As I’ve said before, I love me a good escapist fantasy adventure. There’s something so appealing about sinking yourself into a completely different and utterly impossible world full of mystery, lore, intrigue and magic. The experience can be hit or miss though, sometimes you get The Witcher, and sometimes you’re cursed with Cursed. So I went into Shadow and Bone with mostly excitement, but a little bit of trepidation. Luckily for me (and all of us), Shadow and Bone falls squarely in the HIT category.
Based on Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling young adult novels, Shadow and Bone follows the first book (of the same name) in Bardugo’s Grishaverse, where we are introduced to the war-torn Kingdom of Ravka. Not only is Ravka beset by enemies from both sides – the Shu Han to the south and Fjerda to the north – but the country has been torn in half, literally, by the Shadow Fold.
The Fold, as it’s commonly called, is a massive magical barrier, full of darkness and plagued by monsters called volcra. While Ravka has her royalty, West Ravka retains the sea ports, so trips across this deadly divide for supplies are necessary to keep the kingdom running.
It’s at the edge of the Fold where we meet our protagonist, orphan Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li). A low ranked mapmaker in the Ravkan army, Alina grew up in an orphanage with her best friend turned highly regarded tracker Malyen “Mal” Oretsev (Archie Renaux). Mal is being sent across the Fold in a newly designed ship, the pride of General Kirigan’s fleet.
General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) is the strongest of the Grisha, those that have the magic ability to command elements and manipulate matter. Some Grisha control wind and can call fire, others influence heartbeats, heal the wounded, and alter appearances. Kirigan can summon shadows, the same darkness that makes up the Fold.
It’s during the Fold crossing that Alina learns she has Grisha powers, having avoided being tested as a child. Not only that, but her powers as a Sun Summoner could be the key to bringing down the Fold. So, plucked from her humdrum soldier life, Alina is hustled off to train among the elite Grisha at the Little Palace, Ravka’s seat of power. Meanwhile, scheming forces begin to circle.
I know it should be a giveaway, with the word Shadow in the title and all, but Shadow and Bone is honestly a lot darker than I anticipated. If you’re expecting something along the lines of a typical Young Adult Fantasy Show ™, you’re in for a surprise. Moving away from the usual fantasy setting of English castles in rolling moors, Ravka is heavily inspired by Tsarist Russia, with the same depressing, washed out aesthetic and downtrodden lower classes (of people that aren’t Grisha or nobles).
That isn’t to say that the production design of Shadow and Bone is shoddy or boring – quite the opposite. This is a high quality, premium series. Shadow and Bone looks and feels expensive. The design of its fantasy world is unique, with many layers that work together to tell a story. Everything from the sets, hair, and makeup to wardrobe design are thoroughly thought out and well executed, visually enhancing, and adding credibility to the world and its characters. Both the practical and computer-generated effects are likewise incredibly polished, which makes this series a visual feast.
While the eye candy might draw you in, there’s a complicated and compelling story that will keep you engaged. For the first episode or two, it can feel a bit overwhelming in terms of the sheer volume of information thrown at you – heck, the first five paragraphs of this review only cover half of the first episode. Characters, place names, events and history are all introduced with little explanation or elaboration. Much like The Witcher, the show drops you into the middle of events and expects you to do the work of piecing everything together. The longer you watch, though, the more you learn and the more you are drawn into the Grishaverse.
Shadow and Bone is also very respectful of diversity in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation – without feeling in any way forced. It brings up smart observations about the “otherness” of being an outsider, a person of mixed race in a pureblood world, or a dispensable commoner compared to magical soldiers. This underscores the everyday, petty bigotry that flourishes even when the country is at war.
Though the source material is young adult literature, and at surface level you might notice that it has all the genre hallmarks, Shadow and Bone defies all expectations. Avoiding the traps of young adult fare, adopting and then turning tropes on its head, Shadow and Bone never seems to go where you think it will go. Characters have complex motivations, mature and intelligent conversations; even the love triangles don’t play out how you think they will.
Fans of the book series might take note that, while Shadow and Bone covers the first book of the series, characters from the spin-off novel Six of Crows are also drawn into the story. Charismatic Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), the leader of criminal gang The Crows, stumbles onto a job with massive financial rewards. All Kaz needs to do is convince his team, the knife-throwing spy Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman) and sharpshooter Jesper Fahey (Kit Young), that the score is worth it.
The entire cast of Shadow and Bone, on both sides of the Fold, is captivating. Jessie Mei Li is a strong lead, who grows into her character as Alina grows into her powers. Ben Barnes plays the mysterious Kirigan with subtlety and strength so well that I have a somewhat awkward crush on him now. The supporting cast are all fantastic (especially Kit Young, who is a delight as the playful rogue Jesper). There are one or two minor missteps in the form of some wooden moments and stilted dialogue, but they’re barely noteworthy in comparison to everything else.
It’s always the hallmark of a good series when I finish watching the initial review episodes and find myself genuinely upset that I can’t finish the entire series. I was expecting some fun escapism with flashy effects and the occasional eye-roll moment. Instead, what I got is something unexpected, darker, more shocking, more twisted, and just… more than I thought possible.
Last Updated: April 21, 2021