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Shadow and Bone: Season 1 Review

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Told over the course of eight episodes, Netflix’s Shadow and Bone feels like a homecoming for those of us who never grew out of reading young adult fantasy. Though there are some hiccups with weaving together its two primary stories, the series captures Bardugo’s talent for balancing large scale world-building with theatrical action sequences, sweeping romances, and elements of horror—some of my favorite parts of young adult fantasy. Like the classics that came before it, Shadow and Bone works best when it’s fully committed to the dramatics of spectacle and emotion.The show adapts Leigh Bardugo’s immersive, best-selling book of the same name (first in the Grishaverse trilogy) while writing new material for the wonderfully acidic characters of Six of Crows (first of the duology, set two year later). It takes place in war torn Ravka, a fictionalized Russia, where the magical class of Grisha are persecuted following the creation of a hostile region called The Fold. Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) ascends from army cartographer to Sun Summoning Grisha, the only one who might dissolve The Fold—and is separated from her from her old life, including best friend and gifted tracker Malyen Oretsev (Archie Renaux). Meanwhile, in the seedy “Barrel” underbelly of Ketterdam (a fictionalized Amsterdam, where teens run rival crime factions) a crew assembles for a fun Ocean’s 11 style heist.While Shadow and Bone fits well with Netflix’s other fantasy adaptations, like The Witcher and Umbrella Academy, it’s even better contextualized by the recent wave of horror-tinged teen dramas like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Fate: The Winx Saga. Unlike these comparable stories, the books Netflix’s Shadow and Bone are based on are already dark in tone—and that is a huge part of the appeal. The Fold is grand and inky-black, and the show captures the dread of crossing via ship, as passengers attempt to fend off monsters who live there. And rather than portraying the more archetypal nurturing but secretive Hogwarts-style magical school, The Little Palace is a punishing and socially stratified place where Grisha not only train, but are also sequestered for their own protection.Bardugo’s reimagining of typical fantasy lore is lovely to watch. Grisha don’t practice “magic;” they call it the Small Science. They are split into three orders: Corporalki, Etherealki, and Materialki, with subclasses under each, like Inferni who manipulate fire, or the Heartrenders and Healers who manipulate the human body. Netflix hits these notes well, with scenes of Grisha in The Little Palace playing with fire, or “tailoring” faces—a process of augmenting one’s appearance, akin to putting on makeup. (Though Netflix can’t quite match the ostentatious visual effects of a mega-popular hit like Game of Thrones, which had a budget of nearly $10 million per episode by the final season).

Netflix does make a few tweaks to its source material for its screen adaptation, and some of these work really well.


The show’s heist scenes also shake up the classic young-adult Chosen One story. Big-budget, early aughts fantasy films created a kind of formula: a teen learns they’re supernaturally powerful, goes through magical training, and is part of at least one love triangle before saving the world. Ketterdam refreshes this with a Western-tinged edge—smoke filled gambling dens, dark alleys, corporate goons in lavish mansions—where no is far from a gun fight. In Shadow and Bone, we’re rooting for both Alina and Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), Jesper Fahey (Kit Young), and Barrel boss Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), even when they’re working against each other.

Shadow and Bone Season 1 Images

Netflix does make a few tweaks to its source material for its screen adaptation, and some of these work really well. Where the Shadow and Bone book was written in first person, with Malyen’s story recounted to Alina, the show gives Mal his own focused storyline. This builds him into a much more compelling character, one whose tracking and fighting skills—Mal braves the frigid cold to hunt a mythical stag, fending off attackers along the way—make for a more suspenseful arc. Meanwhile, actors Li and Renaux also do a great job of creating a base level of chemistry in a limited amount of time. It makes the anguish of their separation more believable, adding an urgency to their reunion that might otherwise get lost in the stock tensions of a love triangle.

Mal and Alina are also cast as mixed race—of Ravkan and Shu Han (fictionalized China or Malaysia) descent—a decision that Bardugo felt strongly about. (In the books, Alina’s race was never specified, though she was described as looking “pale and sour, like a glass of milk that’s turned”). It’s a well-intentioned choice, particularly because Bardugo’s work grapples with geopolitical conflict, and her later books have a more inclusive cast of characters.

In execution, being mixed race ostracizes Mal and Alina, subjecting them to racist bullying like being called “half breed,” among other offensive labels. The screen adaptation doesn’t delve into Ravka’s relationships with its neighboring countries to the same extent as the books—choosing instead to foreground the tension between Grisha and plainclothes civilians, and trusting us to understand these racist comments against Mal and Alina as inappropriate.The largest departure from the books, of course, is the way the casts of the trilogy and the duology collide, creating some interesting storytelling wrinkles that are especially enjoyable for those who know this story already. Rather than delve into the plot of the Six of Crow books, the adaptation writes in new material for what those characters were doing during the events of Shadow and Bone (though this new material often references moments from the books). This makes space for new scenes and plotlines, some of which—like a trip across The Fold in a rickety train—are season highlights, offering valuable comic relief. Jesper particularly shines, with his alchemy of charisma and sharpshooting making him equally fun to watch whether he’s shooting holes through coins or charming a stableboy.

It all leaves me wondering how Netflix will choose to balance the two storylines in the following seasons


But the two stories don’t always sit easily together. There are quite a few plotlines to balance, which isn’t unheard of for fantasy stories, but it does mean this one season has to run through quite a bit of character introduction in order to tie it all together. That means that certain storylines, Nina and Matthias for example, feel a little abrupt or out of place. The Six of Crows plotlines also don’t get the same scale of action sequences, mostly focusing on world-building, and laying groundwork for fan favorites Kaz, Inej, and Jesper. The show prioritizes comedic bits where Inej vanishes or unloads her massive collection of knives, for example, over sequences where she’s actually fighting. (Though there are still enough fun comeuppance scenes that fans will likely enjoy).

It all leaves me wondering how Netflix will choose to balance the two storylines in the following seasons, and what big action moments the heist crew has in store. Mostly, I look forward to moments in the book I’ve already imagined in my mind’s eye—like seeing Inej in her full acrobatic, knife-wielding glory.

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