Perhaps one of the worst parts of adaptions is that some book portions will inevitably be lost, whether to time constraints or attempts to reach a broader audience. Shadow and Bone may be the first book adaptation I’ve seen that manages that balancing act almost perfectly. Netflix’s adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels is perhaps one of their most expensive projects to date. And it both looks and feels like it. So, let’s dive into our review of Shadow and Bone!
Largely based on the events of the first Grishaverse novel Shadow and Bone. Also, featuring characters from the quasi-sequel duology Six of Crows. The first season of the Netflix series follows almost the exact same beats as the book.
The show starts with us meeting Alina and Mal, war orphans who grew up together. Who have their lives forever changed after a trip into the dark swath of living blackness that is The Fold. After a brilliant display of her power exposes her, we learn Alina is a Grisha. An individual with powers that enable them to manipulate various forms of matter. Her powers being one of the rarest powers at that. Sadly, being the nail that sticks out makes her a target. Alina has to rush to The Little Palace. A Grisha stronghold in the fictional country of Ravka (think Russia but fantasy). Accompanied by the Second Army’s General Kirigan himself.
Kirigan takes an intense interest in Alina and her abilities as she becomes more immersed in her new world. Slowly her thoughts of Mal fade as a fascination with the powerful but seemingly lonely Kirigan takes root.
The central cast for the Grisha portion of the show has undeniable chemistry! Jessie Mei Li (All About Eve, Last Night in Soho) as Alina Starkov. Newcomer Archie Renaux as Mal Oretsev and Ben Barnes (The Punisher, The Chronicles of Narnia) as the mysterious General Kirigan. This chemistry is important because Alina’s relationship with these two men is a central focus. Li’s Alina and Renaux’s Mal feel like good friends from the first moment we see them together. Barnes’ Kirigan is immediately captivating. Even though our first introduction is literally the back of his head, it still blows you away.
In a surprising twist. Mal is far more interesting in this adaptation than a lot of fans found him in the books. The source material paints him as brave, almost playboy sort. But in the show, he is vulnerable, kind and focused on Alina. The Netflix adaptation consciously works to eliminate Alina’s unrequited pining from the books. Giving us a greater look at something under the surface for both these characters. Alina’s relationship with Kirigan is just as well crafted. The gradual development of their relationship — from teacher to friend to something more — feels earned in a way that makes the developments of the final three episodes pay off spectacularly.
A lot of confusion surrounded the announcement that Shadow and Bone would merge the Grisha Trilogy and the Crows Duology. The Crows Duology takes place two years after the end of the Grisha Trilogy; the main characters in each series do not interact. How could they make it work? More importantly, why would they try?
Obviously, we don’t want to spoil things for you in our review of Shadow and Bone. Suffice to say, not only did they make it work, but they did so fantastically!
While the Crows’ story is not the same journey as that of Six of Crows, it is definitely still a heist in the truest sense. Criminal mastermind Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter of Wonder Woman and Pennyworth) recruits spy Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman of The Outpost) and sharpshooter Jesper Fahey (newcomer Kit Young) to pull off what might be the greatest act of their careers.
The Crows are, for most of the show, independent of the story happening in Ravka. Even as the things they do work to create a direct impact eventually. It was a welcome surprise that for quite a few episodes. The screen time is split rather evenly between rustic Ravka and the bustling cityscape of Ketterdam. Based off of real-world Amsterdam). Simply put, the Crows are a delight. Almost every moment they are on screen together feels like a heist movie (think the Ocean’s series). With just enough emotional weight to remind you that despite their levity, these characters all carry trauma.
The crafty trio lie, steal and disguise themselves in multiple ways to achieve their goal. That time spent on is always worth it. If the chemistry between the Grisha trio of Alina, Mal, Kirigan is great. Then the chemistry between these three is to die for. Suman is a true delight to watch. Although Inej can and will kill, she is very religious and only kills as a last resort. Suman’s careful work in crafting this character allows us to see the reluctance. The subtle changes in Inej’s eyes and movements when she has to make these types of choices pay off in a big way.
Carter’s Kaz creates a wonderful blend of wily criminal who is, despite it all, still a teenage boy. While Young’s Jesper is a bit reckless and has a gambling problem, but has such a big, caring heart. Jesper’s wayward exploits sometimes create problems for them that they can barely escape. But there is a tenderness in their shared moments that makes their found family bond feel very real. Also, Kaz and Inej have a thread of tension stretching through their relationship. Giving almost all of their interactions a little extra weight. Making for a delightful watch as Carter and Suman so masterfully weave their tale.
Once the Crows and Grishas’ storylines merge, there are even more fun moments, including a few fan-service ones — my absolute favorite being a face-off between the two dark men of the franchise, Kirigan and Kaz — that manage to be a bit over the top without being too over the top.
It’s important, however, to remember that although the Crows play an important role in the season, they are not the main characters. Nevertheless, I doubt any Crows fan is walking out of the season disappointed.
Speaking of disappointments. One of the largest being Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan of Game of Thrones) and Matthias Helvar’s (Calahan Skogman) storyline. As the Crows are not following their first book, what we are really seeing with them is almost a prequel. When the series begins, Nina and Matthias are not yet a part of the group. So their plotline is almost completely separate from the main trios of the show.
That aside, a large part of the disappointment comes from the fact that neither of them lives up to expectations. Book Nina was a vivacious and bright force, with self-confidence that fairly radiated off the pages. Book Matthias was big, brawny and brave, cold but also curious about who Nina is. Suffice it to say that none of those expectations were met, although Skogman’s Matthias is perhaps closer than Galligan’s Nina. I spent most of their screen time wondering when we would return to the main plot — and that’s never a good sign.
Perhaps it’s just a case of too many characters and not enough time. Hopefully, I’ll be more impressed with their storyline once it has officially merged with the Crows’. But for now, colour me bored.
While the show is exceptional regarding cast chemistry, set design and plot pacing, it isn’t without its problems. One of the most unexpected was the appearance of racism in a fantasy show.
In the books, Inej does face discrimination for being Suli. A group of Nomadic people who are brown-skinned with dark features— but no other character experiences that treatment. Even then, it is largely xenophobic rather than racist (that is, more about her country of origin than her ethnicity).
Unfortunately, some of the treatment that Alina (and Mal) receive is very blatantly racist. This is even more egregious since Netflix’s casting team specifically looked for an actress of Asian descent to portray Alina. In the books, Alina is Ravkan, or essentially Russian— read as white. In the show, Alina is both Shu and Ravkan, as is Mal. The fictional land of Shu Han is loosely based on Mongolia and China. But there is no mention of race in the books. In comparison, Netflix’s Alina is called a “rice eater”. Another character is also very pointedly racist in a private conversation.
Although Shadow and Bone wrapped filming in February 2020 (before the COVID-19 pandemic became widespread). I do believe that in light of increased anti-Asian hate crimes, it might’ve benefited from some edit in post-production.
Alternatively, I’ve had conversations where it was mentioned that it might be better for the show to utilize actual racism. As opposed to the typical fantasy trope of using prejudice against a mythical or fictional character type as a stand-in. Think Muggleborns in Harry Potter, and that’s a fair viewpoint.
In addition to the insertion of anti-Asian racism. Shadow and Bone also fails to cast a plus-sized woman to portray Nina and a dark-skinned actor to portray Jesper.
The casting choices for these two characters have provoked blowback for both Bardugo and series director Eric Heisserer. Before production, both had vocally promised that a non-plus-sized Nina and a lighter Jesper were dealbreakers. I acknowledge Young’s fantastic, earnest portrayal of Jesper that makes all of his scenes so fun to watch. But I don’t believe finding a darker-skinned actor who could bring the same joie de vivre was an impossible task.
In the same way, I absolutely know that several plus-sized actresses could have better brought Nina Zenik to life. Plus-sized women deserve to see themselves represented on screen. Especially in characters like Nina, who is continuously described in the series as beautiful and proves to be one of the most powerful characters.
Despite these issues, Shadow and Bone is a triumphant example of how to turn fan-favourite books into excellent television shows. Other books getting the same treatment should make sure to look this way when they’re plotting out the screenplays. Even the side characters are alluring and entertaining (especially Daisy Head as Genya Rafin).
With the promise of a second season that will delve deeper into the Crows as their own group. And take Alina who has discovered that power comes with a terrible price, I expect this show to capture book fans and newbies to the series alike.
I also encourage you all to keep an eye out for my favorite character: a cute, four-legged friend who saves the day in a big way!
Shadow and Bone premieres on Netflix April 23rd, 12am Pacific Standard Time.