Review: Netflix’s Shadow and Bone Is an Easily Digestible YA Adaptation

The show’s political intrigue comes off as boilerplate, but the thrust of the source material’s narrative remains largely unchanged.

Shadow and Bone
Photo: David Appleby/Netflix

Adapted from Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, Shadow and Bone takes place primarily in Ravka, a country inspired by 19th-century Czarist Russia that abounds in fantastical elements, from magic-users known as Grisha to a swirling zone of monster-infested darkness called the Shadow Fold that splits the nation in two. The novels’ teen characters may be aged up so that they can be plausibly played by gorgeous twentysomethings, but the thrust of the source material’s narrative remains largely unchanged. Even a passing familiarity with YA fantasy will more than acclimate you for what’s in store: As a fabled sun summoner capable of one day dispelling the Fold for good, young Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) finds her way into a world-defining struggle and, of course, a love triangle.

Alina is an orphan turned soldier in the cartography unit of the Ravkan army, which is at perpetual war with neighboring countries. She pines for her hunky childhood friend, Mal (Archie Renaux), who belongs to a separate fighting unit. Journeys through the Fold are extremely dangerous, with ground-sailing ships slowly creep past markers, the people on board hoping that no monsters will notice them before they’ve reached the other side. When Mal is put on a supply run through the Fold, Alina finagles herself into tagging along and discovers her light-summoning power during the journey’s bleakest moments.

Upon landing, Alina is whisked away at the behest of the mysterious, brooding General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) to the luxurious Grisha headquarters, where she feels isolated due to her inexperience and the suffocating pressure of saving Ravka. Having faced similar alienation for an ancestral link to the Fold, Kirigan ends up being the only person on the grounds who she truly relates to, especially since the magic-less Mal has pointedly not been invited.

Refreshingly, Shadow and Bone refrains from drawing out explanatory scenes that might clearly but clunkily lay out the details of its fantasy world, and flashbacks to Alina and Mal’s childhood are rather sparse. We infer the meaning of much of the world’s terminology from its use in context, and understand that Alina and Mal are bonded by their shared biracial experience (each had a parent from Shu Han, an enemy country analogous to China). Though they’re never totally accepted in Ravka, it’s also the only home they’ve ever known. Regarding race and racism, Shadow and Bone largely sidesteps certain pitfalls of the fantasy genre, where white authors tend to depict the “other” as an entirely separate species. The characters here are all humans of varying colors, and while the Grisha once faced persecution in Ravka (and still do in neighboring countries), the ability to use magic isn’t tethered to race and remains an entirely separate source of potential friction between the people of this world.

The racial dimensions of Shadow and Bone, though, remain strictly surface-level, underscoring the show’s lack of ambition when it comes to exploring the material’s constructed society. The political intrigue comes off as boilerplate, with characters largely falling exactly in line as you expect from the start. In the end, the show feels even less ambitious than The Witcher, but like that other Netflix fantasy series, it at least progresses at a fairly brisk pace. The depiction of the central love triangle resolves itself with minimal hand-wringing, the school-like setting is merely a momentary pit stop in the broader narrative, and tragic miscommunications tend to be ironed out by the end of each episode. Even the requisite mean girl fades into the background once she’s served her purpose of reinforcing Alina’s outsider status.

The show’s economical pacing partly stems from it not being a straightforward adaptation, given the weaving in and out of an original, parallel storyline involving calculating club owner Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) and his criminal crew, who only appear in the books much later on. Though it will come as no shock that Kaz’s group doesn’t remain even villain-adjacent for the entirety of the season, their heist exploits nicely contrast with the familiar Chosen One narrative, providing a street-level texture that expands the scope of the show’s world and invigorates the fifth episode in particular, where all the story threads coalesce in dramatic fashion. The ensuing chaos is entertaining enough to suggest a broader potential that may be fulfilled, but so far Shadow and Bone is so easily digestible that it concludes with a tidy onslaught of scenes that head off any questions we might have about where it might be going.

Score: 
 Cast: Jessie Mei Li, Archie Renaux, Ben Barnes, Freddy Carter, Amita Suman, Kit Young, Zoë Wanamaker  Network: Netflix

Steven Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Buzzfeed News, Fanbyte, Polygon, The Awl, Rock Paper Shotgun, EGM, and others. He is reluctantly based in the Midwest.

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