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Reading the Shadow and Bone books? Don’t start with the first one

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If you binge-watched Netflix’s Shadow and Bone this weekend and you’ve never read the Leigh Bardugo books it was based on, you might be thinking about trying the main trilogy the show adapts.

Here’s some unsolicited advice: Don’t start with the first novel, Shadow and Bone.

But wait, you might ask yourself, is that not the book that the show is based on? Isn’t it the first book of the series? The one that sets the stage for everything else? The one that introduces the Grisha, Sun Summoner Alina Starkov, and the swath of sentient darkness that tears Ravka in half?

Well, yes. But you know how some Star Wars fans recommend a non-intuitive order to watch the movies? I’m about to suggest a similar strategy for diving into the Grishaverse books. It isn’t a particularly controversial method, by any means, but for those unfamiliar with the books, I am here to be your Grisha guide.

And with that: Start with Six of Crows.

Photo: Netflix

Six of Crows is the first book in Bardugo’s spinoff duology. It focuses on a band of criminals led by the cunning Kaz Brekker, as they pull off a grand heist. The duology takes place two years after the events of the first trilogy, but the first book doesn’t really contain any spoilers for what happens to Shadow and Bone’s Alina, the Darkling, and the rest of the Ravka crew. I have no hard empirical data on this, but I would hazard a guess that Six of Crows is more popular than the main trilogy. Why else would the Crows characters be roped into the show, even though they don’t canonically appear in the first books?

Newbies starting to read the series with Six of Crows after watching the show won’t be lost, since out of the six “Crows,” five of them — Kaz, his right-hand knife-wielding spy Inej, sharpshooter Jesper, Ravkan spy Nina, and Fjerdan soldier (and hunter of Grisha) Matthias — appeared in season 1 of the TV series. Their characters will make more sense in the show with the background of the book, and the chance to see their future adventures in the existing books makes their storyline in the series more interesting. Additionally, Six of Crows steps out into the world beyond Ravka. Shadow and Bone is primarily concerned with Ravkan politics and what it means to be a Grisha, which is interesting on its own, but Six of Crows expands on the universe, and Bardugo’s worldbuilding gets a chance to shine.

But starting with Six of Crows also makes sense because the Crows duology is just objectively better writing. Shadow and Bone has all the trappings of a debut novel. The first-person perspective does the other characters a disservice, and it follows a typical Chosen One setup. Even Bardugo admits there are things she wishes she’d done differently, like including more character diversity and fleshing out Mal’s character. The main trilogy gets better with each subsequent book, as Bardugo grows into her own world’s potential. But if you want to be pulled in from the get-go, Six of Crows is the way to go.

nina and matthias in the snow

Photo: Attila Szvacsek/Netflix

My recommended order — even if you haven’t watched the show — is to start with Six of Crows, which aptly entices readers into a new world, and has a cast of vivid, dynamic characters. Six of Crows does, admittedly, end on a cliffhanger, but the stakes it sets up will make the conflict in the main series even richer.

If you are curious enough, you should then switch to the main trilogy (Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising), since the second Crows book, Crooked Kingdom, contains some spoilers for the big central Grishaverse plot, and some appearances from characters who appear in the first trilogy. Then move to Crooked Kingdom. After that, you can dive into the sequel series (King of Scars and the newly released Rule of Wolves) which pulls in Nina, Squaller Zoya Navalyskey, and yet-to-be-introduced-in-the-show Prince Nikolai Lanstov (my favorite character in the franchise) as they deal with the aftermath of the turmoil in Ravka.

The Grishaverse books are an exciting fantasy series that ushered in a whole wave of high-fantasy YA which steps outside of the typical medieval England settings. If you haven’t paid much attention to the young-adult genre since it stopped dominating culture with series like the Twilight and Hunger Games novels, you may not realize the impact that Bardugo’s series has had on the genre since then. The world is rich, but the dynamic characters are what capture fans’ hearts. The Netflix series achieves the grand feat of adapting the series while caters to fans of the books first, sprinkling in little details, and hinting at the world beyond the first story. Reading the books will augment the experience of watching the show — and prepare you for possible upcoming adventures in further seasons.

Shadow and Bone is streaming on Netflix.

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