Directors: Mairzee Almas, Lee Toland Krieger, Dan Liu, Jeremy Webb, Eric Heisserer
Writers: Vanya Asher, Daegan Fryklind, Eric Heisserer, Shelley Meals, Christina Strain, M. Scott Veach
Cast: Jessie Mei Li, Archie Renaux, Ben Barnes, Freddy Carter, Kit Young, Amita Suman
Cinematographers: Owen McPolin, David Lanzenberg, Aaron Morton
Editors: Niven Howie, Tyler Nelson, David Trachtenberg
Streaming on: Netflix
A fantasy series is only as good as the human conflicts at the heart of it. Shadow And Bone, now streaming on Netflix, gets this right, tethering its sprawling mythos to real emotion, without which the series would’ve buckled under the weight of its own source material.
And what a vast amount of source material there is. Adapted from Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow And Bone trilogy and Six of Crows duology, the series follows Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a cartographer who discovers she has the ability to conjure sunlight. This makes her the only one in Ravka (a fictional, war-torn version of Russia), who can destroy The Fold, a large swathe of darkness that splits the country into two. If the premise of this Chosen One™ narrative sounds a bit silly on paper, it translates better onscreen. While The Fold itself is fantastical and populated by flying demons, its existence has real-world implications for the citizens of East Ravka, who are cut off from trade and will starve unless the barrier is destroyed.
Viewers who aren’t familiar with the novels might initially struggle to find their footing amid the dizzying amount of information that the series packs in. Across eight nearly hour-long episodes, it hopscotches across various lands, their current warring factions and ancient rivalries, and the different classes of magic-wielders in this universe. This includes Inferni, who can control fire, Squallers who can control air and Heartrenders who can hear and control heart rates.
It’s a lot to keep track of, but the series builds its expansive universe with care and detail. It parcels out information aided by voiceovers and recurring flashbacks, resorting to exposition where it has to but couching it in the form of pleasant stories one might hear at bedtime as a child. The powers get a fantastic showcase in the form of several fight scenes (a Shadow Summoner decapitating a man with a sword conjured from darkness is a standout), but are also deployed during tender moments, like one in which a Heartrender saves a sworn enemy from the freezing cold in a scene built on fragile trust.
It helps that despite several subplots, Shadow And Bone never feels overstuffed or long drawn out, and anchors the stories it’s telling in moving human relationships. Alina’s plot is lent poignancy through her equation with her childhood best friend Malyen Oretsev (Archie Renaux). That the two are in love with each other is obvious to everyone but them and their thinly veiled letters of affection to each other, once Alina is sent off to training, are engineered to make you root for their reunion.
While Alina and Mal bring the romance, the show’s other main plot brings the fun. Expert thief Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), on assignment to kidnap Alina, brings along his friends, sharpshooter Jasper (Kit Young) and spy Inej (Anita Suman). The three have an easy familiarity reflective of their shared history. They know when to push each other’s buttons and when to offer silent support. While the Alina plot is a solid coming-of-age journey, this one is a lot more enjoyable, purely based on how many shenanigans the three get up to and how inventive their heists are. When these two plots converge, the series provokes thoughtful discussions on the nuances of faith in a higher power vs self-belief by pitting characters with different belief systems against each other.
That’s not to say Shadow And Bone is entirely YA-cliché free. Enemies become lovers, a hero bestowed with an expected power wrestles with self doubt before finally coming into her own, and a love triangle between a woman and two men will seem all too familiar to fans of Twilight or The Hunger Games. However, unlike the copycat YA adaptations that came after Twilight and The Hunger Games, only to crash and burn, Shadow And Bone has a world that’s rich and worth exploring, and characters you wouldn’t mind spending a lot more time with.