Culture, television

Review: ‘Shadow & Bone’ (2021)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

When Netflix announced they would be adapting Leigh Bardugo’s hugely popular ‘Grishaverse’ books, the hype exploded and never went quiet. The Grisha Trilogy and the Six of Crows duology are both behemoths of YA literature, their popularity so widespread that even if you hadn’t read the books, it was practically impossible to exist on YA-dominated parts of social media without learning to recognise the cast of characters by osmosis. A series adapting these books, which have been giants of the YA fantasy sector for nearly ten years, would come with a built-in fanbase, and, by extension, the pressure of nearly a decade of fandom debates, expectations and ideas to live up to. 

Now the first season of Shadow & Bone is days away from premiering, and the question on every fan’s mind — did they pull it off — is about to be answered.

For the uninitiated, Netflix’s synopsis of the series is as follows: Shadow and Bone finds us in a war-torn world where lowly soldier and orphan Alina Starkov has just unleashed an extraordinary power that could be the key to setting her country free. With the monstrous threat of the Shadow Fold looming, Alina is torn from everything she knows to train as part of an elite army of magical soldiers known as Grisha. But as she struggles to hone her power, she finds that allies and enemies can be one and the same and that nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. There are dangerous forces at play, including a crew of charismatic criminals, and it will take more than magic to survive.

Despite my love for the Six of Crows duology, I’ve not actually read Shadow & Bone, but conceptually it’s a familiar enough story to grasp. The story of an ordinary girl discovering she’s actually the most special person in the land, the Chosen One, is a staple of YA fantasy, so it’s a familiar enough story set against a world Executive Producer Eric Heisserer (Bird Box, Arrival) describes as “tsarpunk”. And watching the show, it’s instantly clear they don’t try to overcomplicate that central journey. Alina’s journey, from tragic orphan to unassuming outsider to The Chosen One Is one of the most comfortably familiar arcs in literature, and the show doesn’t waste time trying to diverge from that formula. It seems to understand that the appeal of the source material lies, in large part, with its simplicity, and plays quite happily in that sandbox. 

One thing that became immediately obvious from the first teaser trailer, is that this is a Big Budget Production. The show was filmed on location in Budapest, and from the first scene, you can tell Netflix has funded this enough to elevate it to cinematic levels of epic fantasy. Bardugo’s books take place across a series of nations, all fairly obviously analogous with countries or cultures in the real world — Tsarist Russia, the Scandanavian Fjords, a hybrid of Amsterdam and Dickensian London, a monster-infested Shadow realm and stormy oceans all populate the landscape of the Grishaverse. The show has money to spend, and it brings the expansiveness of the world to life with sumptuous visuals and locations. The scenes in The Little Palace and those in Ketterdam are particularly visually arresting, for opposite reasons. The palatial opulence of the former would not be out of place in Hulu’s The Great or any other number of lavish period dramas. Ketterdam, meanwhile, is such a viscerally wrought location in the Six of Crows book, almost as vibrant a character as any of the people that live in it. The show captures it’s claustrophobia and chaos well; it’s more glossy and photogenic than the seedy underbelly described in the books, but it’s probably more fun to watch as a result. The real advantage of the sumptuous visuals, the sleek special effects, the ornate costumes, is that they tap into the fact that often, the appeal of YA Fantasy, especially from the early 20s, was the capacity it provided for sweeping escapism. The characteristics and themes were never especially deep, because that wasn’t typically the point. They provided worlds that were ornate playhouses and dress-up boxes to disappear into; the show revels in that portal to escape and is immensely enjoyable for it.

Even without having read the trilogy, I could tell that the characterisation in the books wasn’t particularly deep, because a lot of the characters function quite archetypally. The good news is that the cast is, on the whole, very strong and very charismatic, meaning each cast member really does breathe life into their respective character. Jessie Mei Li is instantly lovable as protagonist Alina Starkov. There’s a natural sunniness to her; you can sense her excitement and eagerness as she explores the new world and journey she’s thrust into, right alongside her confusion and fear. Mei Li is half-Chinese, which means an Asian protagonist is at the centre of this story. Alina is, unlike in the books, “half-Shu”, meaning her mother was from one of the countries with which Alina’s homeland, Ravka, is at war. The discrimination she faces as a result of “looking like the enemy” is something she grapples with throughout, and it adds a genuine realism to the worldbuilding. It’s not a perfectly handled storyline, and part of me would like to see POC centered in storylines without the burden of racism arcs. That being said, without this element, the Grishaverse does that thing white-authored fantasies so often do where the allegory for racism is that “white people discriminate against magical white people.” This trope is a weak and flimsy way of exploring a pervasive real-world form of discrimniation for many reasons, not least because 1) it hinges on the existence of substantive, tangible differences between two groups and 2) more often than not there’s actually a specific reason that the magical group are discriminated against, since they usually have the ability to easily kill the other. Normally, I don’t particularly want real-world racism to intrude in escapist fantasy realms, but I actually liked the way the show handled Alina’s biracial identity. It added gravitas to her struggle with accepting her own powers by tying it to a lifelong fear and trauma of being otherized, and thus made her journey to embrace all aspects of herself all the more cathartic. The topic of Anti Asian racism has, of course, become horribly timely, and for that alone, there is undeniable power in seeing a show this big hinge on Asian Women the way it does.

Archie Renaux’s turn as Malyen Oretsev, Alina’s childhood best friend, is strong. The two sell a lifelong friendship easily, which helps ground a script that can be a little hammy at times with how hard it hits us over the head with the Importance of this relationship. Still, Renaux and Mei Li convey a genuine affection and connection between their characters that makes their bonds natural to buy into. Theirs is clearly a bond meant to sit at the heart of show, and the easy intimacy and affection of the actors’ chemistry is a solid foundation to build it upon.

One of the most buzzed about casting announcements since the start was that of Tumblr’s favourite fictional character face claim, Ben Barnes, in the role of General Kirigan (The Darkling in the books). It’s frankly a delightful performance from start to finish. The character itself is so much a product of 2010s YA fantasy, so much an archetype, that only Ben Barnes’ absolute and total dedication to absolutely Going For It could have sold it. He obviously relishes each flip of the ornately bedazzled black cloak he wears throughout the season. Barnes has developed what can best be described as a “villainous ASMR voice” in which to deliver the bulk of his lines, and honestly it’s excellent. YA aficionados will know all too well the dulcet “drawls” and “growls” and “snarls” and “husks” that the bad boys of yore used to speak in, and Barnes brings them all beautifully to life. He gazes and smoulders his way across the scene, clearly loving every second in a way that’s impossible not to respond to. It’s not a particularly subtle performance, but it does not need to be. Barnes and Mei Li also have sizzling chemistry that makes their scenes giddyingly enjoyable.

The other group of characters that audiences will be awaiting with bated breath are the Crows, the ragtag gang of criminals who constitute the protagonists of Six of Crows. I was intrigued to see how they would be integrated into the story — chronologically, SoC takes place some years after the events of the Grisha trilogy — and I was pleasantly surprised. Without spoiling anything, I will say the Crows plotlines this season function almost as an origin story for the Crows as we see them in the book. Kit Young is pitch-perfect as Jesper Fahey, the fast-talking sharpshooter responsible for many of the comic interludes and moments of levity in the show, bringing a crackpot sense of humour and relentless energy that makes his performance engaging. Amita Suman’s turn as Inej Ghafa is one of my favourite performances on the show. Inej is a quiet character but one who contains multitudes — a traumatic past she is constantly wrangling with, a deep sense of spirituality that sits at odds with the violent world she’s a part of, a strong moral compass even as she’s part of a gang of criminals. Suman sells all these layers beautifully, and is just as compelling in her quieter moments of introspection and her interactions with other characters as she is in her acrobatic knife-twirling fight sequences. Rounding out the trio of Crows is Freddy Carter as Kaz Brekker, leader of the Dregs and criminal mastermind. Carter is probably one of the cast members under the most scrutiny going in given Kaz’s staggering popularity among book fans. I will say that the Kaz of the show is slightly different to Kaz in the book — not massively so, but less inscrutable and more scrappy — but it’s a change I think works. The dominant high-fantasy, hero’s journey theme of the show sets a tone a little bit more fairytale-esque than the grittier world of the SoC books, and I think Carter’s Kaz is well-suited to the backdrop of the show. Most importantly, however, Young, Suman and Carter have outstanding chemistry both among all their respective characters and as a trio overall. Theirs are some of the most fun scenes in the show; they’re utterly believable as a criminal gang with a begrudging underlying friendship, and their various schemes, team dynamics, and bantering is impossible not to fall in love with. Carter and Suman also provide some of the most quietly potent moments of connection in an otherwise always Grand and Sweeping show that instantly invest the viewer in their relationship.

There are plenty of other characters, many of whom fans of the books will be watching keenly, and this show is very much an ensemble. Everyone is likely to have their own favourite performances or subplots — Danielle Galligan and Calahan Skogman’s extended side quest as Nina Zenik and Matthias Helvar was a surprise favourite of mine, although the choice not to cast a plus-sized actress in the role of Nina, a canonically fat character in the books, remains one of the more troubling choices the show makes — and the beauty of the show is that whether you’ve read all the books or not, whichever side of various ship wars you may fall on, it’s practically impossible not to enjoy this show.

Shadow & Bone isn’t without its flaws — the pacing of the latter episodes is somewhat discordant with earlier episodes, certain sections of dialogue or plot are somewhat contrived. But on the whole, it doesn’t really matter. This show knows exactly what it is and embraces it with gusto. It knows the fandom it comes with, and is happy to nudge and wink at them, with certain scenes that are pure fan service, as fun as they are cheesy. It lets the chemistry of its cast shine, understanding that watching these characters interact with each other is as thrilling as watching magic powers and extravagant battles. Shadow & Bone provides a lavish fantasy world for viewers to disappear into, a large cast of characters that are easy to rally behind, and a magical romp that is as transportive and fun as reading 2010s YA fantasy for the first time.

Shadow & Bone releases globally on April 23rd, only on Netflix

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