TV Review: ‘Shadow And Bone’ Is A Magical, If Complex, Delight

Source: Netflix

Magic and science combined sounds pretty cool, right? Well, Netflix has recently brought to life Leigh Bardugo’s ‘Grishaverse’ books to life and my oh my, there is plenty of magical science in use.

Shadow and Bone, starring Ben Barnes and Jessie Mei Li, is both an adaptation of Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy and Six of Crows duology combined. In the televised series, we are introduced to lead characters from both sets of books, making it all the more exciting for those that have already read them. Bardugo and producer Eric Heisserer’s decision to combine the books was wise, as we got to explore quite a bit more following a mix of storylines than just the singular ones featured in the respective book series.

The first episode doesn’t beat around the bush and takes us straight into the story. Cartographer Alina Starkov (Li) and best friend Malyen Oretsev (Archie Renaux) come together with the First and Second armies, preparing to enter the Fold – a mysterious, and deadly, strip of what can only be described as a contained thunderstorm. The Fold was created by the Darkling, one of the most powerful forms of Grisha known to mankind. The Darkling was a Shadow Summoner, meaning he had the power to summon and manipulate shadow at his own will and pleasure. 

With the assistance of impressive CGI, the first episode dove straight into the magic, and I think many people will agree that the Fold is just as eerie as it appears in the book series. However, the show could have done a better job explaining things to those that haven’t read the books before. I understand they were throwing us into this world, and they had eight hours to play with, but there was a lot of google-ing. During the first episode I found myself searching for a map of the continent, trying to place where Alina was compared to where Kaz and his pals were.

Though it is sort of the person I am, a need to educate yourself on the context of the show before watching the second episode may be a little off-putting to other viewers. It is only now, after reading the books (yes, when I finished binging the series, I then binge-read the books), that the locations and different skills make more sense.

The different filming environments of Vancouver and Budapest also aided in capturing the beauty of this fantasy world, going hand in hand with the series’ costume design. Elements of race and culture were woven into the story throughout, which added more depth to the ‘Grishaverse’. For instance, the Kefta is closely based off clothing worn in imperialist Russia, with our lead, Alina, labelled as ‘half-breed’ or ‘Shu-ish’ – half-Shu and half-Ravkan. When getting ready to meet the King, Alina asks her Tailor, Genya, “Don’t change my eyes.”

Jesper (Kit Young), Inej (Amita Suman) and Kaz (Freddy Carter) in Shadow and Bone

Li has recently spoken about being able to use her own experiences of racism within the show. Speaking to Comics Beat, Li said, “Growing up, as a mixed-race person, I rarely saw anyone who looked like me.” Within the book series, it isn’t clear what Alina’s race or heritage is, but in the show it is focused on much more. As seen within the Grisha’s Kefta’s, Ravka is based on Russia, whilst Shu Han is based on Mongolia and China. Li added to Comics Beat, “I certainly grew up in a predominantly white area, and I was always ‘the Chinese one’ to my white friends, but to my Asian friends and family, I was very English.” This added dynamic was remarkable, and better reflects our own world for an added sense of realism. Although I love shows like Game of Thrones and The Witcher, I feel like they never got race representation right.

Series leads Li and Barnes hit the nail on the head with their portrayal of the Sun and Shadow Summoners; not to mention sweet sweet Mal surprising many fans, as his on screen character doesn’t “suck”, compared to his book form. This alteration to Mal allowed for a fantastically complex love triangle to develop, rather than a clear-cut choice. Alina’s journey was essentially finding herself, and learning to master her powerful and rare sun summoning skill, whilst General Kirigan was incredibly deceiving and appeared to calculate a way in which to manipulate our heroine. For those familiar with Barnes’ work in shows like Westworld, it’s clear to see why he was the perfect choice to bring Kirigan to life.

Across the Fold, Kaz, Inej and Jesper (my personal favourites) had a very entertaining journey throughout the series. Notably, they are three of the six point-of-view characters in the Six of Crows duology. Club owner Kaz and buddy Jesper (who appears to love goats) race against time with the wonderful Inej, whom is very skilled with a knife, to cross the Fold and capture Alina Starkov, all for one million Kruge. Like Li and Barnes, the non-magical trio effortlessly portrayed the characters beautiful – their wit alone endeared me, and I’m sure many others, to all three. Details such as Inej’s religious background (and the fact that though she’s adorned with a multitude of blades, she refuses to kill), or Jesper’s sleek style and precision when using his trusted pistol, were nice details that certainly piqued my interest.

All of the characters have fantastic chemistry (as replicated in their group interviews and discussions off-screen, seen below), leaving me eager to see how the next series plays out.

I, like many others, am very excited to see what season two has to offer, particularly for the potential arrival of much-loved characters from the books, like Six of Crows‘ Wylan. It seems we will at least see the other five Six of Crows characters interact, as they all set sail at the end of the first season. However, our dark and twisted Shadow Summoner, General Kirigan, AKA the Darkling, has somehow survived the Fold, and will no doubt be on a war-path to hunt down Alina and co.

Netflix has yet to renew Shadow and Bone for a second season, but if the first is anything to go by, it would be a mistake not to.

Words by Jen Charlton

Shadow and Bone is available on Netflix now.

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