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.
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.