Shadow and Bone
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An adaptation of author Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling Grishaverse series of young adult fantasy novels, Shadow and Bone tells the story of a Chosen One named Alina Starkov who has to come to terms with her immense power and the responsibility that it brings. It’s on her to save her war-torn country, which is threatened by a destructive supernatural force.
The show was developed by Oscar-nominated Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who serves as showrunner. Stranger Things’ Shawn Levy is an executive producer, lending his expertise in making stars out of unknown actors. The only recognizable face in the main cast is The Chronicles of Narnia’s Ben Barnes, and this is going to be the thing he’s best known for.
Shadow and Bone takes place in a fictional universe similar to our own, with stylistic touches of Russian, Asian, and vaguely European influence. It follows the hero’s journey of Alina Starkov, a young woman who grew up an orphan in a nation called Ravka and has the power to save the her people from a dark force. She is looked down upon by other Ravkans for being half Shu, a nation to the south. Her best friend since childhood is Mal (Archie Renaux), who’s grown up to be the Ravkan army’s best tracker. They both harbor unspoken feelings for each other.
Alina is an ordinary person until, in a moment of stress, she demonstrates tremendous powers. Not only is she a Grisha–a person with ability to magically control matter–she’s a Sun Summoner, a mythical Grisha who can harness the power of the sun and supposedly has the power to destroy the Fold, a dangerous and terrifying physical manifestation of darkness in the middle of Ravka that’s torn the country apart. She’s taken under the wing of General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), aka the Darkling, the handsome leader of an elite army of Grisha soldiers and a Shadow Summoner. He trains her to become the hero she needs to be, but may have his own agenda. Meanwhile, a group of young small-time criminals from the city of Ketterdam set out to capture the Sun Summoner on behalf of a local boss, because she’s their ticket out of poverty.
The series is worth your time because first of all, you don’t want to be left out of the conversation. Netflix is positioning Shadow and Bone to be huge–star Jessie Mei Li just got a Hollywood Reporter profile anointing her the next big thing–and it’s all but guaranteed to be the biggest Netflix show since Bridgerton. The special effects, costumes, and production design are all blockbuster quality.
Second of all, it’s really good. It’s accessible even if you’re not typically a fantasy fan, thanks to its simple and solid emotional core and the engaging performances of its cast of charismatic newcomers. A lot of shows with created universes like this get bogged down in complicated world-building at the expense of character (cough—The Witcher—cough), but Shadow and Bone stays grounded in human-sized emotion thanks to a plainly told love story about two characters who want to be together but keep getting separated. The most memorable part of the first episode isn’t the climactic action sequence, it’s soldier Mal (Archie Renaux) telling Alina (Jessie Mei Li) “I’ll find my way back to you. Promise.”
Shadow and Bone is still proudly a high-fantasy show, though, with all the complex world-building that entails. If you haven’t read the books, you’ll probably want a glossary of terms handy while you’re watching, because the show doesn’t over-explain its fantasy vocabulary. It throws you into the deep end, but it’s well-written enough that the story is easy to follow, and all of the details (what the heck is a “drüskelle?”) eventually get filled in as much as they need to be.
Shadow and Bone is an immersive fantasy series that will make you care about its characters as much as its mythology. It’s well-written, well-acted, and looks beautiful. It’s going to be the No. 1 show on Netflix for a month.
Anyone who loves epic fantasy, romance, or palace intrigue. It’s a YA series at heart, but it earns its TV-MA rating for some gory violence and nudity. Teenagers and their parents will both enjoy this show, but it might be uncomfortable to watch it together.