Title: Shadow and Bone (season 1, 2021, season 2 March 16, 2023)
Shadow and Bone begins with a well-worn YA premise: A young girl lives a drab existence, dreaming of a better life, when she unexpectedly discovers via extraordinary circumstances that she’s Special.
Jealous rivals don’t like the fact that she’s Special and try to tear her down as she leads a revolution in a society ruled by idiotic adults, who Just Don’t Understand the complicated lives of teenagers.
Normally that would be enough for me to steer well clear of a movie or TV show, but a teaser for Shadow and Bone tickled my interest: It shows the protagonist, Alina, on a boat that’s about to cross the Fold, also called the Unsea — a pitch-black, swirling mass of cloudy mist smudged right across the middle of her country, dividing it in two.
As the ship approaches, Alina and the other passengers can hear the shrieks of the unseen nightmares that populate the Fold. The bow of the boat penetrates the Unsea, Alina closes her eyes, holds her breath, and the preview ends.
That short scene was enough to convince me to give the series a shot. At the very least I wanted to know what The Fold was, how it came into being, and what kind of creatures stalk its gloom.
While Shadow & Bone uses YA tropes as its jumping off point, it quickly sheds them in favor of clever world-building, affable characters and a well-established mythology that sets up the overarching heroic journey of its protagonist. It also ages its cast so they’re mostly in their twenties and thirties, and while Netflix may have played up the YA template while marketing the series to appeal to younger views, the show itself is geared toward adults of all ages.
The action is centered on a country called Ravka, which is modeled on Czarist Russia and has been split in two by the Fold. Ravka’s capital, Os Alta, is located to the east of the Fold while its major port cities and trading centers, Os Kervo and Novokribirsk, are situated to the west of the dangerous no-man’s land.
As a result, and despite the dangers, Ravka’s economy and unity depends on ships that regularly cross the Fold to move food from the breadbasket to the east and trading goods from the port cities to the west. Losing ships is the cost of doing business, not unlike crossing the Atlantic was during the days of colonial America, and it has a human toll as well: Alina, her best friend, Mal, and all the other children at the orphanage where they grew up lost their parents to the Fold’s horrors.
But Ravka has its blessings as well: A class of conjurors called Grisha who have the ability to manipulate elements. Grisha Tidemakers can control and shape water, Squallers can control wind, Healers can repair human bodies in ways normal medicine cannot, and Heartrenders can sense and manipulate hearts. They can sooth a person’s anxieties or ease them into a restful sleep, but they can also stop a person’s heart or tell if someone is lying by feeling the subtle shifts in their heartbeats.
The Grisha can mitigate the chances of a ship being lost to The Fold but they’re not immune to its dangers, and many of their number have been lost to its hazards as well. Making the crossing is a grim prospect for anyone aboard one of many ships that regularly journey across the so-called Unsea.
The Grisha are led by General Kirigan (Ben Barnes of Westworld and Narnia fame), who has the unique ability to manipulate shadows and destructive energy. It was Kirigan’s ancestor, the Black Heretic, who created the Fold, and Kirigan has vowed to redeem his family by destroying it.
Prophecy foretold a new kind of Grisha — the Sun Summoner, who has the power to call on the sun’s energies and manipulate light. It’s said the Sun Summoner will be the one to finally destroy the Fold and emancipate Ravka from the terrible toll it takes. In addition to protecting Ravka against her many enemies as its general, finding the Sun Summoner has been Kirigan’s life’s work.
Alina is the Sun Summoner, but you already knew that because Shadow & Bone is based on a YA series of books. But she doesn’t know it until she’s forced to cross the fold and one of its nightmarish creatures is about to kill her beloved Mal, drawing out her latent powers in a moment of desperation. The sudden burst of energy and light as she intercedes is so powerful that it’s spotted for miles outside the Fold, and soon survivors of the ill-fated ship arrive at the docks, telling of a woman who can call upon the power of the sun.
In the series, Alina and her friends are aged up and appear as young adults. Mercifully, Shadow & Bone doesn’t mirror its genre’s traditional portrayal of adults as idiots, and unlike other big-time YA franchises, like Veronica Roth’s incoherent Divergent series, it doesn’t ask its audience to buy into an absurd society. Novelist Leigh Bardugo has clearly put a lot of thought and research into crafting her fictional universe. There’s rich lore, varied nations with their own distinct customs, prejudices and beliefs, a believable economy and conflict perpetuated by very human motivations and circumstances. Most of the characters we meet are just trying to get on with their lives and are caught up in the central drama.
Alina, played by 26-year-old British actress Jessie Mei Li, is mixed race, part Ravkan and part Shu. Shu Han, a nation based loosely on dynastic China and the Middle East, is in a perpetual state of conflict with Ravka, and Alina’s Shu appearance makes her the object of disdain, ridicule and ignorance even among her countrymen.
“I was told she was Shu,” the queen says in a later scene, when Alina is presented to the royal family and the court of Ravka for the first time. “I guess she’s Shu enough. Tell her… Oh, I don’t know, ‘Good morning.'”
Alina speaks up before a man by the queen’s side can translate.
“I don’t actually speak Shu, your highness,” she says.
“Then what are you?” the queen asks.
There’s a long pause, with Alina clearly unsure how to answer, before General Kirigin steps in.
“She is Alina Starkov, the Sun Summoner, moya tsaritsa,” Kirigin says. “She will change the future. Starting now.”
And with that, Kirigin claps his hands, enveloping the throne room in unnatural gloom with his shadow-manipulating ability. He turns to Alina, takes her hand, and there’s an eruption of ethereal light so powerful that the assembled aristocrats, guards and Grisha gasp and shield their eyes. The light solidifies into a bubble around Alina and Kirigin, its elements twinkling and orbiting them like stars, and the overjoyed king is convinced his nation has indeed finally found the prophesied Sun Summoner.
Becoming the Sun Summoner isn’t all flowers and rainbows. Alina feels the weight of expectations upon her. The king of Ravka is impatient for her to learn to control her newfound powers so she can tear down The Fold. Ravka’s aristocrats, as well as ambassadors and powerful figures from other countries, initially suspect she’s a fraud. Regular people, who have suffered the most from The Fold’s impact on Ravka, begin to venerate her as a living saint. And there are plenty of people who don’t want her to succeed or see her existence as a way to profit.
Shadow and Bone also has a parallel narrative following three lovable rogues from Ketterdam, an island nation west of Ravka. It’s clear early on that their journey will intersect with Alina’s at some point, but the series never feels predictable in the way the characters approach that point.
The Ketterdam trio, who call themselves the Crows, are led by Kaz, the owner of a tavern-slash-gambling den called the Crow Club. Kaz is practical, calculating and focused on making money, legitimately or not. Inej is another orphan of the Fold who was sold to a brothel in her early teens. She was bought out by Kaz, who recognized her intelligence, her light step and her talent for spying. Last but not least is Jesper, a wise-cracking, life-loving and fiercely loyal friend with uncanny sharpshooting abilities.
The Crows are the source of much of the series’ humor, despite being criminals and despite all of them having painful pasts. Jesper in particular is known for his wisecracks and his relentless, single-minded obsession with hiring “a demo man” — an explosives expert — for every job they do, regardless of whether the gig calls for it.
“Boss, I think we need a demo man for this one,” he tells Kaz at one point.
Kaz points out that the nature of their job is stealth, and the whole purpose is to get in and out without being heard or seen. You can almost see the gears moving in Jesper’s head as he thinks up reasons why they do, in fact, need someone to blow things up.
When word of the Sun Summoner’s appearance spreads to every corner of Shadow and Bone’s universe, the Crows catch wind of a contract offering a fortune to anyone who can abduct the Sun Summoner and bring her to Ketterdam.
Kaz believes the Sun Summoner is a hoax and views the job as a simple transaction, while Inej holds out hope that she’s the real deal, and if she is, the prospect of kidnapping a living saint weighs heavily on her conscience. Jesper is just content to go wherever there’s alcohol and explosions.
A great strength of the series is that it begins from a familiar place and manages to regularly subvert expectations.
The production values are exceptional, and it appears Netflix spared no expense bringing Bardugo’s world to life. Ravka, Ketterdam and Novokribirsk feel like real places inhabited by real people, with authentic differences in culture, manner of speaking, dress and even the way they count money.
From imperial courts to military camps to the seedy underbellies of Ketterdam drinking clubs, the world feels like it continues to exist long after we turn our televisions off.
The first season takes several wild turns, which I won’t detail here because it’s very much worth watching, especially now: The long-awaited second season comes to Netflix on March 16, promising to expand on a series already bursting with lovable characters, thrilling adventures and political intrigue.
Of course all epic TV series will eventually be compared to the juggernaut that started it all. Shadow and Bone never tries to be Game of Thrones, and it doesn’t need to be — the first season carved out the show’s unique identity, and season two promises to make the world even bigger and more adventurous.
Buddy’s rating: 5/5 paws