, which also helps.
The main flaw in the show is that Jessie Mei Li is not the most charismatic or compelling screen presence to have as the focal-point of the story. I have no issue with quiet, shy, softly-spoken characters, but her line delivery is flat and there needs to a greater range of emotion on display, considering what Alina goes through in the course of the show. Therefore, the sub-plots involving the Crows and Nina/Matthias are more of a draw than the central storyline. Archie Renaux, as Mal is better, but there are quite large sections when he isn’t onscreen with Alina. Alina’s relationship with her ‘tailor’ Genya (Daisy Head), her training scenes with Baghra (Zoe Wanamaker) and her chemistry with General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), which all take place in the Little Palace are interesting enough, I just wish Li was giving a little more in her scenes. Seeing Ben Barnes and Luke Pasqualino – two actors who I always used to get mixed up – share some scenes was quite confusing for me, personally.
I also wish there were more magical creatures to experience in this fantasy world. The only ones we really see are the volcra – hideously scary creatures that attack the skiffs that travel through the Fold and a magnificent white stag with enormously intricate antlers who will prove important to Alina. But there are no dragons or other cool mythical creatures that we might expect from a fantasy series. The steampunk aesthetic of Ketterdam (including the train that the Crows attempt to cross the Fold in) is a highlight and as you would expect, the production design and costume design are a big draw.
In the first couple of episodes, I wasn’t too interested in Shadow and Bone (if I’m honest), but it gets better and I ended up looking forward to the next episode to find out what was going to happen. The romantic elements certainly helped sustain my interest and I definitely wouldn’t like it as much if they weren’t present. I hope, if there are more seasons, that the focus starts to move away from Alina and more onto the Crows and Nina (which I believe is the case with the books), as they are sparkier, feistier characters with engaging actors playing these roles. To be fair, Alina’s storyline is not the most original and is something we’ve seen in countless fantasy series, which is the other factor that results in the subplots being more enticing.
All in all, Shadow and Bone is worth watching, especially for the lesser-known Kit Young, Amita Suman and Danielle Galligan, as well as bigger name Ben Barnes. Once the clunky exposition gets out of the way, you can start to enjoy discovering the world you’re in and many of the fantasy elements. Finding out there will be more seasons would be no surprise at all and I will be tuning in to spend more time with these characters. Whether the show satisfies fans of the books remains to be seen, but as someone who was unfamiliar, I found enough to entertain and keep me watching until the end.
Shadow and Bone premieres globally on April 23, 2021 only on Netflix.
Interview with the Shadow & Bone showrunner Eric Heisserer about screenwriting – Click Here