When news broke that Netflix had ordered an eight-episode series of Shadow and Bone, the first book in the bestselling Grisha Trilogy, fans of the books were largely eager to see the Grishaverse (the overarching name of the five interrelated books) come to life. For the rest of us, however, our introduction to this high fantasy world didn’t happen until the series premiered last Friday. General online chatter suggests the show is slowly picking up steam as far as viewership is concerned—instant hits grow increasingly rare these days with the vast array of programming that’s now constantly being produced—but for those who haven’t been exposed to trailers or have found themselves tuning in to Netflix less often these days, you may have questions. Chief among them probably being something along the lines of “what the hell is a Grisha?”
A Grisha is an individual who is gifted with magical abilities ranging from the ability to change someone’s appearance (a “Tailor”) to harnessing wind power (a “Squaller”). However, there is one type of Grisha that exists only in the realm of myth: a Sun Summoner, one with the power to create light. For the believers, the Sun Summoner is the only hope for eliminating the enormous region of pure darkness known as The Shadow Fold (commonly known as simply “The Fold”) that has physically divided the kingdom of Ravka for hundreds of years. For those on either the east or the west side who wish to cross to the other, the trip is fraught with peril, as The Fold is populated by horrific creatures. This geographic division, and the politics that have emerged from it, has resulted in a civil war. Along with the war, Ravka must also constantly deal with hostile forces from neighboring countries, Fjerda to the north and Shu Han to the south, all the more reason for the Ravkan king to command two regiments: The Second Army consists of conscripted Grishas while The First Army consists solely of normal citizens trained for military service. Among those service members is Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a cartographer who clearly carries a torch for her lifelong best friend, tracker Malyen Orestev (Archie Renaux). When their regiment attempts to cross The Fold and things go terrifyingly wrong, Alina wields a previously unknown power that identifies her as, you guessed it, the long-awaited Sun Summoner. As Alina is whisked away to a new life as a Grisha, dangers both known and unknown emerge as she attempts to control her abilities and find a way to destroy The Fold to reunite this fiercely divided land.
With author Leigh Bardugo also serving as executive producer and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Arrival, Birdbox), an assortment of changes have been made to create this adaptation (disclaimer: I have not read the source material), specifically, combining the plots of several books into one season. The result is a series that alternates between Alina Starkov’s story, a ragtag team of seeming ne’er-do-wells, and an abducted Grisha who finds herself having to work with her captor in order to survive. This many bodies requires a large cast and as it so happens, that cast is pretty. Like, ridiculously pretty, though few are quite as pretty as General Kirigan, the Grisha leader who oversees The Second Army and longs to find the Sun Summoner, played by Ben Barnes. From the character description in the novel: He had a sharp, beautiful face, a shock of thick black hair, and clear gray eyes that glimmered like quartz. Yeah, I have a hard time imagining the casting folks doing any better than Barnes, who is clearly aware of how immensely attractive he is and uses it to great advantage. Each incident of extended eye contact and looming (goodness, can the man loom) is cultivated for maximum “UNF” from audience members with a penchant for floppy-haired Brits. Moments like when he narrowly saves Alina’s life are straight out of the adventure romance playbook and by God, it WORKS:
General Kirigan: “Are you hurt?”
Alina, wide-eyed: “No, not really.”
General Kirigan, extending a hand: “The others will have fled now they know I’m here. You ride with me.”
Alexa, play “Pony” by Ginuwine.
That same consideration for casting seems to extend to the remaining characters as well. In an already-interesting assortment of largely unknown actors, Freddy Carter as gang leader Kaz Brekker is a standout, a dazzling performer even when he’s simply scowling beneath a wide-brimmed hat (which is most of the time). Kaz Brekker spends most of his days robbing Peter to pay Paul with the help of sartorial sharpshooter Jesper Fahey (Kit Young), who’s the sort of delightful rogue that fancams were made for, and the mysterious Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), the knife-wielding spy with a dark past. Watching them undergo various side quests, the number of which rivals a Legend of Zelda game, and heists is delightful to watch.
Much has been made about the show’s diversity, and though it certainly makes strides in that department—much more so than recent Netflix “ooh diversity” darlings like Bridgerton and Ginny & Georgia—the fact that there isn’t a significant speaking role with a Black woman (my baseline for actual diversity) makes Shadow & Bone still fall short in this department (Nadiya, played by Gabrielle Brooks, is lovely but gets maybe three minutes of screen time, total). There is a nice amount of AAPI representation happening here, however. It’s also quite refreshing to see queer-coded characters actually get to be queer, as it makes the people who reside in this world feel even more authentic. With a story that requires this much world-building, you can put all of the intricate politics and magic you like, but without that impression of flesh and blood people residing in it, the whole thing falls apart. The show is certainly stronger for the diversity efforts it does make, but as usual, it can stand to do better.
Cynics will be quick to point out the number of exhausted tropes that exist in this series and it would be hard to prove them wrong. Most of the YA greatest hits are present here, such as “The Chosen One” and “The Love Triangle.” Indeed, it’s the primary reason why the show feels a bit rote for the first half of the season. However, things pick up tremendously in episode five, when all of the carefully arranged pieces start to get shaken up. Despite the fun directions the show takes, it’s undeniable that the biggest weakness is the fact that the central plot is the least interesting thing about it. Ben Barnes’ looming presence (no, really, he looms so good) largely saves it, but Mal and Alina truly are such well-worn tropes that viewers will likely find themselves eager to get back to the more compelling side characters. Altogether, however, the series is entertaining as all get out. It’s cliché, but there is likely something here for everyone, though those who are fond of the YearningTM brand of romance should find it especially diverting.
There hasn’t been official word from Netflix as to whether or not they’re renewing the show though it’s a safe bet that there will be at least one more season. I admit that I went into this as one of those aforementioned cynics but came out of it feeling utterly swept away. Season one of Shadow and Bone will certainly leave folks wanting more—that final minute, especially—of this fantasy series and the many tantalizing threads that remain unresolved.
Season one of Shadow and Bone is available to stream on Netflix.
Kaleena Rivera is a tv and film writer. When she isn’t wishing she can pet either Ben Barnes or Milo the emotional support goat, she can be found on Twitter here.
Header Image Source: Netflix