|Directing||Lee Toland Krieger, Dan Liu, Mairzee Almas, Jeremy Webb|
|Producing||Eric Heisserer, Leigh Bardugo|
|Writing||Leigh Bardugo (Novels), Eric Heisserer, Daegan Fryklind, Vanya Asher, M. Scott Veach, Nick Culbertson, Shelley Meals, Christina Strain|
|Starring||Jessie Mei Li, Archie Renaux, Freddy Carter, Amita Suman, Kit Young, Ben Barnes, Zoë Wanamaker|
|Release Date||April 23, 2021|
Shadow and Bone on Netflix is the eagerly anticipated adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling novel. The series takes place in the kingdom of Ravka, based on Tsarist Russia, and the surrounding nations. It is a world inhabited by Grisha, people who have the ability to manipulate elements at the atomic level. Ravka is a kingdom divided. A band of living Darkness called the Shadow Fold cuts Ravka in two. The Fold is populated by flesh-eating monsters, making travel across it treacherous. The series follows Alina Starkov as she discovers she is a rare Sun Summoner, destined to bring down the Shadow Fold. The series explores themes of race, belonging, and the consequences of the choices we make. Treachery and danger wait at every turn, and Alina must use her wits to stop those who would use the Fold as a weapon.
Violence: Ravka is a nation at war, and we experience this first hand. Characters are shot, maimed, killed, stabbed, sliced in two, and beheaded.
Sexual Content: The series is relatively mild, though discussion of sexual issues exists. There are no explicit sex scenes. There is one scene between Jasper and a stable hand that cuts away before anything is shown and then rejoins the two men in the aftermath. Characters run the gauntlet of sexual orientations, and casual sex is not considered taboo. Nina and Matthias must huddle together for warmth after being shipwrecked, and do so nude under furs. Nothing is seen. Alina is bathed by attendants early in the series and is briefly seen nude from behind through a sheer curtain. Inej is indentured to a brothel and there is discussion of human trafficking.
Drug/Alcohol Use: The legal drinking age in Ravka seems to be very young. Our seventeen and eighteen-year-old protagonists frequently drink. There’s also a leaf called Jurda that seems to be caffeinated tobacco.
Spiritual Content: Religion plays a key element in the story. The predominant religion in Ravka is the worship of the Saints. This seems to be loosely based on Orthodox Christianity, but without a central God or Christ figure. Instead, the Saints are martyred humans (often Grisha) who performed wonders and are now revered and prayed to for assistance. Alina finds herself the unwitting object of devotion, as many believe her Sun Summoning powers make her a living Saint.
Language/Crude Humor: Several of the characters use mild language such as a**, h***, or d**n. There is also occasional talk of sexual escapades but this stops short of anything truly vulgar. The term “tumbled” is used to indicate one character has bedded another.
Other Negative Content: A key component of the story is that magic (merzost in the series) is an abomination, something unnatural that takes from the user. This is contrasted with the natural abilities the Grisha possess. Some Grisha do resort to using magic within the story, with disastrous consequences. The television series adds a sort of mumbled incantation to the scenes where this takes place, and the books Alina reads alluding to this contain some creepy drawings. However, there is a clear distinction that this is an evil practice and not something to be trifled with.
Positive Themes: Right is right and wrong is wrong. Evil actions cost those who perform them. Those who practice the abomination of magic pay an awful price. The bad guys get their comeuppance by the end and our heroes remain heroic to the end and (mostly) get their reward.
Alina Starkov is a mapmaker in the Ravkan army. When her childhood best friend and fellow soldier Mal is assigned to guard a land skiff crossing the Shadow Fold, Alina contrives to place herself onboard. Alina and Mal are orphans from a place of no importance, resigned to simple lives in the army. The times are perilous: Ravka is at war with all of her neighbors. The western half of the country on the other side of the Fold is also entertaining ideas of secession and the nation is perilously close to civil war.
Everyone’s hopes lie in finding a way to collapse the Fold and reunite Ravka. Working toward this goal is General Kirigan, also called “The Darkling,” a Shadow Summoner, leader of the Grisha, and the most powerful among them. The Grisha lead privileged lives, highlighting vast social inequality in Ravka. Their powers are coveted, and all Grisha in Ravka serve in the Second Army under Kirigan.
During the crossing, Alina and Mal’s skiff is attacked by the Volcra — flesh-eating monsters that live in the Fold — and Alina suddenly manifests the ability to summon light. No ordinary Grisha, Alina is a Sun Summoner, which were thought to be mythical. Her powers rival those of General Kirigan and she may even be able to collapse the Fold itself.
Alina is whisked away to the Little Palace, home of the Grisha, to learn how to use her newfound powers. Separated from Mal and mesmerized by the glittering and privileged world in which she finds herself, Alina begins to question who she is and what she thought she always wanted. Treachery and scheming abound, and the Little Palace is not all it appears to be.
Meanwhile, off the coast of Ravka, in the city of Ketterdam on the island of Kerch, criminal mastermind Kaz Brekker learns of a lucrative opportunity to smuggle something of great value out of East Ravka and bring it across the Fold. He recruits Jasper Fahey, a sharpshooter, and Inej, a former sex slave turned thief, to help.
It turns out the job will require more than any of them bargained for and will test each of their convictions. The thing of great value is Alina herself. Many view her as a savior, while those who profit from the Fold view her as a threat. Kaz and his crew embark on a journey through the Fold to kidnap Alina and bring her back to Ketterdam. They enlist the help of Nina Zenik, a Grisha who can manipulate the hearts of others. However, before she can join their crew, she is kidnapped by witch hunters from the nation of Fjerda, who think all Grisha are evil. Disaster strikes the Fjerdan ship on its return journey, and Nina and the witch hunter Matthias are the only survivors. Suddenly Nina’s powers mean the difference between life and death. As they rely on each other to survive, Matthias soon begins to question whether Grisha are the monsters he thought they were.
These three narratives twist and intersect as the show unfolds: Alina’s role as Sun Summoner amongst the Grisha, Kaz and his team’s attempt to kidnap her, and Nina’s complex relationship with Matthias after they are shipwrecked. The tale relies on elements from the Shadow and Bone trilogy, the sequel Six of Crows duology, and new material written by Leigh Bardugo.
I discovered Shadow and Bone just before the television series came out and quickly devoured the trilogy. This may not have worked in my favor, as it was very fresh in my mind when I watched the series. Eric Heisserer who adapted the series for television is a fan, and Leigh Bardugo who wrote the books served as an executive producer. This means the transition from page to screen is mostly faithful. Some changes obviously had to be made to accommodate a visual medium. While the screen adaptation didn’t quite match my imagination, I found it to be very well done.
Kaz, Inej, Jasper, Nina, and Matthias are all characters from the novel Six of Crows, which is set years after the events of Shadow and Bone. However, in an attempt to flesh out the story and pave the way for a Six of Crows series, Leigh Bardugo crafted a prequel story to bring them into the Shadow and Bone narrative. She draws on actual backstory elements she wrote for Six of Crows and weaves a new tale for these characters. This lent something fresh to the television series, with new stories to tell.
The show does an exceptional job of bringing Ravka to life. David J. Peterson, who developed languages for Game of Thrones and The Witcher, also brought his skills to bear in bringing the languages of the books to life. There’s a note of familiarity mixed with the foreign that makes the world feel real and fantastic at the same time. Bardugo’s world-building was a hallmark of the books, and the show does not disappoint on this front. Some of the sets and locales are less lush than they are in the books, particularly the Little Palace. However, budgets are real, so I will not fault the producers for that.
The casting of Jessie Mei Li as Alina adds another dimension not present in the books. Here, Alina is reimagined as biracial, with her mother being Shu. Shu Han in the books is based on China and Mongolia and has been at war with Ravka for some time. Alina experiences a fair amount of racism due to her appearance. This addition doesn’t overshadow the narrative but serves as an excellent way to explore inequality and injustice in Ravka.
Ben Barnes works exceptionally well as The Darkling/General Kirigan. In the books, he is depicted as appearing very young, around nineteen or twenty, while actually being centuries old. Having an older actor play the part adds the weight of years needed.
Zoe Wanamaker as Bagra, while sprier and not as ancient as she is in the books, captures the Grisha instructor’s spirit. Here, too, we see her ruthlessness which isn’t touched on until later stories in the books.
Beyond the leads, I didn’t love every casting choice, but the actors command their roles well. I also loved the racially blind casting, which added further diversity. Here and there dialogue is a bit clunky as the writers seek to work in all of the complex bits from the books. Perhaps this is the downside of having avid fans adapt a work. Fans will love the Easter eggs and the faithfulness to detail, but newcomers might be confused.
A few changes are made to convey plot elements in a visual medium. Most of this involves internal dialogue and decisions we knew from being inside Alina’s head in the books. Obviously, different methods have to be employed to make it work visually. These changes are mostly minimal and the main points of the story are still intact. A few characters are missing, while others’ stories are slightly changed.
The story’s darker elements are on full display in this incarnation, and there were moments I found the visual representations a bit worse than the descriptions in the books.
A disturbing plot device is the subject of amplifiers. Grisha who kill an animal gain its power, and this amplifies their natural abilities. In the books, the animal’s bones are worked into jewelry a Grisha will wear for the rest of their life. In the series, Alina needs to amplify her powers to destroy the Fold and seeks a mythical creature believed to be among the most powerful amplifiers. In the television series, the jewelry is replaced by the bones being literally melded with the wearer’s body. This makes for an unsettling visual. I understood the need to make this change to enable a major plot element later on. This was my least favorite part of the books, and I found it no less unsettling on-screen.
Still, the point of the story is the triumph of light over darkness and this shines through, pun intended, to the very end. Life is more powerful than death, faith and hope can change anything, and worth is not defined by what others say or think about you.
One element I appreciated was the distinction between Grisha powers and magic. Grisha’s abilities are a natural gift they possess, something that “feeds them” as one character says. In complete opposition is the notion of magic which “feeds on” Grisha and has disastrous consequences.
In scripture we often see people taking matters into their own hands with ruin to follow. Adam and Eve lost the garden. Moses lost the promised land. Saul lost his kingdom. David lost peace. In Ravka, too, those that go where they should not face awful consequences.
While the series is much tamer than much of the fantasy fare on streaming services these days, it may not be appropriate for younger viewers. Still, the violence and sexuality are scant compared to Game of Thrones. There is also a lot to digest and discuss as the series explores themes of identity, belonging, self-sacrifice, and even faith.
The Bottom Line
Shadow and Bone is an earnest and mostly faithful adaptation of the books that will appeal to fans and newcomers alike. Violence, some mild sexuality, and creepy plot elements may bother younger viewers. However, for those looking for rich world-building and fantasy adventure without more explicit mature content, Shadow and Bone is sure to satisfy.