Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, which was just picked up for a second season, is based on Leigh Bardugo’s best-selling titular novel, but it may be more fitting to say that it is an adaptation of the author’s Grishaverse universe- a fictional world filled with magic, splendor, romance, and intrigue, portrayed on-screen with stellar art direction. Visually, it is quite gorgeous and story-wise, it mixes an origin story with a heist gone disastrously wrong in a very entertaining and engaging manner.
The story takes place in the land of Ravka, where certain people (the Grisha) are born with magical powers and are both valued and looked down upon with fear and suspicion. Trading and travel between cities is hampered due to the presence of the Fold or the Unsea- a mysterious trail of darkness, haunted by the flesh-eating volcra. Crossing the fold and surviving becomes a matter of luck, even if you’re armed with the best Grisha. The plot of the show faithfully follows Leigh Bardugo’s novel, interspersed with characters and elements from the Six of Crows (the first novel in her duology that is also set in the same secondary world) and has three inter-connected strands.
First, we have Alina Starkov, an orphaned mapmaker who while crossing the Fold, uses her latent Grisha powers to save Mal, a childhood friend. As a result, she is touted as the miraculous “Sun Summoner” capturing the eye of the edgy Darkling (who commands the Grisha) who has her shipped off to the Little Palace to practice her magical skills while he has his own agenda for her. Then, there’s the Crows, a thieving crew comprising Kaz, Inej, and Jesper, who plan to kidnap Alina for an enormous amount of money. And finally, there’s the sweet and hilarious love story that blossoms between Nina, a powerful Grisha who is captured by the prejudiced Fjedarns, and Matthias, a Fjerdan witch-hunter who slowly questions the error of his ways.
There’s a lot to praise about the show, especially the talented cast that have brought the characters to life. The edgy and brooding Darkling is the bad boy you’ve been warned about but can’t help falling for, and with Ben Barnes playing the villain with perfect panache, it is even harder to resist the Darkling’s charms. But the real show-stealers are the Crows, who despite lying, stealing, gambling, and murdering their way out of everything are fiercely loyal to each other and constantly having each other’s back.
If the Darkling and Alina’s doomed romance reminds us of the dangers of normalizing toxic heteronormative tropes in the name of love, the dynamic that the Crows share celebrates the importance of friendship, loyalty, and found families. And Nina’s arc, for the most part, teaches us that if we cast aside our assumptions and let go of our differences, a lot of malice, hate, and discrimination can automatically fade, giving way to learning and companionship (and a wonderful enemies-to-lovers arc, of course).
The script is marvelous, balancing thrill and humor with wonderfully choreographed action sequences. In fact, blending the Crows’ storyline with Alina’s self-discovery of her powers was probably one of the best creative decisions that the team took. The worldbuilding is slow at first, gradually drawing you in with the intricate costumes and the splendid décor of the Little Palace, even as the latter half of the show picks up pace, building to a riveting climax. It satisfies most questions but leaves the room open for an anticipated sequel.
Overall, Shadow and Bone is immensely entertaining, visually striking, and refreshingly subverts some stereotypes. Fans of secondary world fantasy series, such as Game of Thrones and The Witcher, will particularly enjoy this lavish drama and for those who are yet to hop onto the Grishaverse bandwagon, the show serves as a wonderful introduction to Bardugo’s marvelous and magical world.
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