Review: SHADOW AND BONE, the Next Great YA Adaptation Has Arrived
Jessie Mei Li, Ben Barnes and Archie Renaux star in the dramatic action-fantasy, now streaming on Netflix.
Where there’s a vocal, dedicated fanbase, a fantasy, supernatural, or science-fiction setting tied to a relatively popular book series, cable and streaming companies are sure to follow, ever eager to find the next Game of Thrones or Stranger Things.
The made-for-streaming adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s fantasy-adventure series, the Shadow and Bone series, may not match the commercial or critical response of either Game of Thrones or Stranger Things but viewed on its own merits, Shadow and Bone is the next best thing: A handsomely mounted, spare-almost-no-expense, enthralling adaptation featuring well-developed central characters, sharp conflicts and/or stakes, and deep world-building the equal of practically any fantasy or science-fiction series of the last quarter-century.
That might sound like hyperbole, but sometimes — and this just might be that time — it's more than merited. Starting with a masterstroke, a recognizable, but relatively fresh setting and time period, 18th-century Tsarist Russia, Bardugo constructed a multi-layered world filled with particularized, granular details, from religious sects to court politics, to pre- and modern-warfare, and everything in between, added an alchemical mix of magic, magic users with extraordinary, elemental powers, and familiar, if not unwelcome, bits of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (see, e.g., everything from Luke Skywalker in Star Wars and even science-fiction and fantasy series since), into a uniquely compelling piece of YA fiction, something Netflix and creator Eric Heisserer (Arrival, Bird Box, Lights Out) obviously understood when they decided to bring Bardugo’s fantasy-adventure series to streaming life.
Shadow and Bone centers on Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li, in a career- and possibly star-making turn), an orphan of uncertain parentage drafted into the First Army of the Kingdom of Ravka (Russia) as a cartographer. Along with her best friend, soul mate, and occasional romantic interest, Malyen “Mal” Oretsev (Archie Renaux), an infantryman in the First Army, they’re conscripted into participating in an incredibly dangerous, likely fatal mission: Cross the Fold, a monster-filled, wall-like smoke-cloud that spans hundreds of miles, separating East and West Ravka, making contact and commerce all but impossible (Ravka’s centuries-old enemies control the northern and southern borders). Only a few make the crossing and even fewer return. The others are lost to the human-hating monsters, the Volcra, that populate the Fold.
Alina and Mal survive the Fold, but only when Alina, on the verge of losing both Mal and her life to the Volcra, responds with her newly activated superpower, an inner light that unmasks Alina as the unique-to-Ravka, long-prophesied “sun summoner.” Alina’s status as anonymous cartographer to Chosen One brings her to the attention of the black-cloaked General Alexander Kirigan (Ben Barnes), the apparent yang to Alina’s ying: He’s a shadow summoner, intimately connected to the Fold and its powers, but incapable of defeating the Fold on his own. Together, Kirigan promises Alina they can reunite the two broken halves of their kingdom, but only after Alina, still a novice and unfamiliar with her powers, undergoes extensive training.
That plot turn effectively separates Alina and Mal in time and place, with only unread letters delivered via voiceover connecting them. As Kirigan, a mentor, guide, and at least initially, ally, ensures Alina receives treatment typical of the aristocracy, including attendants who serve her on the regular, Mal remains an unwashed foot-soldier in search of an angle that will bring him back into Alina’s orbit. Alina’s subsequent training at Kirigan’s complex, the Little Palace, follows a not unfamiliar pattern, from hand-to-hand combat alongside others of her super-powered kind, called “Grisha” here, to lengthy heart-to-heart talks with Baghra (Zoë Wanamaker), a less kind, less gentle Obi-Wan type tasked with getting a reluctant, hesitant Alina to tap into and control her powers.
The Alina-Mal-Kirigan plot runs in parallel with a secondary plot involving Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), a heist-minded gang leader, and his two confederates-in-crime, Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), his stealthy right-hand woman, and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young), his left-hand man (and sharpshooter). Minus world-changing or world-saving stakes and plus a lighter, more humorous touch, Kaz, Inej, and Jesper might feel like they’re part of the same universe, but far from the central story. That’s because Heisserer pulled all three characters from an entirely different, if related, book series, Six of Crows, fabricated an entirely new storyline for them, and added them to an already crowded mix.
Shadow and Bone threatens to stall permanently when Heisserer introduces a third, unwieldy storyline involving Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan), a Grisha with the power to control men and women’s hearts, and Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman), a Grisha hunter and religious zealot from a kingdom on the other side of the fjord, Fjerda. Matthias kidnaps Nina before she can join Kaz and his gang so she can be brought back to Fjerda for trial as a witch and summary execution (apparently a common practice in Fjerda). If not exactly a time-waster, it’s often more distracting than engaging and probably should have been left for a second or subsequent season.
But that’s a minor issue in a series filled with far more positives than negatives, a credit to Heisserer and his writing team. The key to that success was making Alina biracial, a major change from the source material, adding an extra layer of othering that Alina has spent a short lifetime confronting and overcoming.
Given Ravka’s state of perpetual war, it’s not surprising that war-related propaganda highlights the differences between the morally pure and good Kingdom of Ravka and its enemies. Even after Alina acquires Chosen One status, her biracial status becomes a point of friction and a source of mistrust for the xenophobic citizens of Ravka, including the less-than-benevolent monarchy that leans heavily on Kirigan and his powers to sustain their hold on Ravka.
Just as importantly, Shadow and Bone avoids the usual pitfalls of female-led YA adaptations, keeping the romantic subplot mostly in the background and ensuring Alina and her decisions, good and bad, drive the story towards its somewhat inevitable conclusion. Representation certainly matters, but so does agency, and Heisserer ensures Alina isn’t just a stand-in for genre tropes and conventions. Alina ultimately emerges as a fascinatingly flawed, three-dimensional character worthy of any viewer’s investment in time and labor.
Shadow and Bone is now streaming on Netflix.
Shadow and Bone
- Freddy Carter
- Jessie Mei Li
- Archie Renaux
- Amita Suman