Review: Shadow and Bone Series A Fantasy Hit For Netflix - Comic Years
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Shadow and Bone Brings Leigh Bardugo’s Epic Fantasy Adaptation To Netflix

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BY April 26, 2021

The first season of Shadow and Bone – the fantasy series by Leigh Bardugo – dropped on Netflix over the weekend. This gave fantasy fans the chance to fully immerse themselves in the world of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse. The series is an adaptation of the popular fantasy series, and there were several notable changes from the source material. Set in a vaguely Tsarist Russia inspired fantasy world, the story follows Alina Starkov as she discovers her innate world-changing magical powers. Alina quickly becomes entangled in politics and (seemingly) ancient history that is coming to life all around her. Let’s take a look at the first season of Shadow and Bone to see how the series came to life on Netflix.

Shadow and Bone Gives Us A Chosen One In Alina Starkov

Shadow and Bone Netflix Series Image via Netflix

The first season of the Shadow and Bone series on Netflix primarily revolves around Alina coming into her power, as she is set up to destroy something called The Darkfold. This is a giant magical barrier that was created hundreds of years prior by a dark wizard. The Shadowfold divides the country of Ravka, leading to all sorts of political and geographical complications. The fastest way to travel across the country is still to go through the darkness. Which is made more complicated by the bloodthirsty monsters residing within. (The monsters in question look like they were borrowed from the set of The Witcher – also on Netflix.)

The character of Alina is absolutely a Chosen One trope. When she discovers that she has the power to call on sunlight to destroy darkness, she is hailed as a saint. She is of course fulfilling prophecies about the ‘Sun Summoner’ that were written long before she was born. And like any chosen one, she struggles with what this means for her life and identity. Alina is quickly taken to the magic school for Grisha – the term for magic users in this world. There she must learn to master her magical abilities, and navigate tricky relationships with the other Grisha as well as their leader – the Darkling.

Casting An Asian Woman In The Lead Role Leads To In-World Racism

Shadow and Bone Alina Starkov Image via Netflix

Having only read the first book of the series, my memory of the Grishaverse was a bit fuzzy. However, even as a casual reader I could identify some of the major changes. First there is the character of Alina herself, who is depicted by an English actress of Chinese heritage – Jesse Mei Li. Casting a young woman of Asian descent in the main role brought an issue of race into the series. This was not an issue that was prevalent in the books. But it is something the showrunners feel the need to address in-world.

They explain this away by saying that Alina is descended from another ethnic group in the world – the Shu Han. This group is clearly coded as Asian in the series, so it makes sense to incorporate that as part of Alina’s identity. However, the show also felt it was necessary to include overt racism in the show that wasn’t in the books. Alina is referred to as a ‘half-breed’ several times, and faces discrimination from various people across the course of the series. But at no point does her being half-Shu actually affect the plot, or her character development.

Jesse Mei Li Is A Compelling Alina Starkov

Jesse Mei Li is excellent in the role of Alina Starkov. Her natural charm and wit serves her well, making her a far more likeable character in the show than she was in the first book. She also has natural chemistry with Ben Barnes, who plays her mentor; potential love interest, and ultimate villain in General Kirrigan – also known as the Darkling.

The power dynamics between Alina and the Darkling are compelling. We can see how a man with untold power manipulates those around him as easily as he breathes. It is also easy to see why young naive Alina would be drawn to him in a romantic way. And why she is blind to his villainous ways – that is until she learns the truth about his dark history.

Changing The Character of Mal To Be More Worthy Of Alina

Shadow and Bone Mal Image via Netflix

Unfortunately there is a certain amount of chemistry lacking between Alina and her other romantic interest – Mal (Archie Renaux). Mal is Alina’s best friend, they grew up together at an orphanage and have gone to great lengths to stay together over the years. Mal is also very clearly in love with Alina, and dedicates himself to helping her and protecting her however he can.

The character of Mal is another one that has changed significantly from his depiction in the books. In the source material, Mal is possessive, jealous, and controlling. The show has softened him considerably, turning him into the ideal love interest. This was a good move in theory. Unfortunately, Mal has very little personality or character development outside of Alina. And the lack of chemistry between the two actors make it hard to ‘ship them like the series wants us to do.

The Crows Are The Best Characters In Shadow and Bone

Shadow and Bone Crows Image via Netflix

The best change that the show made was introducing the characters who appear in the later Six of Crows duology. These characters are Kaz – the ringleader. Jesper – the sharpshooter. And Inej – the thief turned assassin. These characters don’t appear in the original trilogy of books, but they are among the most popular characters in the Grishaverse. The showrunners rearranged a couple of storylines in order to introduce them early. This leads to several of the main plotlines remaining disconnected for much of the series, which is a bit of an issue when it comes to coherent narrative. However, the strength of these characters make up for that dissonance.

SAB Inej Image via Netflix

I personally found the character of Inej (Amita Suman) to be the most compelling in the entire show. It’s unfortunate that she isn’t the primary protagonist, because she deserves far more screen time than she gets. Sold into sexual slavery at a young age, Inej is desperate to win her freedom. But she also has serious qualms around killing, something that inevitably happens in the show. Her moral conflict is something that definitely deserved more focus. But Inej steals every scene that she is in, and becomes a true believer in Alina who is depicted as a holy saint.

Give Me A Show That’s Just About Jesper and Inej Please

SAB Jesper Image via Netflix

The other stand-out character from the Crows is clearly Jesper (Kit Young). He is the rogue, the gambler, the cocky sharpshooter of the group. He is also one of the only characters clearly coded as queer, in a world full of very heteronormative romances. And honestly he is just the best. He is clearly the comic relief of the show, and one that is sorely needed in a world as dark and dreary as the Grishaverse can often be. His scenes with a goat are some of the best that the show has to offer. Every line of dialogue from Jesper is snappy and quick, and the actor is clearly having fun in the role. Honestly, I would watch an entire show just about Jesper and Inej.

Some Disconnected Storylines Will Inevitably Collide In The Future

Shadow and Bone Netflix Series Image via Netflix

There is another storyline that remains entirely disconnected from the others that did not work quite as well. This one focuses on a young Grisha named Nina (Danielle Galligan), who is captured by foreigners who hate all Grisha and want to try her for witchcraft. After a shipwreck, Nina must rely on one of her abductors in order to survive. This inevitably leads to a romance between the two, and a dramatic betrayal.

While the characters here are strong, the fact that this storyline never connects with Alina or the Crows makes it feel superfluous. It seems obvious that these storylines will converge in the second season, but the fact that they don’t intersect in the first season might be a bit jarring for viewers.

Shadow and Bone Is Best When It Doesn’t Take Itself Too Seriously

Alina Starkov SAB Image via Netflix

There is a trend in fantasy shows that really bothers me, and the Shadow and Bone series on Netflix falls into this trap at times. Ever since Game of Thrones aired over a decade ago, networks have been trying to copy the format or style of GOT. People seem to think the key to a successful fantasy show is to make it dark and gritty. This removes all of the wonder that is inherent in fantasy stories. It’s the same problem that Netflix ran into when making The Witcher. People are trying too hard to make “The Next Game of Thrones” that they do a disservice to whatever series being adapted by trying to force the fantasy into the same mold.

Shadow and Bone was a YA series written by Leigh Bardugo in the aftermath of Harry Potter and although there are certainly some dark and gritty elements, it is significantly more light-hearted than Game of Thrones was. But Netflix went down the same route they did with The Witcher, where they felt the need to ramp up the serious ‘reality’ of the world instead of the magic. And the magic is why people are tuning in.

The best parts of Shadow and Bone are when the show leans into the magic. Or when the show stops trying to take itself too seriously, and has a little fun. This is why Jesper is the best character in the show. Because he nails the light-hearted camp as well as the seriousness required for “epic” fantasy.

Shadow and Bone Is A Solid Fantasy Series From Netflix

Overall, the first season of Shadow and Bone is a solid fantasy series for Netflix. The actors are largely excellent, the story is thematically compelling, and the visuals are stunning. It has some tonal and narrative inconsistencies, but these can be corrected in a second season. As long as they stop trying to be the next Game of Thrones or Witcher, the series can only improve from here.

Shadow & Bone is streaming now on Netflix. For more genre news and reviews, be sure to follow Comic Years on Facebook and Twitter today.

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Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.

Epic FantasyFantasyLeigh BardugoNetflixShadow and BoneSix of CrowsTelevision SeriesTV ShowYA Fiction

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