4:39 pm EDT, April 21, 2021

‘Shadow and Bone’ review: Netflix wins with its latest YA fantasy adaptation

This Shadow and Bone review is a spoiler-free discussion of the Netflix adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels.

Having never read the books, I cannot speak to the validity of this series from an adaptation point of view, but in terms of it being a fantasy show, this is one to sink your teeth into.

Netflix’s Shadow and Bone series has everything I want in a fantasy show—diverse and memorable characters, complex villains and terrifying monsters, intricate worldbuilding filled with people who have a storied history, political intrigue that shows the divide between classes, and lots and lots of magic.

With all of that, how could you go wrong?

One of the most difficult aspects of a fantasy series is remembering all the names of the people, places, and things that populate the world. Shadow and Bone is no different, though I found it less difficult to jump into than Game of Thrones.

Subtitles will certainly be your best friend if you’re unfamiliar with the various players in this series, but don’t let the show’s sweeping story intimidate you. Here are some basics you need to know:

In its simplest terms, people in Shadow and Bone are basically grouped into two categories—humans and witches, called Grisha. The Grisha have a wide array of abilities, including those who can control the wind, stop a man’s heart, or even summon shadows.

The two main countries we encounter in Shadow and Bone season 1 are Ravka and Fjerda, though Shu Han is mentioned quite often, as the main character is half-Shu, much to the dismay of just about everyone around her.

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Last, but certainly never least, is the Unsea, also referred to as the Shadow Fold, or just the Fold. This is a dark scar that cuts across Ravka and is extremely dangerous to cross. It was made by the Darkling, a Shadow Summoner, and is filled with volcra, the aforementioned terrifying creatures.

While there are countless other important locations, historical people, legends, and terminology to learn, if you’re at least armed with this information, you’ll do just fine!

So, then, let’s get on with what you’re all here for:

‘Shadow and Bone’ review

Though Shadow and Bone is only comprised of eight episodes, this show covers a lot of ground (both physically and metaphorically). It moves at a good clip, and there are quite a few characters to keep your eye on.

That being said, there are essentially two major plot lines, taken from the Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows duology.

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Alina, Mal, and General Kirigan

We find out in the first episode that Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), who is half-Shu but was orphaned and grew up in Ravka, is a Sun Summoner, an extremely rare kind of Grisha who may have the ability to erase the Fold, reunite Ravka, and even put an end to the war.

Alina is a quiet but headstrong woman who’s content to be a mapmaker and keep her head down. Her entire driving force prior to discovering she’s Grisha is to stay side by side with her best friend, Mal.

This could have easily fallen into some of the pitfalls associate with Young Adult literature, but Alina never feels like anything other than a strong, intelligent, independent woman. Her connection with Mal goes deeper than friendship, deeper than love, deeper even than their shared experiences. It’s about truly knowing and understanding another person inside and out, on every level.

Of course, all that gets thrown out the window when they discover Alina is the Sun Summoner. As Alina is whisked away into a world she never thought she’d know, Mal is left behind, wondering why she didn’t tell him and whether he should go after her.

Malyen Oretsev is Alina’s protector, whether he’s by her side or not, but it never comes off as overbearing or restrictive. He is a somewhat broodish, intense man, but he’s got a lighter side, especially when he’s with Alina. The two of them are at their most open, free, and relaxed when they’re together, even if they’re both ignoring that pull to inch just a little bit closer.

While Mal fights men and Mother Nature to return to Alina’s side, she’s taken to the Little Palace where she suddenly becomes the most important person in the world. She’s paraded in front of the king and queen of Ravka before being thrown into training to learn how to control her powers.

There, she meets General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), who is at once a mystery, a comfort, and a distraction. Barnes plays this role with equal parts nuance and relish, and this Shadow and Bone review would not be complete without giving him his due.

Kirigan is a complex person who has embraced his role as the most feared Grisha in the country but uses his power to command respect for his people. There is something inherently sinister about him, but Shadow and Bone shows us a softer side as well. Any antagonist worth their weight in gold is the hero of their own story, and General Kirigan is certainly no exception.

Alina’s time at the Little Palace shows us how she grows from a naive young woman into a powerful Grisha who chooses to listen to her own heart and carve her own path in life. Her journey forward promises to be just as interesting as her origin story.

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Kaz, Inej, and Jesper

I never promised this Shadow and Bone review would be unbiased, so suffice it to say that I would, without hesitation or regret, die for Kaz, Inej, and Jesper. How have I spent my entire life without knowing these characters?

Let’s start off with Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), who is not exactly the most likable man in the world. He is a practical businessman who does not shy away from dangerous jobs if they’re lucrative enough. You could describe him as crass and callous, but like most other characters on this show, it would be wrong to shine such a one-dimensional light on the man.

If Kaz has only one redeeming factor, it’s his devotion to his friends, first and foremost to Inej. As possibly the most badass person on this show, Inej (Amita Suman) is as mysterious as she is pious. She slips noiselessly in and out of rooms, driven equally by her moral compass and her desire to be released from her indentured servitude at the Menagerie.

We pick up pieces of Kaz and Inej’s backstory throughout the series, but it doesn’t specify why Kaz is so bullish about Inej’s freedom, even when it comes at the expense of everything he works toward. But this is far from a problem, and in fact adds to the mystery of their undying loyalty to each other.

If there’s one character who is far from a mystery, however, it’s Jesper Fahey (Kit Young). If I had to pick a single hero from this show to follow to the ends of the earth, it would be him. I cannot stress enough how much personality, fun, and flair he brings to the series.

Jesper is a crack-shot gunman who has an almost magical control over his weapons. He certainly has his vices and doesn’t seem to have an issue breaking the law, but he’s got his own sort of moral code, too. He cares about people (and goats), and will always choose to do the right thing at the end of the day.

Most of the comedy comes from Jesper, but he’s so much more than just a funny sidekick, and I can’t wait to see more of him.

shadow and bone netflix alina starkov

Other bits and bobs

There’s a lot going on in this show, and it’s difficult to talk about all of them in a single Shadow and Bone review.

What stands out to me most are the special effects because they make this world feel alive. Nearly everything else is grounded in reality—the cold winter days, the drab military uniforms, the dirty cobbled streets—but when it’s set against a backdrop of myth and legend, it is elevated to something truly spectacular.

And that’s not even to mention the costumes and set dressing. Every city has its own flavor, and the Grisha are immediately distinguishable from everyone else by the way they dress. Every stitch, every nail, every strand of hair is handled with such care and attention to detail that it takes my breath away.

But none of that would mean anything if the characters didn’t come alive on screen.

Some of my favorite parts of the series are the quieter moments between friends (or even enemies). I’m not the first person to say this, and I definitely won’t be the last, but I think I ship just about everyone on this show. If you want some good quality YA romance, then you’ve come to the right place.

Kaz and Inej’s silent exchanges are full of intense longing, but it’s the restraint and the desire to press forward with their mission that pulls you in deeper. You know they don’t have time to stop and talk about what’s going on between them, and that makes you want them to do it even more.

I found intense pleasure in watching Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan) and Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman) interact on screen. Out of everyone, they fall into some of the most common romance tropes in media today, and yet it doesn’t feel awkward, forced, or overdone. I could watch an entire show dedicated to these two.

And not all the romantic endeavors in Shadow and Bone season 1 are straight. One prominent character is undoubtedly queer, as well as several background characters. I’m grateful to this show for including LGBTQIA+ stories as naturally as they did heterosexual ones.

There’s so much more to say, but at the risk of ruining some of the special moments, I’ll stop here. Just know that this is an extremely high-quality fantasy show that explores Leigh Bardugo’s Grishverse with a careful hand, and although I can’t speak to how faithful it is to the source material, it’s obvious that everyone who worked on this show did their best to bring us something truly magical.

Shadow and Bone season 2 is poised to be set on an even grander scale than its freshman run. I look forward to what next season could bring us, and I’ll be interested to see how these storylines converge and divert in turn as the series goes on.

While each character and major plot point stands on its own, it’s so much more fun when everyone is in the same room, fighting for the same cause.

shadow and bone review sun summoner

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