I’ve been mulling over how to encapsulate Netflix’s Shadow and Bone into a bite size review where you know whether to binge it or ditch it, but in many ways it defies simple categorization. I think, in general, most people will probably enjoy it. It takes that oh-so-familiar-but-effective ‘Chosen One’ fantasy trope, adds millions upon millions of dollars of production design and CGI, weaves in a Roman cohort of beautiful actors and runs it through sort of a brownish/steampunk filter in post. The net result is a very okay show that gets much better during the second half of its 8-episode first season.
WHAT IT IS
Fun, light and breezy. The actors are, for the most part, alright. The story has some merit, and is certainly aided by the source material, The Grishaverse novel series written by Leigh Bardugo. She seems very cool. You’ll read some reviews of the show that say it improves upon the source material and you’ll also hear the exact opposite. I haven’t read the Shadow and Bone novels, so I can’t say one way or another, but the subject matter left me intrigued and I like this snapshot of how they open. Bardugo’s writing style seems very accessible.
That said, Shadow and Bone is a very Harlequin romance title. And this image pretty much captures the breathless, lusty passion of one of the romances in the show. I won’t tell you which one.
WHAT IT ISN’T
It isn’t Game of Thrones. I can scarcely believe how many reviewers are trying to compare it to George R.R. Martin’s HBO series. I don’t want to get off on a tangent, because I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the scatological implosion of heartbreaking misery that was the end of that series, but Shadow and Bone is decidedly nothing like GOT. To link the two because they both inhabit the same genre is to liken the janitor to the hedge fund manager because they both inhabit the same city. Shadow and Bone is more The Shannara Chronicles than it is Winterfell, more CW than HBO, more hors d’oeuvres than entrée.
That isn’t to say it’s awful. It’s just blazingly Y.A. in the fiber of its being and that’s okay. For a weathered old bastard like me, I chuckle when no one on the screen is ever over 43 years old and every major decision in a story is made by someone who looks like they hope their mom and dad buy them a Jeep for their 18th birthday.
This is the oldest actor by like 30 years and he had like 12 lines in the whole season, which he hit out of the park, frankly.
It’s fine. It’s kind of endearing, in a way, especially in a country that can’t seem to vote for anyone younger than 93 to run it. I guess the dream of leaders who manage their own social media accounts is alive and well in the fictitious world of Ravka.
You forget sometimes, as a fan of fantasy, how many of the locations are quasi-Nordic, featuring tales of ‘Northmen’ and snowy wastes. In that regard, the Russian/Slavic setting of Shadow and Bone is a refreshing departure. Here’s the map of the world, where you’ll see on the eastern shore of the True Sea the black gash that the show identifies as ‘The Fold.’
WHAT IS THE FOLD?
Well, obviously it’s a black magic hellscape many hundreds of feet high and many hundreds of miles long which is populated by fearsome flying volcra. If you don’t know what volcra are, it’s fine. They’re not fun.
People in the country of Ravka have to presumably keep Ravka-ing and this necessitates traveling through The Fold. Why not just go around it, you ask? The show is very quick to put the kibosh on that notion. To the north, you have Viking psychos who are basically witchburners and to the south you have the Shu Han, both of whom are at war with the Ravkans.
Quite a pickle.
Ravka is basically Russia, so you’ve got a Tsar and Tsarina. They have an on-again-off-again relationship with the Grisha, who are basically magic users. Imagine taking all of the small-dick energy in the world, wrapping it in gold filigree and giving them the inherent madness of Rasputin. These are the Grisha. A bunch of Posh Rasputins and they make up the ‘Second Army’. The First Army is just like regular army people with no powers.
Sometimes the Tsar loves the Grisha, sometimes they’re outlaws who are rounded up and killed. In the world of the show, The Grisha are protected, and represent the main power of the Tsar.
The focal point of the story is told through the relationship of Alina (Jessie Mei Li), the chosen one, and Mal (Archie Renaux), her childhood best friend, both of whom are orphans.
She’s the victim of abuse and resentment because of her Asian-like ‘Shu’ features and he’s the victim of bullying because he’s a “half-breed.” Sadly, themes that are all too common in both the show and the real world. They both grow up and join the first army as cartographers, which was probably the first time I got interested and then immediately disappointed as mapmaking ends up not playing into the story at all.
On an unexpected trip through The Fold, Mal is about to be killed by Volcra and, unintentionally, Alina erupts into a ball of pure light, vanquishing the attackers. She reveals herself to be the Sun Summoner, a mythic figure sent to eradicate The Fold and save the world, which is as much of a surprise to Alina as it is to everyone else.
So begins the A plot, which is basically Alina looking confused for six episodes and Mal trying to get back to her to no avail. Her powers have outed her as Grisha and now she reports to the devastatingly handsome General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), where the plot thickens.
The main plotline is periodically interspersed with that of Kaz (Freddy Carter) and his gang of criminals, his ‘Crows’, about whom it’s nearly impossible to give the slightest shit. Carter has one of those hard-to-forget faces, but his character is so one note and glum that despite him being a major player, I couldn’t tell the difference between Kaz and the bad guy he played in Pennyworth. There’s zero range.
Every time he and his gang of capricious Artful Dodgers were on the screen I sighed and wished I could watch in 1.5 speed like a podcast. It’s like when you read a book and the author switches chapters to give different characters narrative agency and you’re just like “No! I don’t care about this! Get back to the main story.” In Shadow and Bone, it takes half the season for you to truly have anyone to root for, and even then it feels like a passing interest at best. Of Kaz’s crew, you care about Kaz the least and wonder why the various members of his squad have any loyalty to him because he’s such a joyless pustule.
One major bummer about the season is that I don’t recall ever watching a show where there was so much small dick energy on the screen. Based on their behavior, both Kaz and Kirigan have the smallest penises in history and the only thing missing from either of their sneering personas was a mint-condition Corvette.
Then you have a veritable army of douchebag apparachiks following the bad guy and doing his bidding and it just gets a bit tiresome. I’m all about the grimdark, but I could stand to have it served without extra Velveeta. That’s generally my overall impression of the season itself: unintentionally or not, it looks great but is really thin on substance.
For example, when Alina becomes a Grisha and moves into a Grisha Palace to be trained, her arc of feeling like an outsider there to stating that she belongs lasts less than half an episode. It’s like a Rocky Balboa training montage if you take out the montage and show him punching a side of beef in one scene and knocking out the world champion in the next. Without properly chronicling the passing of time, not only does it hurt the story, but the writing choices seriously limit the range and effectiveness of Jessie Mei Li’s performance. Alina spent almost all of the season as sort of a pleasant and passive shoulder shrug.
There were some shining players to come out of season one, though. Inej, played by Amita Suman? Sign me up! I want to watch the show where her knife-hurling ninja character is the lead. She was captivating.
In some of the early beauty shots I worried that Archie Renaux’s Mal was just hot-ass set dressing, but no! Renaux’s performance was compelling and nuanced and I found myself rooting for him like crazy.
Kit Young’s Jesper Fahey was a bit over the top at times, but I defy you to try not to like him.
I also enjoyed Danielle Galligan’s Nina Zenik,
Julian Kostov’s Fedyor,
Zoë Wanamaker’s Baghra,
And Daisy Head’s Genya, despite her having to sport one of the many iffy wigs on the show.
In general, these folks crafted enough decent scenes to pull the majority of the season out of the muck, but it still felt rushed, predictable and underwhelming until about episode five when there were some decent plot twists. If you’re a fan of the books, I imagine that the series will feel like a decent, if too short, rendition of the story. If you’re not a book reader, I suspect that terms like squallers, inferni, heartrenders, durasts and eatheralki might prove to be a bit of a stumbling block.
Either way, the show probably packs enough gunpowder in the action sequences to merit a watch, but be warned that it’s a slow boil out of the gate and you may need to set aside time for the whole season to get the most out of it. Shadow and Bone may not quite situate itself into the void left by The Witcher on Netflix’s fantasy lineup, but it’s decent enough to tune in and see if the solid worldbuilding grabs you enough to draw you ass over teakettles into the Grishaverse.
Shadow and Bone is available to watch now on Netflix.