‘Shadow and Bone’: Recapping Netflix’s Next Fantasy Hit

By Ilse Barkmeijer

Netflix’s Original series based on the popular YA novels by Leigh Bardugo blends sweeping romances, elaborate new worlds, mysterious magic, and more into a bingeworthy escapist show. The show is currently developing a second season.

With season two of Netflix’s hit Shadow and Bone currently in the making it’s not unfavourable to take a look at Netflix’s first season and the books which inspired the story. A lot of viewers binge-watched Netflix’s escapist fantasy series Shadow and Bone in a matter of days. It was no surprise that Eric Heisserer’s Netflix Original was one of the most watched shows in the United States the weekend it debuted, second only to Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Recognizable elements like the dark tone of the series, ugly monsters, some form of magic and a lot of hot actors make the series feel like the next The Witcher (although Shadow and Bone is more suitable for a younger audience, hence less gore and more romance). As an adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s popular YA novel series, Shadow and Bone succeeds to offer an irresistible blend of romance, action and intrigue, all wrapped up in an aesthetic that is part imperial Russian, part steampunk. In times of a pandemic, which can feel dystopian in and of itself, you can easily lose yourself in this show due to its human heart, fine sense of humour, and lovely characters.  

Ben Barnes and Jessie Mei Li in Shadow and Bone (Netflix)

Shadow and Bone is set in the kingdom of Ravka, a country currently at war with its neighbouring countries, Shu Han and Fjerda. Ravka itself is divided into two by a dark void called the Fold, which is populated by shadowy monsters called Volcra. These lethal creatures make passing through the Fold nearly impossible. The kingdom’s defence against the Fold, and the army against the enemies from neighbouring countries, are the first and second army. The latter is a population of various users of ‘small science’ (or a combination of magic and molecular chemistry) called Grisha, the elite. The story centres on a teenage girl called Alina Starkov (played in the TV series by Jessie Mei Li). Like many YA fantasy protagonists, Alina is an orphan and in no way special, mostly according to herself. That is until she is plucked from her life as a first army mapmaker, once she has unleashed the power to manipulate sunlight, she is declared as the “the chosen one”. Her new life is filled with magic, training, intrigue, and of course she gets caught up in a love triangle – between her devoted childhood friend Mal (Archie Renaux), and the handsome yet sinister General Kirigan (Ben Barnes).  

But if this is not your kind of story, no worries, there’s more. In the island nation of Kerch, a trio of rogues who call themselves the Crows – Kaz (Freddy Carter), Inej (Amita Suman), and Jesper (Kit Young) – take on a job to cross the Fold and kidnap the Sun Summoner (Alina) to earn a small fortune from a Kerch crime boss. Elsewhere, a Grisha named Nina (Danielle Galligan) is kidnapped by a group of Fjerdans, who despise magic, and forms an unexpected bond with one of her captors, Matthias (Calahan Skogman), after they get shipwrecked.  

This is all a lot on paper, which makes Shadow and Bone feel quite complicated at times. Although the show manages to juggle these numerous tones and plot elements, the somewhat rapid changes can confuse newcomers to the Grishaverse. Especially the Crows plot feels like a divergence from the main storyline, with the Crows mainly functioning as comic relief. It is not until the second half of the show that the two storylines collide at full force, creating the possibility for a grand finale. Still, the show is quite easy to absorb, as you don’t need a character key to keep track, unlike, say, Game of Thrones.  

It helps that Shadow and Bone features an appealing cast, composed mainly of newcomers. Li, who has a background in theatre, has the acting chops and charisma to make us root for Alina and her cause. Archie Renaux makes us wish we all had a best friend like Mal, and fantasy veteran Ben Barnes (from Stardust to The Chronicles of Narnia) makes Kirigan the mysterious general that he is, with many women swooning over the looks of both men. But the ones who are most enjoyable to watch, and seem to have the most fun with their roles are Carter, Suman and Young as the Crows. They get into the most shenanigans, whether Jesper seduces and beds a stablehand to pull off a heist, or Inej struggles with the morally grey areas of assassination. The most impressive performance, in the little screen time they get, is given by Galligan and Skogman. They have the skills to make the characters of the flirtatious Nina and the sulking and serious Matthias unforgettable. Jesper’s comfort goat Milo makes the cast even more appealing, as he immediately became a fan favourite.  

A big part of what makes the show feel like a fresh wind in fantasy on TV is that the Shadow and Bone cast, unlike Game of Thrones and The Witcher, isn’t all-white. Considering the fantasy genre as a whole and where it was, even a few years ago – the fact that an Asian British actress is the main lead of a major fantasy series is significant. Bardugo already tried to diversify her books more when she wrote the Six of Crows duology as an elaboration of the Grishaverse, creating characters with different backgrounds, ethnicities, and sexualities. The show goes even further by casting a more diverse range of actors rather than Bardugo’s all-white Shadow and Bone characters. Racial bias is directly addressed in the show itself, as Alina is half-Ravkan and half-Shu, because of which she must deal with her fair share of discrimination from both the powers that be and her fellow Grisha. The show does, however, fail its only openly queer character, Jesper. In the first season, he only has one intimate moment with a man when he has sex with him as part of a manipulative strategy that serves the greater good. After this, Jesper never sees the boy again. Hopefully this insufficient portrayal will be different in future seasons of the show. 

Amita Suman, Freddy Carter, Archie Renaux and Kit Young in Shadow and Bone (Netflix)

Besides great casting and characters, the show’s costume designer Wendy Partridge and her team did mind-boggling work on making the show come alive. Their detailed work is amazingly captured in over-the-shoulder shots and full-length walks. The costumes manage to establish the hierarchies in Ravka, which is shown by colour differences as well as intricately stitched details. The show’s set and visual effects are just as suitably lavish. The world comes to life through such lavish use of colour and other visuals that you can’t help but look at it with awe. Not only do the costumes and the set design look amazing, but the fights and magic wielding are truly and utterly stunning. This visual spectacle creates an alternate reality that any fan would love to live in. And as the magic comes to life on the screen, viewers wish that magic would spring from their hands if they made the same gesture combinations as the characters.  

Of course, the world which is brought to life in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone could not have existed without Bardugo’s worldbuilding in her Grishaverse books. Her refreshing approach to create a ‘Steampunk tsarist Russia’ aesthetic rather than the medieval England setting of a lot of popular fantasy books makes for an interesting story. Ravka thus immediately gives off a unique vibe and hooks readers and viewers into exploring the world that Bardugo has created. Furthermore, the world at war is rich in subtext: race, class, poverty, crime, sexual politics, the relationship between the state and the individual. It would be a shame if the great range of angles provided would be overlooked. Every institution that the young people encounter, be it a gang, a class, or the army, wants something from them in exchange for the meagre protections they offer. Ravka therefore seems to be populated by old people who give orders and kids who do all the work, with no one in between. Because of this, historical Russia, which the world is based on, becomes a surprisingly fertile ground for a mirror of contemporary generational politics.  

For the readers of Bardugo’s books, the series would be easier to follow, and less overwhelming, than for new fans, as they were already familiar with her world and its rules. For them, Heisserer’s changes and the combination of the Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows duology make for an exciting development. Because who wouldn’t want all their favourite characters put together in one big story? The changes also raise questions about the future developments in the show and its two storylines, especially because the readers of the books will already know what the next chapter of the story will entail.  

Whereas the typical YA fantasy tropes in Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone are at times very repetitive and boring, Heisserer manages to use them to his advantage. He understands very well when viewers love a good trope and uses them, at times, unexpectedly. Magical makeovers? There are several of them. A scene in which two enemies who are clearly into each other are forced to share one bed? Got that too. A villain who was hiding in plain sight, and is, by the way, immortal? He’s here for you. This series knows that its audience loves the familiarity of the fantasy-adventure-romance and will gladly deploy these tropes as entertainment value over originality.   

Honestly, this doesn’t make the show unworthy. Because the audience for YA is primarily young women, shows like Shadow and Bone are often labeled as low-brow culture. Is Shadow and Bone ever going to be a ‘prestigious’ series or going to change the way we think about television? Probably not. It is, however, an irresistibly enjoyable piece of entertainment for those who appreciate a bit of magic and political palace intrigue. 

Ilse Barkmeijer is a postgraduate student of Dutch and English literature and is currently a MA Literature Today student at Utrecht University. She is an avid reader of everything she can get her hands on, but mainly enjoys reading romance fiction. As editor of RevUU she developed her editing skills as well as learning to understand the critical voices of others.

Works Cited

  • Bardugo, Leigh. Crooked Kingdom. Orion Children’s Books, 2016. 
  • —. Ruin and Rising. Orion Children’s Books, 2014. 
  • —. Shadow and Bone. Orion Children’s Books, 2012. 
  • —. Siege and Storm. Orion Children’s Books, 2013. 
  • —. Six of Crows. Orion Children’s Books. 2015. 
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Directed by Andrew Adamson, performances by Ben Barnes, Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley, Walt Disney Pictures, 2008. 
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Directed by Michael Apted, performances by Ben Barnes, Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley, Walt Disney Pictures, 2010.  
  • Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic Press, 2008.  
  • The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, created by Malcolm Spellman, Disney+, 2021-. Disney+, http://www.disneyplus.com/nl-nl/series/the-falcon-and-the-winter-soldier/4gglDBMx8icA. 
  • Game of Thrones, created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, HBO, 2011-2019. 
  • “Shadow and Bone.” IMDb¸ 25 Apr. 2021, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2403776/. 
  • Shadow and Bone, created by Eric Heisserer, Netflix Original, 2021-. Netflix¸ http://www.netflix.com/watch/80236160?. 
  • Stardust. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, performances by Charlie Cox, Claire Danes and Sienna Miller, Marv Films and Ingenious Film Partners, 2007. Netflix¸ http://www.netflix.com/watch/70054920?. 
  • The Witcher¸ created by Lauren Schmidt, Netflix Original, 2019-. Netflix, http://www.netflix.com/watch/80244464?. 

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