SPOILERS FOR SHADOW AND BONE AHEAD!
At long last, the entire first season of Netflix’s Shadow And Bone has landed on the streaming service – but while it would be customary for me to binge-watch the whole season and review it in a single post, I’m trying something a little different in this specific instance. Shadow And Bone is so personal to me that I feel I have to give the adaptation the respect it deserves by reviewing each episode individually, as I would a weekly release.
Don’t be mistaken, however…I have in fact already finished the first season. So these individual episode reviews will take that into account, and as such will include spoilers for the entire series.
If you’ve been reading through my coverage of Netflix’s Shadow And Bone, you’ve probably gathered that, while I’m a huge fan of the Grishaverse – the sprawling fantasy world in which Leigh Bardugo’s original series of novels are set – I’m not quite as devoted to Shadow And Bone itself, Bardugo’s debut novel and the first installment in the three-part saga of Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), an orphaned girl who discovers she can conjure and control sunlight, giving her the unique ability to save her home-country of Ravka from a wall of liquid, semi-sentient, monster-infested darkness called the Shadow-Fold that divides the nation in two.
In the books, Alina is…well, not all that interesting as a protagonist. She lacks some of the moral complexity and charisma that make Bardugo’s later heroes (several of whom also appear in Netflix’s Shadow And Bone, courtesy of fantasy timeline compression) so instantaneously fun and lovable by comparison. But when the series opens, the first significant change to the story is one made with Alina’s characterization in mind – and it benefits her arc in every way imaginable. In the Netflix adaptation, Jessie Mei Li is playing Alina as a biracial woman, and drawing from her own lived experiences in so doing.
Alina is half-Ravkan, and half-Shu Han, both fictional countries but with the former being very clearly inspired by late 19th-Century Russia, and the latter by East Asia. And with Ravka and Shu Han currently waging a war for control over the trade routes that bypass the southern edge of the Shadow-Fold, Alina’s heritage makes her a target for racism and xenophobia everywhere she goes, long after she is revealed to be the legendary Sun-Summoner and her country’s government starts to take an interest in her – if anything, the pressure on her to firmly “choose” a cultural and racial identity only increases at that point, with some hoping to exploit her Shu Han background as propaganda, and others wanting to erase it entirely.
Although Shadow And Bone‘s method of depicting Alina’s childhood through increasingly sporadic and fragmented flashback sequences does become grating after a while, those golden-tinted scenes are necessary to fully understanding the lifelong bond between Alina and her best friend Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux), probably one of the most universally hated characters in YA literature. The changes to Mal are very subtle at first, only gradually adding up to create a vastly different version of the character – one who seems genuinely kind and endearing, cute rather than clingy, precious rather than possessive.
Alina and Mal both serve in Ravka’s First Army, which co-exists alongside a Second Army comprised entirely of Grisha – who are best described as advanced alchemists, their powers deriving from the precise manipulation of matter. The first episode doesn’t dive too deeply into the distinctions between the factions of the Grisha, but the heavy focus on Squallers (Grisha who control wind and air-currents) and Inferni (Grisha who control fire) allows for plenty of CGI spectacle, as members of both groups are critical on the perilous journey across the Shadow-Fold. The Squallers, in particular, are well represented by Zoya Nazyalensky (Sujaya Dasgupta), the first Grisha we meet up close in the show.
Almost everything about the passage through the Shadow-Fold is handled brilliantly. While Alina’s motivation for actually being there is a bit unnecessarily complex (she destroys the only maps of West Ravka in the army-camp so that she, as a cartographer, will be dispatched on the journey across the Fold to create a new one), the blend of suspense and horror when she actually gets on the sand-skiff makes for a thrilling sequence – but I think the oppressive darkness could perhaps have been even darker, giving the occasional bursts of Inferni flame and Alina’s sudden explosion of sunlight a more visually striking appearance.
Shadow And Bone has to do double the worldbuilding because it’s also adapting very specific plot-points from another of Leigh Bardugo’s novels, Six Of Crows, each of which have been reconfigured to fit into the new series…though unfortunately, we don’t get to spend as much time among the winding streets and waterways of Ketterdam as I would have liked, only getting a taste of the lush Baroque setting before we’re whisked away to Ravka. That being said, the three main characters from Six Of Crows who have been integrated into the Netflix series are each handled beautifully.
Freddy Carter’s interpretation of the beloved gang-leader and criminal mastermind Kaz Brekker is probably the best live-action adaptation of a character I’ve seen in a long time. I was scared Brekker’s layers upon layers of devious wit wouldn’t translate well to the live-action medium, which is usually all about simplification, but much to my relief that is not the case. And Brekker’s teammates, Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman) and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young), while not extensively used in this episode, still make strong impressions with clever individual storylines. I’m going to be brutally honest here – I was never really into Jesper’s character in the books, so discovering that I actually adored his live-action counterpart was a genuine surprise for me.
Alina’s storyline only properly intersects with that of the Crows at the end of the episode, and from afar (and at the expense of Ravkan cartographer Alexei, who survives past his original death date in the books just to get shot in the head), but the development still seemed to come shockingly early in the season – and it immediately frees up the Crows to do more scheming, less stalling.
The scheme in question: to locate and kidnap the Sun-Summoner herself, Alina Starkov.
Episode Rating: 8/10