Shadow & Bone – Series One Review – Excellent!
Shadow and Bone is an American young adult fantasy series based on two book series; the Grisha novel trilogy “Shadow and Bone” published in 2012, and the duology “Six of Crows” published in 2015 by Leigh Bardugo. It was developed for television (Netflix) by showrunner Eric Heisserer and premiered on April 23, 2021.
It’s three separate stories running in parallel until they come together in the last episode of season one. The stories are all in the same timeline (unlike the Witcher) and take place in a region called Ravka which has obvious (though sometimes annoying) influences with Russia and Eastern Europe.
Shadow & Bone – What’s it about?
There is a war between the armies of Ravka and the neighboring countries of Fjerda (which has a Scandinavian influence) and Shu Han (very likely influenced by Mongolia and eastern Asia/China).
The main focus of the sage is on Alina Starkov played marvelously by star of the show Jessie Mei Li (English mum, Chinese dad). She is the epitome of the Young Adult TV show leading character – a normal person who discovers that she is a ‘Chosen One’ (known as a Grisha which I think means ‘Magician’). She can control her own special kind of magic (known in the Grishaverse as ‘small science’).
Alina who suddenly learns that she can control light has a childhood friend that she is very close to called Malyen “Mal” Oretsev (played magnificently by Archie Renaux). Their saga is fraught with difficulty and hardship but is very warm and inspirational as they battle all odds to remain together through war and conflict. Alina must also learn to control her power so that she may eventually be able to destroy ‘The Shadow Fold’ – a huge sea which acts like a wall of darkness containing monsters (called Volkra). The Shadow Fold traverses the centre of Ravka from north to South as a large dark wall, cutting people off from the other side. you can travel through the wall, but many perish.
Alina meets and starts to fancy a General Kirigan who seemingly wants to manipulate her to bring about radical change in Ravka and the rest of the world. Alina is torn between him and Mal.
The secondary saga is that of ‘The Crows’ from the region of Ketterdam on the Islands of Kerch. They are a gang of skilled thieves, and killers who take on a mission to find the ‘Chosen One’ and bring her home for a very lucrative sum!
There are three of them (in the TV series) one is a marksman, Jesper Fahey (played enigmatically by Kit Young) another is a cool and calculating leader called Kaz Brekker (played by Freddy Carter), and the lady of the gang is an assassin and precision knife-thrower, Inej Ghafa (played beautifully by Amita Suman) – unfortunately, she suffers the unenviable problem of a recent religious epiphany that makes her reluctant to kill – no matter how she is provoked. The group gradually catch up to Alina towards the end of the season.
The third story is about the unlikely, but nevertheless fun, meeting, flirting and love story between a prisoner, Nina Zenik (played by Danielle Galligan) and her captor Matthias Helvar (played by Calahan Skogman). The dogma of their cultural differences and beliefs is considerable yet love wins through – as it does with all young-adult dramas.
Which leads me to the only minor irritation with the series, it’s for young adults and while 19 year olds will lap this up, some of us older sadgeezers and lady-sadgeezers will become a little tired of the emotional elements and crave more of the geo-political intrigue. I’m certainly not saying this has been dumbed down for 19 year olds – far from it, I wish I was still able to grasp meaning as quickly as I could when I was younger, but as someone older than 25, your experiences will leave you wishing that, in some places, the show would ‘just get on with it!’
Shadow & Bone – The sets, costumes and casting
The acting talent is magnificent in this series. You can really get behind the characters and all are believable. The stars of the show however (not just for me but for other reviewers) are for casting: Suzanne Smith (Outlander, Warrior Nun, Carnival Row, Good Omens and others). She did a magnificent job bringing some little-known actors and actresses to keep us interested in a story which was ambitious in its breadth. The cast brought life to a TV series with a low number of episodes despite the story spanning a number of books. The performances were very special – particularly the three main roles of Jessie Mei Li as Alina, her possible love interest and childhood friend Mal (Archie Renaux) who totally reminds me of Krum, the East European Quidditch player from Harry Potter) and the other love interest General Kirigan aka The Darkling (Ben Barnes).
Other notable mentions should go to Wendy Partridge for set design which tried (without becoming too anal) to stick to the book – each of the Grisha have their own ‘uniforms’. I know, I know, they just looked like extravagantly pretty dresses, but no, they also have a meaning and they look great!
Some of the photography was awful – a lot of scenes were far too dark but the visual effects department had over 140 people so the lighter scenes looked breath-taking! The show was shot in Vancouver, Canada and on location in Budapest (Korda Studios) and other areas in Hungary. The Little Palace scenes were shot at The Festetics Palace in the city of Keszthely and is one of the oldest stately houses in Hungary (1745). CGI effects were added to provide some more towers.
this is an After and Before picture of the Festetics Palace Pic courtesy of AtlasOfWonders.com. you can see the towers (top pic) added with CGI for the series and the original stately home pic at the bottom.
Festetics Palace was also the location used for the film Red Sparrow in 2018. Many of the scenes in Shadow & Bone were adjusted or completely created by CGI such as the port of Novokribirsk was all CGI. Pictures and location information from the amazing Atlas of Wonders website.
Shadow & Bone: The Grishaverse
The saga is set in the war-torn country of Ravka which has to fight enemies at its border and also has to deal with the Shadow Fold. This is a rift of shadows and darkness inhabited with Volkra (flying man-eadting monsters). Because of this rift, Ravka is considered weaker and more vulnerable and is therefore regularly attacked by neighbouring nations. The Grisha are humans are endowed with magical powers. These powers are either etherial (Etherealki – weilders of air, fire, water), medical (Corporalki – killers (Heartrenders) or doctors) or mechanical (Materialki shapers of metals or chemists) Two of the Grisha can summon destructive shadows. Such shadows can be cast as sharp blades that can cut seemingly through any substance. Only two people are known to possess such skill, a Grisha teacher called Baghra (played by Zoe Wannamaker) and her son, General Karigan (Ben Barnes). Karigan is a love interest for Alina – but, he is also dastardly! He was once a traitor to the king and used his powers to create The Shadow Fold! The only person that is capable of destroying The Shadow Fold with light, is Alina. Karigan attempts to support and nurture her abilities but we all learn quickly that his true colours will show by the end of the season.
Despite having a tough upbringing in an orphanage, Alina has confidence, a sense of belonging and an ability to fight prejudice and discrimination. This was excellent writing in the TV saga as Alina is a half cast that has to battle with racism. This is masterful writing – Alina is not portrayed as some wimpy girl who suddenly has powers, she is confident and forthright already. Mei Li captures this very well and it’s easy to get behind the character rather than feel sorry for her troubles. Indeed, Alina’s childhood friend Mal, is a little more inventive than in the books and better able to deal with bad situations.
The series wins out over the books in this respect and certainly makes it more watchable for older audiences – Nice job Netflix!
What’s not so good?
Mei Li’s performance is very convincing, especially when you look at how much material she had to get through during the series. Ben Barnes as General Kirigan was an interesting love interest but to me, he couldn’t seem to make up his mind with being a goodie or a baddie. HE’S A BADDIE! He’s responsible for the death of thousands of people! Making him out to be a vulnerable lovey-dovey suiter to Alina is just weird especially when we don’t actually learn if he is just getting close to her to manipulate her power or because he is attracted (i.e. more than understandable lust). I didn’t enjoy the ambiguity of his charm and vulnerability and erm… evil.
Ok, so I’m leaving myself open to criticism here, but I believe that Bardugo’s books aren’t all that impressive. I’ve heard lots of flowery praise for the Grishaverse books and my only attempt at trying to read them was dashed after only a few pages. It wasn’t just that they were painfully slow, my wife Newkate is Russian and was unimpressed with the ‘Russian inspiration’ within the story. Reading names of villages like Kribirsk is unusual for a Russian which would not expect to see a village name ending with ‘irsk (normally used for names of larger towns or cities). It’s like calling the village of Hobbiton, Hobbiton City. Lots of other examples include incorrectly mixing masculine and feminine names and the regular and blatant use of the obvious set out of context. For instance, Novosibirsk (Novokribirsk in Shadow & Bone) is the third biggest city in Russia – it’s a HUGE and sprawling conurbation. It’s a few hundred miles north of Mongolia (Shu Han in the series). The city of Novokribirsk sitting a few hundred leagues north of the Chinese Mongolian inspired nation of Shu Han seems like poor imagination and a little lazy. It’s like creating a fictitious ‘Londin’ where the people are collectively known as ‘Cockers’ and regularly punctuate their vocabulary with ‘Core blimey gav’na!’
As a SciFi SadGeezer, critisising such as attractive author when I actually enjoyed the show may seem a little trifling. Indeed, I put it to my wife that maybe she should possibly consider Russian influence in Bardugo’s book an homage to her culture. She disagreed saying that such the poor research sometimes makes the story jarring to read.
Having said that, Bardugo as an executive producer for this Netflix incarnation and must have been integral in the improvements to the adaptation for TV – for all our (minor) criticisms, we both enjoyed watching the episodes.
Shadow & Bone TV Series – Conclusion
Overall, Shadow and Bone is really good. Does it compare to The Witcher? Absolutely not, but it’s still definitely worth watching. One of the best features of the TV series (over the books) is that they resist the temptation to let Alina’s superpower define her and … erm… overpower the story. It’s a story of exceptional people rather than exceptional powers which seems to make it all more relatable and enjoyable for the viewer.
Alina intentionally burns maps in a ploy to get herself recruited as the cartographer to accompany her childhood friend – she’s doing things rather than have things done to her. Alina’s character seems more in control of her destiny than in the books. I don’t get that ‘poor little magical girl’ impression – which makes the show more fun and appealing to other, erm… older, age-groups.
The author, Leigh Bardugo, described the series to Den of Geek; “This is a story about young people who have been overlooked and who’ve never had the chance to show people what they can do, who have all this talent and all of this power. So, it made a lot of sense in terms of the soul of the books for us to have all these incredibly gifted young people that arrived on our doorstep, like a magical gift in the show.”
That was a pretty hefty challenge! It’s been commented that the show suffered with too many characters and too many storylines running in parallel, but I personally think they managed to pull it off. There were quite a few writers for the series and Leigh Bardugo was among the producing staff. So, definitely watchable and you don’t need to read the books to enjoy it!
Like the Witcher, the story has only just started, It seemed as though this first season was all about ‘getting the band together’ (although we are still missing some characters such as Wylan, Nikolai, Tolya and Tamar). I think the show is very popular amongst fans and although I consider myself one, mine is probably the most critical of reviews I’ve seen on the net.
I’d rate this a wonderful 8.8 out of 10. Recommended!
The pictures, story and everything else associated with the show are the property of Netflix and Leigh Bardugo unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.
This Review is copyright Tony Fawl and not for reproduction without permission.
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