In a world where there are numerous entries exploring post-Victorian, industrial-era, ‘steampunk type beat’ aesthetics, with a YA-focused, romance-laden narrative…Comes Shadow and Bone! After the age of Twilight and Maze Runner we enter a new phase of multiple YA novel adaptation entries that have, somehow, ‘found their time’ at the same time. The last two months alone have brought three young adult period pieces in Netflix’s The Irregulars, HBO’s The Nevers, and now Netflix’s take on Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone.
Is It Good Though?
Well, yeah. Shadow and Bone will sweep you away if you let the narrative lead you. The series centers on Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) as one of the most obvious and oblivious protagonists and the key to solving this worlds’ problem. Speaking of, here’s the synopsis:
Based on Leigh Bardugo’s worldwide bestselling Grishaverse novels, 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.Netflix Media Center
The mold is not broken with Shadow and Bone, but there is a lot of refinement. Having a woman protagonist is not new, but Jessie Mei Li’s Alina Starkov is more nuanced and grounded than most. The general theme of the world built is one that the world is harder than it wants to be but retains its humanity against all odds. Alina embodies the concept and each member of the supporting cast follows suit. Ben Barnes, who I keep forgetting is British, has a great turn playing (another) villain in General Kirigan; although I wonder if the caliber of his acting is higher than the stakes of the show itself. The real standouts are the supporting cast members, in particular, the shady anti-hero thievery consortium known as The Crows. They kept it gully the whole season, Baz, Inej, and Jesper are the legit reason to watch the show. If not for them, Shadow and Bone would feel pretty flat. There’s another side-mission type arc that doesn’t come to any real fruition or resolution, but it is well-acted. There were no bad performances, just strange things we are forced to reconcile. One of which is that all of this takes place in a Eurasian region where folks have Russian, Eastern European, and West Asian surnames – but no one looks or sounds like they might be from the region. Not a real problem just a tiny splinter in the logic of the casting that I couldn’t resolve. All in all, the characters hold up, are nuanced, and have decent arcs that dip in and out of the heroes’ journey.
All the Glitter
Not many shows just starting out in their first seasons have the kind of production value that Shadow and Bone did. Let me tell you they spent all the money on everything in this one. The magic and steampunk elements alone require early Game of Thrones levels of money, and they must’ve had that. Nothing about this show looks cheap. The visual effects department went all the way off. The costumes are stellar, the delineation between the First and Second armies, the Grisha, and the Crows are so distinct and intentional. The sets and backgrounds are detailed and majestic. Shadow and Bone is beautiful to watch, to be honest, and might be a new benchmark for Netflix live-action fantasy.
While Shadow and Bone has a polished visual aesthetic that immediately sets it apart from other YA series, it suffers from a few of the clichés that are a detriment to the genre. Romance as the primary catalyst for the plot progression is not the worst thing in the world. However, it has been done to death and immediately induces eye rolls. By grounding the story in romance, viewers are forced to invest in said romances, which almost ensures the main romances will be heteronormative. Not a huge mark against the piece since it’s an adaptation, but a dynamic presents itself: any relationships outside of the gender binary are relegated to the background of the larger story.
The Larger Story
Don’t let the teen to young adult themes fool you, the story is grand and sweeping. Viewers are seriously dropped into this world and get the scope and scale of the world in each episode. Following something as run-of-the-mill as the protagonist gaining powers feels less corny with Shadow and Bone. Much of the exposition was compressed into pockets, which translated into a lot less eye-rolling (for me). The Eurasian conflict plot threads set the stage for a big series with plenty of locales and the ending of this season is putting other shows on notice. It tries to break the mold of the YA fantasy but instead succeeds in making a slightly better mold. To its credit the acting is great, every character is fully activated and that grounds the narrative to a place where a lot can be overlooked. The use of the Grisha in Shadow and Bone are a primary reason to watch. The fight choreography and use of their abilities across the different classes are fun to see and explore. The many creative uses of their power sets are a serious draw to the possibilities for season two. It’s very reminiscent of the benders in the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe.
In the Building
As the lens of representation in media becomes sharper, the scrutiny and expectations are heightened. That said, Shadow and Bone did the base work of making sure there was way more diversity onscreen. Characters that are strong and nuanced women feel normalized in this world (just like the real world!) and that is a breath of fresh air. There were Black folks, Asian homies (southeast, far east, and west), Scandinavians – all over the place everywhere. Which makes it more evident how few are prominent characters in the story. The Crows make up the larger part of team DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion); Kaz Brekker is the shady mastermind who exposes the normalized ableism, Inej is the exoticized femme fatale risen up from servitude, and Jasper Fahey is the gunslinging composite for all of the Blackness and queerness in this world.
On a personal note, I love seeing Black gunslingers. It feels like justice. The Crows are prominently featured and play an integral part of the story which is dope and the main character is played by an actor of Asian descent. At no point in the show did it feel like someone was missing but the series has some ‘splaining to do about the ‘Yellow Peril’ era propaganda drawings from episode one. I know it has to do with Alina being ‘Shu’ (read far east Asian), but it doesn’t get resolved. All in all, Shadow and Bone has set a high bar for YA fantasy adaptations and deserves to be taken as seriously as the world did The Hunger Games.