What’s new, folks? On April 23 Netflix dropped the eight-episode first season of Shadow and Bone, the series adaptation of the Grishaverse young adult fantasy novels launched by author Leigh Bardugo in 2012. For newcomers who are unfamiliar with these books, the Grishaverse currently consists of three series: the Grisha Trilogy, also known as the Shadow and Bone Trilogy; the Six of Crows Duology, which is set two years after the Grisha Trilogy; and the King of Scars Duology, which unfolds one year after Six of Crows. This literary universe also includes two standalone novels, The Language of Thorns and The Lives of Saints, which you would find to be accessible if you read them without diving into the rest of the series.
The Netflix series takes an interesting approach to the source material. Part of it adapts Shadow and Bone, the first installment of the Grisha Trilogy. It is set in the Russian-influenced nation of Ravka, which has been divided for centuries by the Shadow Fold, a rift of darkness full of winged beasts called volcra. Alina Starkov (played by Jessie Mei Li) was raised as an orphan in Ravka alongside her childhood friend Malyen “Mal” Oretsev (Archie Renaux), and now they’ve grown up to be a cartographer and a tracker, respectively, in the First Army. When they embark on a skiff expedition into the Fold, Alina ends up unleashing her latent powers of summoning light to rescue Mal. This catches the eye of General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), the brooding leader of the Second Army—a battalion full of Grisha, elite soldiers who can manipulate various physical and chemical elements. Kirigan whisks Alina off to the Little Palace and starts training her under the belief that she’s the Sun Summoner, a legendary figure who has been foretold as being the Chosen One who will purge the Fold and reunite the country.
Now, this isn’t all that transpires. The show also brings to onscreen life material from Six of Crows by taking viewers from Ravka to the island nation of Kerch, where its Amsterdam-esque trade city of Ketterdam serves as the residence for a few young criminals who are planning to claim a bounty by capturing the Sun Summoner whom everyone has been gossiping about. The said criminals are Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), a schemer with a crow-headed cane and incredibly sharp edges to his cheekbones and jawline; Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), a knife-wielding spy and assassin; and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young), a wry sharpshooter and gambler. This plotline also involves Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan), a cheeky Grisha Heartrender, and Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman), one of many drüskelle warriors who come down from the Scandinavian-inspired northern land of Fjerda to hunt Grisha. Again, the events of the Six of Crows books happen two years after the Grisha Trilogy, so this second storyline on the show is essentially a prequel to the duology.
I’m used to adaptations that fail to faithfully interpret their source material, that are unable to enrich the narrative as it crosses over from the page to the screen, that are pitiful messes created by corporate suits who have no understanding of the books with which they’re working and mistakenly believe we’ll be sated if they feed us blocks of market research masquerading as cohesive and compelling movies. This applies especially to children’s and YA literature (*sigh* I still haven’t forgiven what Disney did to my brilliant little criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl, whom I suspect would get along smashingly with Kaz). Fortunately, Netflix’s Shadow and Bone is the exception. While there are a few things that don’t add up, it combines excellent production design that uses Russian costumes and other cultural nods to shift away from the British inflections to which we’re accustomed to seeing in epic fantasy media, endearing characters whom many will cosplay in the future, a cast somehow consisting entirely of beautiful talent who have perfectly slipped into their roles, and structurally solid plotting in its generally strong efforts to render Bardugo’s work.
The Netflix series is overseen by an experienced creative in showrunner, writer, and executive producer Eric Heisserer. Primarily known for his screenwriting credits, his first script was the 2010 A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot. He followed this up with the 2011 The Thing reboot, the Paul Walker drama Hours for which Heisserer also served as director, the sci-fi Amy Adams film Arrival (I still wish for two things from that movie: that it could have been as absorbing in the emotional department as it was on the cerebral and visual side of things, and that the Oscars hadn’t snubbed Adams for a Best Actress nomination), the Netflix post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box, and the critically panned superhero flick Bloodshot. He also tried to helm an English-language adaptation of the acclaimed anime film Your Name, but the project fell through. He was even involved in the Dark Universe to manage a potential Van Helsing entry. Universal Studios’ attempt at resurrecting their classic monsters—the franchise would have included Angelina Jolie as the Bride of Frankenstein, Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Monster, Benicio Del Toro as the Wolfman from his 2010 movie, and Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man—went up in smoke right out of the gate, though, with their 2017 Tom Cruise reboot of The Mummy (I’ve never seen it, but I still wish it could be wiped from existence so that we’d be left to love the Brendan Fraser movies). Judging from Heisserer’s filmography, I wouldn’t have necessarily picked him to develop Shadow and Bone, but he ended up handling the material well. It probably helped that Bardugo was so closely involved with the show as one of the executive producers.
The show is surprisingly agile at juggling the dual storylines of Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows. There were beats in which it did feel like the narrative left me feeling bloated when it tried to serve up too many characters and their plot meat on a single dish, but those beats were few and far between. Heisserer was actually the one in charge of the decision to include the Crows. After reading their duology, he was so fascinated with the ragtag criminals that he wanted to incorporate them into the Shadow and Bone narrative. That’s why we see them roll out their scheme to kidnap Alina and collect their bounty—a plot arc that was never featured in the books. Especially after the audience’s overwhelmingly positive reaction to the Crows, I expect the show to bring them back for the future seasons that adapt Siege and Storm, the second entry in the Grisha Trilogy, and Ruin and Rising, the third entry. The show also does an impressive job at transitioning between the main characters and their interwoven plot threads every few minutes to give viewers frequent updates on everyone and maintain a brisk pace.
The novels evoked major aspects of Harry Potter, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Lord of the Rings, and His Dark Materials, blending together those inspirations into a narrative that felt simultaneously familiar and fresh. This comes through in the show as well, though it doesn’t commit as firmly to the worldbuilding as I would have expected. The books were well-crafted in that aspect, setting up the tumultuous politics of a country that has been literally and figuratively torn in half and is warding off attacks from Fjerda and the East Asian-inspired country of Shu Han, the vehement discrimination against Grisha (particularly that which comes from the drüskelle who capture Grisha and put them on fixed trials that are guaranteed to end with death sentences for the defendants), the rules of the Small Science that govern the Grisha’s powers, et cetera. But the show doesn’t lay out much of those details, choosing instead to keep the plot moving at a fast clip and drop bits and pieces of exposition only when it’s relevant to the characters. It’s not like this needs to be Grishaverse Wiki, but I feel like it might be confusing for viewers who haven’t read the books. Hopefully, future seasons of the show can flesh out the world more deeply.
For viewers who haven’t read the books, I just want to take a moment to explain the three Orders of Grisha. There’s Corporalki, which is also known as the Order of the Living and the Dead, and their powers focus on the human body. This Order consists of Heartrenders, who can control the human body through abilities like stopping their hearts or warming them up to save them from freezing, and Healers, who can heal injuries. There’s Etherealki, or the Order of Summoners, which deals with natural elements. It’s made up of Squallers, Inferni, and Tidemakers, who bend air, fire, and water, respectively. Alina, who wields light, and Kirigan, who wields darkness, are Summoners as well, though their powers are extremely rare. And then there’s Materialki, the Order of Fabrikators, which specializes in composite materials like metal, chemicals, glass, and textiles. It comprises Durasts, who ply metal, glass, stone, and other solids, and Alkemi, who employ explosive powders and poisons. You could deduce most of these details throughout the show if you had skipped the books, but they’re never explicitly broken down. Like I said, I would have been more partial to the show figuring out a way to expand on the worldbuilding without bogging us down in info dumps.
I appreciate the cast being made up mainly of unknowns, like Skogman, for whom the role of Matthias is his first professional acting gig. This allows me to see them as their character rather than get distracted by other major roles they’ve played, while giving a massive boost to the budding careers of a whole bunch of young talent. Already, Galligan, who plays Nina, recently joined the cast for Season 2 of The Great, a satirical period piece Hulu series starring Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, and Gillian Anderson. Most importantly, they’re on-point picks—from Mei Li as Alina to Carter as Kaz, from Daisy Head as Genya Safin, a Healer employed by the Little Palace as an appearance-modifying Tailor, to Sujaya Dasgupta as Zoya Nazyalensky, a proud Squaller, and Kevin Eldon as the Apparat, the king’s spiritual counselor, and so on. My only true gripe, initially, was with the show’s portrayal of Baghra (Zoë Wanamaker, who played Madam Hooch in the Harry Potter films). The Grisha teacher was written as a lovably cantankerous crone in the books, providing some comedic relief and reminding me of Yoda. But I never really got those vibes unless she was swatting Alina. Over time, however, I came around to the show’s solemn translation of her personality. Still, I wish she could have dropped some crotchety quips like she did in the books.
Let me use this moment to express my hot take on Ben Barnes, whom Grishaverse readers have actually fancast as the Darkling for years. Most well-known as Prince Caspian in two of the three Chronicles of Narnia films, he has also played Billy Russo/Jigsaw in the Netflix original series Marvel’s The Punisher and Logan Delos in HBO’s Westworld. For some reason a large number of people worship him as a heartthrob. Honestly, I don’t get his supposed allure. It’s strange, because I understand the gigantic appeal of other Hollywood men like Robert Pattinson, Michael B. Jordan, or Tom Hardy. But I just can’t wrap my head around everyone crushing this hard on Barnes. That being said, I do think he’s optimal as Kirigan, sharing tons of onscreen chemistry with Mei Li and finding the right balance between being mysteriously magnetic and being insidiously suspicious.
Composer Joseph Trapanese—whose credits include the 2013 Tom Cruise flick Oblivion, the 2018 Robin Hood reboot starring Taron Egerton and Jamie Foxx, and Netflix’s Project Power—maximizes Shadow and Bone with his score. A superb match for the series, its spirited orchestral sounds remind me a little of Ludwig Göransson’s musical inclinations, particularly the ones he displays as the composer for the Disney+ Star Wars show The Mandalorian.
Now, let’s get into how this show handles representation. I think the most significant issue is its decision to cast a hapa (someone who identifies as of mixed Asian or Pacific Islander descent) actor to play Alina, who was originally a white Ravkan in the books. Heisserer stated that the goal was to make Alina feel like an outsider in her world, which was why they changed her from white to part Shu and included several beats that saw her enduring casual racism. While I appreciate the well-meaning foundation of this move as a hapa viewer myself, its heavy-handed and superficial execution leaves me frustrated. We never get to learn anything about the nation of Shu Han beyond the fact that they’re an “other” and Ravka hates them for some reason, whereas the books made it clear that Ravka discriminates against Shu Han because of its centuries-long invasion attempts. On the web, you’ll find quite a few viewers who would have preferred the nonexistence of racism in this fantasy world. I believe the racism is actually a necessary aspect, but I just wish the show would have taken the time to educate us on who the Shu are as a people and nuance the prejudice that Ravka holds against them, especially in this current real-life period of ferocious anti-Asian racism. This falls into the trope of YA adaptations glossing over the challenging and complex elements of their source material in order to simplify themselves into easily digestible products for mainstream audiences. I hope the second season will explore the racism more thoughtfully and go into a deeper background on the Shu.
I must say, I’m glad there was very little, if any, backlash against the change of Alina’s race. In fact, fans have been greatly supportive of it. I suspect it’s due to the Grishaverse fandom being much more welcoming and open-minded than, say, the Star Wars fandom—or at least the bigoted incels who felt it was their duty to vomit racist venom at John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran.
I commend the show for its efforts at presenting a cast with more racial diversity than in the novels, which were pretty much LOTR-level white. But it was incredibly disappointing to hear that they hired white Hungarian stunt double Vellai Krisztina for Inej’s stunts, painting her brown and dressing her in a brown bodysuit. You’d hope Hollywood would be smart enough to steer clear of brownface, but no. I do want to point out that people shouldn’t have jumped down Bardugo’s throat for this. As closely involved as she was with the writing of the show, I’m sure she didn’t have say over the stunt casting. In general, it’s atypical for authors—aside from such exceptions as J.K. Rowling and E.L. James—to retain significant control over the screen versions of their property after selling off the licensing rights. If you’re going to give anyone heat, it should be Heisserer, the casting director, or whoever else was in charge of this reprehensible decision. Same goes for the choice to cast Eva Harangozó, another white Hungarian, to do Mei Li’s stunts. Come on, Hollywood, it’s not that hard to find stunt people of color.
As for the LGBTQ+ rep, it squeezes this in through Nadia (Gabrielle Brooks), who drops a casual remark that Zoya shouldn’t pine over Kirigan but instead spend more time with her; Fedyor Kaminsky (Julian Kosovo) and Ivan (Simon Sears), who are seen adorably feeding each other at a fete hosted at the Little Palace; and Jesper, who flirts with a stableboy and then sleeps with him off-screen. Again, this doesn’t come without its drawbacks—specifically in regard to the depiction of Jesper as the only queer main character on the show so far and the “promiscuous queer character” stereotype into which he somewhat falls. It’s not like he’s indiscriminately fooling around with a string of partners, but it still comes off as a little trope-y. At the same time, I appreciate that the show accomplishes this so casually, and that it may have wanted to explicitly push Jesper’s romantic pursuits in order to counteract the viewers who didn’t read the books and might try to deny his identity by looking at him through straight goggles. I thought for a second that it might have been a better alternative for the show to introduce Wylan Van Eck, Jesper’s primary love interest in Six of Crows, but the addition of yet another lead probably would have made the cast feel overstuffed.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: adaptations, specifically the YA sort, are notorious for crashing miles away from the landing strip and exploding into a white-hot blaze. Despite this, I became intrigued enough by the news about Netflix adapting Shadow and Bone that I read the first book back in January, then proceeded to complete the rest of the Grisha Trilogy. Even though it had its flaws (the Chosen One cliché, Mal being the personification of rancid butter, an overarching YA tone to the writing that thankfully fades away in Bardugo’s subsequent work), I enjoyed the immersive worldbuilding, the twists and turns of the gripping story, and the roster of complex side characters. Then I got into Six of Crows, which swept me away with its cast of deeply appealing and richly drawn antiheroes, expanded the landscape of the Grishaverse, and displayed just how much Bardugo’s writing has evolved since her debut, though the plotting didn’t captivate me as much as that of the Shadow and Bonenovels (after watching the show, I read the King of Scars books, and hooboy, do some major things come to pass there!). With all that source material in hand, I went into the show and found it to be such a gratifying experience. While the world could have been better defined and the anti-Shu racism could have been treated more nimbly, the Netflix series is the rare YA page-to-screen adaptation that enriches its source material and even improves on some of its flaws. I don’t know why Netflix is taking so long to green-light Season 2, but they better get around to it soon.
On a side note, this gets my hopes up for the Hulu series adaptation of A Court of Thorns and Roses, the fantasy series by Sarah J. Maas. I haven’t seen showrunner Ronald D. Moore’s TV adaptation of the Outlander novels, but people love the show from what I’ve heard and are holding it up as proof of his ability to give the television treatment to female-led stories with prominent elements of fantasy and romance. Battlestar Galactica and Apple TV’s For All Mankind are included in his credits, too. Maas is teaming up with him to write the pilot, so this should be an indication that she’ll be closely involved with the project. This runs along the same track as Outlander, since author Diana Gabaldon also played a major part in the TV adaptation. In addition, the upcoming Percy Jackson series on Disney+, with which author Rick Riordan will be heavily involved, is another adaptation for which I’m crossing my fingers.
So, those are my non-spoilery two cents on Netflix’s Shadow and Bone. I’m now raising the spoiler alarm for the show and the novels.
All my love and prayers go to you, folks. Stay healthy and stay strong.
Windup score: 94/100
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
The first thing I want to talk about is Alina. In the novels, she came off as a bland protagonist who grumbled about not being pretty and didn’t get to show off much of her badassery until Ruin and Rising, the third and final book in the Shadow and Bone trilogy. On the show, she’s given a great deal more agency and becomes more of an enthralling heroine to follow. One notable moment is her dropping the “you could have had all this with me” line in the seventh episode as she spurns Kirigan—or rather the Darkling, as he’s known in the novels. This is the scene in which she makes it clear that there could have been a future for her and the Darkling if he’d been a truly considerate and honest partner instead of a manipulative and lying dictator. She didn’t get to stand up to him like this in the first book, so it’s hugely gratifying to see this play out onscreen.
Another strong beat for Alina comes in form of her saving everyone on the skiff in the Fold and leaving behind the Darkling in the eighth and final episode of the season. It’s a change—and a positive one at that—from the climax of the first book, which sees her rescuing Mal, then abandoning the skiff and letting the volcra slaughter the Grisha onboard.
By the way, just as Alina has more agency on the show, Mal does as well. In the source material, the Darkling sends Mal after the Stag, but on the show, he ventures to capture it after finding Alina’s sketches of the awe-inspiring creature. This is an example of good storytelling that centers on proactive characters driving the plot rather than the plot driving reactive characters.
Admittedly, I have a gripe with the Sun Summoner visuals—specifically, the blown-out look of her skin-glow those first few times she utilizes her powers. I understand this is a TV budget, not a film budget, but I would have liked the effects to be polished up a little more. The CGI improves when she’s summoning her light sans skin-glow. As for the antlers of the Stag (a fabled creature that was killed and then resurrected to be turned into an amplifier, which can be used to jack up the Grisha’s powers), I find the visuals of them melding with Alina’s collarbone to be as spectacular as they are unnerving. The way they sink through her skin, the skin separating and then reforming over them, and the ends of the antlers projecting from her collarbone are grotesque sights that will stick to my brain for a while. In the first book, Alina merely wore the amplifier like a necklace, but the costume designer brought up the practical challenges that would arise if Mei Li were to wear the antlers around her neck for an extensive period of time. Going the body horror-tinged route, in my opinion, worked out well in the end.
If you haven’t read the Grisha Trilogy, let me warn you that this next comment will spoil some of the ending. At the Little Palace Fete, the Conductor apparently kills Alina, but then she actually turns out to be fellow Grisha Marie (Jasmine Blackborow), whom Genya disguised as Alina. This is a nod to the denouement of the Grisha Trilogy in which Alina fakes her death and has Genya alter Marie’s body to look like an Alina double, tricking the public into believing the Sun Summoner is the one burning on her funeral pyre.
One of the biggest deviations that the show takes from what was written by Bardugo (who had a cameo in the third episode as a Grisha who hugged Alina in the scene where she’s presented to the king) is its portrayal of Malina (Mal/Alina). On the page, their friends-to-lovers romance overflows with unnecessary angst—the majority of which pours from Mal, an insecure whiner who somehow didn’t recognize the feelings he had for Alina until she suddenly became the Sun Summoner. Though there were a few admittedly swoony beats, Mal remained jealous, unsupportive, and all-around insufferable by the end of the trilogy, leaving me feeling like an unwilling passenger on the Malina ship. On the show, however, it’s much easier to get onboard. Mal comes across as much more mature and caring right from the get-go, increasing tenfold his likability and the audience’s desire to see the two kids get their HEA. As for Alina, she gives off the air of being more confident and at ease with herself than she was on the page, especially when a passing girl compliments Mal in the first episode. In the book, Alina reacted incredibly jealously, but she didn’t seem to care too much on the show.
One example of how much Mal’s character has been rewritten occurs early on in the show when he rejects Zoya’s advances ahead of entering the Fold in the first episode—a major change from their running off to rustle up the bedsheets together in the start of Book 1. The show makes this choice to demonstrate that Mal is fairly aware of the feelings he has for Alina, even if they appear to be nothing more than best friends on the outside, and it encourages us to start rooting for Malina that much more quickly. Plus, it isn’t often when media portrays guys as being fully capable of retaining their sexual consent and turning down come-ons from others.
The numerous flashbacks to Keramzin, a southern city near the border of Shu Han in which Alina and Mal spent their childhood together at an orphanage, help to build up their relationship for the audience. Alina using the pain of covertly cutting her hand to suppress any powers she might have while being tested to determine if she’s a Grisha is a touching character beat, proving how dead set she is on staying with Mal at Keramzin rather than being separated from him to be conscripted into the Second Army. This is a slight change from the book, where she’s simply so determined to fail the test that she instinctively smothers her abilities without the extra pain or anything else. Then there’s the flashback that reveals Mal learning that Alina is in the brig after talking back to a military guy who insulted her, going after the guy to sock him, getting himself locked up in the brig for the night with Alina, and finding that the scar he just gave his hand matches the one Alina got when she cut her own hand back at Keramzin. Ohhh, the precious expression on his face in that moment is *chef’s kiss*.
The show keeps from its source material the letters that Alina and Mal keep sending each other while the former is at the Little Palace and the latter is serving the First Army. The show also retains the letters being intercepted by, as we learn towards the end, Genya on the Darkling’s behalf, leaving the other kids perplexed and hurt as they wait for responses that will never arrive. What the show doesn’t include is the prolonged resentment that, in the book, starts with a petulant Mal stalking off after reuniting with Alina and arguing with her over the letters, then stretches out for quite a few more chapters until they escape into the woods and finally resolve their trivial dispute. No, the show takes a different route by having them sort out the fact that they haven’t been receiving each other’s letters as soon as they flee the Little Palace, followed by the two of them immediately going back to being close buddies with that layer of romance simmering underneath and heading off to track down the Stag. That’s right, none of the sulking that would have been agonizing to watch play out onscreen. Not even when Alina implies that she’d been falling for the Darkling does Mal succumb to immaturity. I’ve been a witness to the romance trope of characters getting their signals crossed and sinking themselves into a pit of resentment as a way to progress the narrative. Unless you can make their fight feel believable, it usually comes across as a hackneyed eye-roller. So I’m grateful that the show resists the chance to trek into those waters by having Mal care solely about protecting Alina and not giving a crap what happened between her and the Darkling.
The show depicts the Darkling, who is an amplifier himself, somewhat differently from his literary incarnation. He isn’t even called “Kirigan” in the books. He does reveal that his first name is “Aleksander” to Alina, although it doesn’t happen until the end of Ruin and Rising. In Book 1, he exuded strong creepy vibes while snaking his tentacles around Alina, particularly during that scene in which he kissed her out of nowhere and came across like a full-on sexual predator. Seriously, why is grooming such a popular trope in YA fantasy? Look, I know there are tons of Darklina fans out there, and you can do you when it comes to the ships you decide to climb on. Personally, Darklina gives me the shudders, and I very much wish their dynamic hadn’t been colored by romantic tension throughout the whole trilogy. It wasn’t as excruciating as the drama between Clary and Jace in those first three books in the Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments series, but still.
While the Darkling does retain some of his shadiness on the show, it’s delivered in a much more subtle fashion that might make viewers who bypassed the books question whether he’s supposed to be a hero or a villain for the first half of the series. That is, until Baghra spills the beans to Alina in the fifth episode, revealing that he’s the Black Heretic—the infamous tyrant who created the Fold all those centuries ago—and that Baghra herself is his mother. Unlike his literary portrayal, though, the show doesn’t paint him as a force of Voldemort-degree wickedness. Instead, the seventh episode gives us his backstory in which he grieves Luda (Lucy Griffiths), his Healer and lover who was killed by Ravkan soldiers, and then inadvertently created the Fold during his attempt to take control of the soldiers that Ravka dispatched to arrest him—soldiers who ended up transforming into the first volcra. As someone who tends to find villains more compelling if they’re multilayered characters who have relatable motives and could be viewed as heroes if we were to flip the story around to tell it from their side, I’m into this sympathetic spin on the Darkling for the most part. But I do think Luda is an unnecessary part of his backstory. For one thing, fridging is one of my least favorite tropes, so it bothers me that stories being told in today’s media continue to fall back on it. Plus, I always got the sense that the Darkling felt like Alina was The One for him—a partner who understands him and what it’s like to deploy such revolutionary power. According to the show, though, it seems like we’re supposed to believe he had deep enough of a connection with Luda to spur him on to take risks with his powers after she was killed. I would’ve preferred his backstory cutting out Luda and concentrating instead on his dedication to defending Grisha from persecution, which would achieve the same goal of making him a bad guy with whom viewers can empathize on some level.
Of course, he’s still a bad guy in the end, exercising manipulation and deceit on not only Alina, but also Zoya, whom we learn had hooked up with him in the past (an element of the show that contrasts with the lack of a physical relationship between them and her simply being his favorite Grisha in the books), and Genya, whom the Darkling planted in the Little Palace as his 11-year-old spy and therefore sacrificed her to the rapist king. Even when he tells Alina, “Fine, make me your villain,” it feels like yet another shot at gaslighting by shifting the blame to her and implying that she’s concocting a monstrous image of him in her head. This is the toxic aspect of his character that remains faithful to his written depiction—the dark charisma that reels in people around him, the gaslighting that he uses to turn them into tools for his plans, and the ruthlessness with which he pursues his goals by any means possible. The show deserves credit for humanizing him and writing him so convincingly that it planted seeds of doubt in me at times and left me speculating about his feelings toward Alina. Was he expressing genuine affection for her when he did things like telling her to call him “Aleksander” and darting all of those meaningful glances at her, or were those gestures the signs of an attention-seeking narcissist? My conclusion is the latter.
I really am glad that Heisserer had the insight to integrate the Crows into the first season. Focusing solely on the Shadow and Bone storyline probably would have been good enough, but the Crows are such vibrant characters that I imagine the show wouldn’t have been as entertaining without them. It’s also nice to see them pre-Six of Crows, a duology in which they’re at the top of their game in Ketterdam. Here on the show, we’re being handed a lens into their lives as they’re wading their way through the criminal underworld. That’s why Kaz doesn’t display as much impervious confidence as he did in Six of Crows. He even goes so far as to literally flinch here and there, which he would never do in the books. I just want to say that one of Kaz’s best moments is when he betrays the Conductor (Howard Charles), the smuggler who ferried them across the Fold in his train, after learning that he’d been double-dealing with General Zlatan and planning to assassinate Alina. Kaz is certainly the kind of sly rascal who would be difficult to stab in the back before he does the same to you and rips out your eye for good measure (the latter act being something he actually did on the page). Kaz using a smoke bomb to evade the Darkling is an excellent beat, too.
I just want to commend Carter here for embodying Kaz—a young man who loathes physical contact—and being able to give small but crucial reactions to the few times that people brush up against him on the show. This is an incredibly important part of Kaz, who finds it necessary to put up emotional and psychological shields in front of everyone, including Inej. Readers will recall her literary quote: “I will have you without armor, Kaz Brekker, or I will not have you at all.” I hope the rest of the show can do this slow burn romance justice and refrain from rushing it.
As for Inej, I love her arc in regard to her growing reverence of Alina as the Sun Summoner, which peaks once she witnesses Alina summon the light for the first time at the Little Palace Fete. It’s also engaging to watch a believer like her keep a steadfast commitment to her faith in the face of Kaz’s atheistic skepticism. Oh, and let’s not forget to mention that exhilarating moment when she stabs the Darkling. If you need any proof that it was worth it to weave the Crows into the Shadow and Bone plot, this is it.
And then there’s Jesper. Oh, Jesper, Jesper, Jesper—the mischievous gunslinger who delivers some of the most amusing lines on the show, builds up an unexpectedly touching friendship arc with Inej, and befriends the nugget of gold that is Milo. I can’t wait to see more of this scamp, especially once he’s with Wylan. The show also does a good job alluding to his Grisha powers, e.g. the train fight in the Fold in which he closes his eyes and manages to shoot all the volcra, and then him shooting over his shoulder at Inej’s card.
Let’s go back to Milo for a minute, because I did not expect to come out of this series obsessing over a goat. But that’s what Shadow and Bone did, kicking it off by having the Conductor apparently bring Milo on the trip across the Fold as bait they can use to distract the volcra. The real reason, as it turned out, was to mollify Jesper with an emotional support goat. Writer and co-executive producer Daegen Fryklind included him as a tribute to her rescue dog. This develops into a delightful throughline that gives Jesper more opportunities to flaunt his charm. It even lets Mal join in on the fun during his brief interaction with Milo towards the end of the season. I’m crossing my fingers for Milo’s return.
Out of all the onscreen ships, Helnik (“Helvar” + “Zenik”) is my hands-down favorite, what with their sharp banter and the irresistible chemistry between the performers. They have scores of adorable moments together, but the one that tops the list for me happens during their mountain trek in episode six. A scene ripped straight from the source material, this is when Nina (whom the show reveals is a spy for the Darkling, an interesting change from the source material) finally gets Matthias to admit he likes her, which is bad, according to him. When Nina asks why that is, he replies, “Because you’re horrible. You’re loud and lewd and treacherous.” The quote, the breathiness with which Skogman says “treacherous,” the warm look he gives his co-star—yes, top-notch. Even outside of the show, Galligan and Skogman give off major Helnik vibes. I’m not saying I need them to be a real-life couple, but at the very least, it seems like they’ve become good friends off-set.
Like the rest of the cast, you’ve got spot-on casting with these two. Galligan brings the right energy that’s needed for someone as sassy as Nina, and it’s good to see the show include plus-size representation by taking a curvy character on the page and casting a curvy actor to play her. I know this sounds like it should be a given, but prior instances (*cough cough* Love, Simon) prove differently. As for Skogman, he expertly uses nonverbal cues to convey his character’s internal conflict over his ingrained hatred of Grisha and his increasing affection for Nina. When he saves Nina from falling through the ice, for example, you can tell from the fleeting look on his face that he did consider dropping her, but then he pulled her up after overcoming the anti-Grisha discrimination instilled in him by his Fjerdan culture. It can be tough to communicate these kinds of thought processes via facial expressions, but Skogman achieves exactly this throughout his time onscreen.
Matthias getting arrested happens almost the same way as Bardugo wrote it. It starts a little differently on the page with Grisha spying on Nina and Matthias and her having to convince her fellow soldiers that she’s working undercover. The rest of it transpires similarly to the show, with Nina approaching a Kerch merchant and accusing Mathias of being a slaver, knowing the Grisha would kill him if they captured him, whereas the Kerch would keep him alive if they took him into their custody first. In Six of Crows, this results in Matthias being thrown in the blatantly named prison of Hellgate for a year and despising Nina for seemingly selling him down the river, while Nina does all she can to retract her charge and get him out. On the show, he does, as he’s in his cell, hit Nina with some of the churlishness that Mal would have dished out in the novels. So I’m hoping he doesn’t act like that for too long the next time we see them, because I want Matthias to mirror the thoughtfulness of Onscreen Mal rather than the pettiness of Book Mal.
Zoya is thinly characterized in Book 1 as the mean girl who wants to crush Alina and regain her spot as the Darkling’s favorite Grisha. However, she gets much more fleshed-out in the following two installments, then goes on to become one of the leads in King of Scars. So I’m happy the show adds some depth to her and gets us to connect with her more easily. One way it achieves this is by bringing up the fact that she partakes in these journeys through the Fold to visit her aunt in Novokribirsk, the West Ravkan town into which the Darkling expands the Fold in the season finale. In the Shadow and Bone books, it wasn’t revealed why Zoya decided to desert the Darkling and team up with Alina. But in King of Scars, we learn that Zoya switched sides because her aunt was one of the many casualties at Novokribirsk. The inclusion of this detail in Season 1 is vital for Zoya’s story—almost as much as her and Alina’s hug, which didn’t happen in the first book but is a much-welcomed addition that seems to set the two of them on a quicker path to friendship than they had on the page.
Genya and David Kostyk (Luke Pasqualino), the Grisha Fabrikator with whom she’s smitten, don’t share too much screentime together, but the few awkward glances they get to exchange are glorious. As for their betrayal of Alina, it’s just as heartbreaking as it was in Book 1. You can understand the positions they’re stuck in, though. David looked deeply torn as he followed the Darkling’s command to put the amplifier around Alina’s neck and tether her to the general. It’s especially easy to feel for Genya, considering what she’s had to endure. When she points out to Alina that she warned her about “powerful men” like the Darkling and the king, it reminds us that they’re the ultimate source of all this torment and abuse.
Almost everything about the finale carries the day—the skiff climax; the Crows joining in on the action; the visuals of the light tunnel inside the Fold; Inej stabbing the Darkling; Alina saving everyone on the skiff rather than leaving them high and dry like she did in the book; Alina, Mal, Zoya, and the Crows taking time afterwards to sit around a campfire and rest; Alina and Zoya’s hug; Alina paying off Kaz with the necklace and him planning to use one of the jewels to pay off Inej’s debt to the Menagerie (that must be one mighty valuable rock); Alina, Mal, the Crows, Nina, and Matthias all ending up on the same ship; and the Darkling emerging from the Fold with the nichevo’ya, his horde of shadow soldiers named after the Ravkan word for “nothing,” forming behind him. The only real stumbling block is that contrived fistfight between Mal and the Darkling inside the Fold; the Darkling could have just used the Cut to try to slice Mal with a blade of darkness.
So that’s the Netflix original series Shadow and Bone. In case I haven’t made my case clearly enough, this is a terrific YA adaptation and it gets me geared up for more. I’ve heard the Big Red N has already approved Season 2, but they’re just waiting to make a public announcement. It’s going to be exciting to see who will get cast as roguish privateer and prince Nikolai Lantsov. I’m curious as to whether the show will accelerate the timeline so that the heists and the gambits of Six of Crows unfold alongside the thrilling fantasy adventure of Shadow and Bone. I actually wouldn’t be opposed to this, since the writers have already shown themselves to be proficient at interweaving the two storylines together.
And with that, no mourners, no funerals.