Written by: Robin C. Farrell | April 22nd, 2021
Shadow and Bone (Eric Heisserer, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Based on Leigh Bardugo’s novels known by fans as the “Grishaverse,” Netflix’s new eight-episode series Shadow and Bone tells the story of Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), who goes from lowly soldier to miracle worker after her first trek across the Shadow Fold, a magical formation of darkness and monsters. Alina summons a power she never knew she had, the key to saving her country from war, and is whisked away from all she knows. In the new lavish world of the gentry, training alongside the Grisha – an elite army of magical soldiers – nothing is quite what it seems, dangerous forces are at play, and Alina must decide whom to trust and who she wants to be.
For those unfamiliar with the source material, Shadow and Bone is the first book in Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy, but it’s not the only novel being adapted here. Showrunner Eric Heisserer (screenwriter of Bird Box) has incorporated elements from Bardugo’s equally popular Six of Crows duology, set several years after the conclusion of the trilogy, and the result is … a very lopsided mix. One’s enjoyment of this series may vary because familiarity with – and affinity for – the source material will undoubtedly affect the overall viewing experience here.
Objectively speaking, the performances across the board are fantastic, particularly Jessie Mei Li as Alina, Archie Renaux as Mal, and Kit Young as Jesper. The visual effects are stunning, and the music and sound design are tremendous. From the jump, the world feels grounded without being exorbitantly gritty and the Grisha powers are substantial, though not outrageous. Newcomers to this world, however, may need to stick around for a few episodes before the details take shape. There’s no expository map at the top of the show either, which is odd, considering that Alina is a mapmaker after all. Netflix released Building the World, a featurette breaking down the geography and orders of the Grisha, which I recommend to any potential viewer.
The first episode hits the ground running, though, extending world-building and character development, all of which works in its favor. This is not a complete word-for-word retelling, and not every adaptive choice is perfect, but the majority of the changes enrich the story and create successful momentum straight out of the gate, particularly with Mal, Alina’s closest childhood friend. Their relationship drives this series: the way their paths cross, disconnect, parallel, and how they grow, together and apart. It’s easily one of the best parts of the whole season.
Sadly, what kills the show’s momentum – repeatedly – is the cutting away to the city of Ketterdam and its characters: Kaz (Freddy Carter), Inej (Amita Suman) and Jesper. Every time the series abandons Alina and Mal, it’s jarring and never matches the quality of the Shadow and Bone side. It’s clear in the cinematography and editing: the locations in Ravka (Alina’s outpost, orphanage flashbacks, forest, palace) are real and it shows, or they’re more elaborate, believable sets. Ketterdam – real locations or not – feels like a soundstage. It becomes very clear very quickly that these two stories just don’t go well together, whether narratively, aesthetically or conceptually. Most disappointing is that the Ketterdam characters, beloved by so many fans, exist in this context largely to serve the Shadow and Bone story, which robs them of their own identities, as a unit and individuals. Many of their scenes, setups and lines of dialogue are rehashed from Six of Crows and cobbled together in this new context for surface-level fan service that never pays off. Whether the creators took their time with this plot or not, the result feels slapdash, undermines the key aspects of what makes these characters unique, and implies that they are not worthy of the same time and effort as the Shadow and Bone characters, story, or screen time.
This is Alina’s story, the story of the Fold, and the war raging in Alina’s home of Ravka. Inter-cutting that with a story that bears an entirely different style, tone and theme winds up weakening both storylines by the end, which will likely dissatisfy fans and strangers. And that really is disappointing, because so much else about the series is promising and truly engaging. Ultimately, both Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows deserved their own adaptations, uninterrupted and independent of one another. The series we got, however, is worth watching for all the good that it does offer.