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Netflix's Shadow and Bone Will Satisfy Both Dedicated Fans and New Audiences

Make the Grishaverse adaptation your next binge. 

Shadow and Bone Netflix
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  • Photo Credit: Netflix

First published in 2012, Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone launched a young adult trilogy about Alina Starkov, a soldier from a war-torn country who discovers she has legendary light-summoning powers. A duology about a crew of thieves would follow, as would another duology and two short story collections. 

Together, these installments gave birth to the wildly popular Grishaverse. A Netflix adaptation of the books was inevitable.

For those unfamiliar with the novels, Shadow and Bone takes place in Ravka, a country heavily inspired by 19th century Tsarist Russia. At the start of the original trilogy, Ravka is currently waging a forever war against Shu Han, a nation to the south that’s heavily inspired by China and Mongolia. 

Key to Ravka’s military strategy, however, is their Second Army. This force consists of the Grisha, people with extraordinary powers such as the ability to manipulate the elements, to heal, or to stop a person’s heart. 

It’s against this backdrop that we’re introduced to Alina, who serves as a cartographer for the First Army but whose life changes when she's revealed to be the Sun Summoner.

RELATED: Which Grishaverse Character Are You, Based on Your Zodiac Sign?

Netflix’s Shadow and Bone series isn’t a straight adaptation of the novels. Due to the uncertainties of screen adaptations, the showrunners made the decision to combine the original trilogy with the Six of Crows duology, which is generally viewed as more popular. The choice caused some valid trepidation among fans. 

The original trilogy is a classic chosen one narrative. The follow-up duology, Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, follows a tight heist caper structure. Blending the two storylines — especially since Six of Crows chronologically takes place a few years after the original trilogy — could easily result in a confusing mess.

The show’s writers room handled this challenge by constructing an original heist story for the Crows— as the criminal crew from the follow-up duology is called — that brings them on a collision course with Alina. 

As a result, we get to see Kaz Brekker, Inej Ghafa, and Jesper Fahey take on a heist that serves as a prologue to their exploits in Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom

The first half of the eight-episode season is devoted to setting up and braiding these seemingly disparate plot threads together. And while the scene shifting between the different storylines may come off as jarring at times, laying down the foundation with such deliberate care pays off in the second half of the season.

RELATED: Read an Excerpt from Leigh Bardugo's King of Scars

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The one storyline that seems disconnected for most of the season is that of Nina Zenik, a Grisha spy who’s been captured by witchhunters, and Matthias Helvar, a witchhunter from Fjerda, a country that considers Grisha to be monsters that must be executed. 

Fans will recognize the pair’s storyline as one that comes directly from Six of Crows, but new viewers might be confused about the significance. Its inclusion is clearly meant to lay groundwork for future plotlines; but until the season’s final episode, the importance of Nina, and subsequently Matthias, isn’t readily apparent. In fact, you could argue that her future role with the Crows is merely teased.

The other major change from the books is the choice to make Alina and her childhood best friend, Malyen Oretsev, part-Shu. The decision opens Alina up to casual racism from her fellow soldiers who have been raised to view the Shu Han as the enemy, but more importantly, it adds depth to her characterization. 

As a half-Shu orphan, Alina grew up ostracized and Other. When she learns she’s the Sun Summoner, she isn’t thrilled. She’s horrified. Not only is she a legendary Grisha, but she is also the only one of her kind. She already stands out due to her biracial heritage. Why would she want to stand out more by wielding this ability?

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On the other hand, accepting her Grisha powers means Alina can join other Grisha and be accepted at last. The possibility of finding a place to belong is an appealing reason to join the Second Army for a young woman who’s never truly felt like she belonged anywhere. Furthermore, this desire to find her place in the world leaves her vulnerable to the manipulations of General Kirigan, who is better known as the Darkling in the books.

There are other tweaks made to key elements of the original trilogy — most notably the relationship between Alina and Mal. The Shadow and Bone novels are told from Alina’s first-person point-of-view, thereby granting readers access to only her thoughts and experiences. As a result, we never see other characters who aren’t in her immediate vicinity. This can be an issue when they're separated from her for long periods of time as is often the case for Mal, who serves as a tracker for the First Army. 

In Netflix’s series, not only do we see what Mal is up to when he’s apart from Alina, we also see how he thinks about and views her. These may seem like minor things, but they go a long way to shoring up Mal as a romantic interest for Alina alongside the Darkling.

Where the show truly shines is in its cast. Every actor does an excellent job bringing these beloved characters to life. Jessie Mei Li brings genuine vulnerability and determination to Alina. Archie Renaux makes Mal likeable. Ben Barnes delivers a nuanced performance as General Kirigan, aka the Darkling, confirming what years of internet fancasts have always known. The Crows are all stellar, but the standout performance comes from Kit Young, who plays Jesper with zeal and charm.

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The one limitation, however, of adapting a fantasy series with such robust worldbuilding is the budget. For the most part, Netflix’s show does well with what it’s been given. Certain spectacles are altered for pragmatic reasons, but the scenes still maintain the same impact. Where the show does falter is in its actual setting. 

Ravka never truly comes alive as a lived-in country with a distinct culture and manner of dress. While the show does a competent job portraying set pieces such as the cosmopolitan Kerch capital of Ketterdam, the military camp, and the Little Palace that serves as the home of the Grisha, the overall cultural impression remains muddled. 

It leans toward a more generic fantasy setting where we can differentiate between wealth versus lack and military versus civilian, but not much else. That may change in future seasons as the world expands due to the characters’ travels.

Overall, the Netflix series is an excellent adaptation of the novels. It’s accessible for newcomers but ardent fans of the books will find much to love. 

Since the series is not a direct page-to-screen adaptation, it provides an enjoyable viewing experience for even the most dedicated fan, because there are still new things to discover. And better still, those new things remain true to the source material. We can only hope Season 1 is merely the beginning to a new, ongoing fantasy saga.

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