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Shadow and Bone: The characters, politics, and war, explained

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Shadow and Bone, Netflix’s new fantasy drama, is based on a series of best-selling YA fantasy books. Immediately, the show drops viewers into an alternate universe where each country in this world has its own culture, some more relevant in the grand scheme of the story than others. But the pilot for Shadow and Bone prioritizes action over hand-holding viewers through the exposition, and there’s no nifty map in the front pages to help someone understand it all. (Although we have one.)

So, for those who can’t tell Ravka from Fjerda (or those who simply want a refresher on the worldbuilding lingo that’s grown over the past ten years or so), here’s a handy-dandy guide to the inner workings of Shadow and Bone’s world politics.

OK, so what is going on in Shadow and Bone?

Shadow and Bone takes place in a fantasy world with six core countries — Ravka, Fjerda, Shu Han, Novyi Zem, Kerch, and the Wandering Isle — roughly going through similar technological advancements as our mid-19th century (i.e., this is a fantasy world where they use guns). The setting doesn’t have a specific canonical name, but fans know it as the Grishaverse. While the book series spans across multiple countries, the Netflix show adapts the first book in the Grishaverse saga, which primarily focuses on Ravka.

Photo: David Appleby/Netflix

And Ravka is…?

Inspired by Imperial Russia, Ravka is the country where most of the action takes place — at least in the first three books. Ruled by a monarchy, Ravka sits in the middle of the continent, bordered by Fjerda to the north and Shu Han to the south (more on them later). It is notable for being one of the few countries where the typically persecuted class known as the Grisha, the world’s magic-users, enjoy a certain elevated status in society, though they’re all forced to serve the king’s army.

At the start of the show, Ravka has been in turmoil for some decades, with the First and Second Armies protecting the nation. All of Ravka’s troubles can basically be boiled down to the Shadow Fold splitting the country in two. The scenes with Alina and Mal start off in Ravka, but the scenes with Kaz, Inej, and Jesper take place in Kerch (more on that later).

What the heck is the Shadow Fold and why is it such a big problem?

The Shadow Fold (also known as the Unsea or the Fold) is a swath of misty darkness that splits Ravka in two. All that’s really known about its origin is that some very powerful Grisha created it hundreds of years ago. Crossing it is nearly impossible because it is full of monsters, including the Volcra, which like to eat human flesh. To evade the monsters, most travellers go around it — either through Fjerda or Shu Han, both countries warring with Ravka. East Ravka, which includes the capital city of Os Alta, is basically cut off from the rest of the world. West Ravka, however, where the port city of Os Kervo lies, is able to connect with the rest of the world.

jessie mei li as alina, staring off into the distance

Photo: Netflix

Wait, wait — go back to the part about the two armies: what’s up with that?

The First Army is Ravka’s regular, non-magical army made up of normal soldiers with rifles and what not. The Second Army is made up of Grisha soldiers. There is a lot of tension between the two armies. The First Army as a whole distrust the Second Army, while the Second Army views the First Army as weaker. Technological advancements from Fjerda and Shu Han, however, have helped defeat Grisha soldiers.

Who is Ravka at war against?

At the start of the show, Ravka is at war with Shu Han, a country inspired by China and Mongolia, and Fjerada, which is inspired by Scandinavia. It’s not so much a formal war as it is a century-long recurring border dispute between Ravka and its two bordering nations known as the Border Wars. The Shadow Fold has weakened Ravka, so both Fjerda and Shu Han want to take advantage of that and gain more land.

Shu Han is the southernmost country on the continent, bordered by Ravka to the north. A matriarchal monarchy, Shu Han is also a land of scientific advancements … and known for experimenting on Grisha. One of the big changes in the show is that the main character Alina Starkov is now half-Shu. She grew up in Ravka, in the border town of Keramzin and has basically spent her whole life being compared to the enemy.

Fjerda, meanwhile, is the northernmost country, icy and frigid. It is the most conservative of the countries, fearing Grisha and calling them unnatural and dangerous. Fjerdans also ascribe to very traditional gender roles. Soldier Mattias Helvar is Fjerdan — and he’s not just a soldier but a drüskelle, or Grisha hunter.

Mattias looking cold and icy in a snowstorm

Photo: Netflix

What about all the other nationalities?

Let’s break it down.

Kerch

An island nation in the middle of the True Sea, Kerch is basically the epicenter of world trade — their religion is based on the god of industry and commerce. It also has a vast criminal underworld in the capital of Ketterdam. Grisha are often bound to wealthy merchants as indentured servants, even though slavery is illegal. Most of the Six of Crows books (the spinoff duology) take place in Kerch, which is inspired by 18th century Amsterdam, early New York, and Victorian London.

Important characters: The Six of Crows characters — leader Kaz Brekker, spy Inej Gafta, and sharpshooter Jesper Fahey — reside in Ketterdam. Of the three, Kaz is the only one who is fully Kerch.

jaspar, inej, and kaz draped in shadows

Photo: David Appleby/Netflix

Suli

The Suli are a nomadic people, who hail from the northwestern part of Ravka and are inspired by Roma and South Asian culture.

Important characters: Inej is Suli and Zoya, one of the Grisha in the Second Army, is half-Suli.

Novyi Zem

All the way across the True Sea, Novyi Zem is isolated from the political conflict of the rest of the world, which has allowed it to flourish. Inspired by America and Australia, Novyi Zem is a place of freedom, where Grisha live without prosecution or having to serve anyone.

Important characters: Jesper is from Novyi Zem originally.

The Wandering Isle

This is the country we know the least about since no main character is from the Wandering Isle. But it is based on Ireland and its citizens are typically pale and red-haired. And apparently they drink Grisha blood since they see it as a magical cure! Yummy! Also, people from the Wandering Isle are called Kaelish for no discernable reason.

Important characters: Though he’s from Novyi Zem, Jesper is half-Kaelish by way of his father.

All episodes of Shadow and Bone are available on Netflix.

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