A lowly orphan and military cartographer in a war-torn world discovers she may be the key to her country’s survival in Shadow and Bone, a new Netflix series based on young adult author Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling “Grishaverse” novels. Those YA roots are mostly hidden in this lavish, entertaining adaptation, which boasts strong performances, terrific production design, and compelling mythical storytelling. Think Cursed meets The X-Men, with embellishments from Doctor Zhivago.
(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)
As we’ve reported previously, Bardugo published Shadow and Bone, the first of a trilogy, in June 2012, followed by Siege and Storm in 2013 and Ruin and Rising in 2014. She told Entertainment Weekly in 2012 that she deliberately avoided the usual medieval fantasy motifs and drew inspiration for her fictional kingdom of Ravka from the Russian Empire in the early 1800s. In 2015, Bardugo published Six of Crows, followed by a sequel, Crooked Kingdom, the following year. This duology is set in the 17th-century equivalent of the Dutch Republic, a town called Ketterdam. Ravka is also bordered to the north by the Scandinavian-inspired Fjerda and to the south by Shu Han (inspired by Chinese and Mongolian cultures).
For those who haven’t read the books: the Grishaverse gets its name from the “grisha,” people with special abilities who practice what is known as the “Small Science.” It’s technically magic, although, as the powerful grisha known as The Darkling sees it, grisha manipulate the “stuff” of the world around them; they don’t create something out of nothing. The Darkling views the latter as true magic, and he has a point. Nonetheless, the grisha are hated, feared, and even hunted down and killed or enslaved because of their powers.
There are several different orders of grisha, depending on their abilities. Corporalki are the Order of the Living and the Dead and include Heartrenders and Healers, both useful on the battlefield because they can manipulate critical body functions. This order also includes Tailors, rare grisha who can change people’s appearances. Materialki are the Order of Fabrikators, essentially chemists and material scientists. Durasts can manipulate solids, while Alkemi specialize in chemicals and gases. Etherealki are the Order of Summoners, able to manipulate the elements. Squallers can harness the wind; Inferni can create and command fire from a mere spark; Tidemakers can manipulate water. Rarest of all grisha are the Shadow Summoner—who can create and command darkness—and the Sun Summoner, who can call forth light.
The latter two are central to the lore of Shadow and Bone, since it was a power-hungry Shadow Summoner, the Black Heretic, who created a barrier of darkness, known as the Fold and inhabited by vicious monsters known as volcra, some 400 years before. It has cut the kingdom of Ravka in two, requiring risky trips through the Fold to transport supplies from the west to the east. The Ravkan people cling to the hope that a Sun Summoner will one day appear and use that power to destroy the Fold once and for all.
The Netflix adaptation follows the main storyline of Shadow and Bone pretty closely. Teen orphan Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li, Last Night in Soho), half-Shu and now a cartographer in the First Army of Ravka, is sent on an expedition across the Unsea (aka the Fold) to bring back provisions from West Ravka for the residents of East Ravka. Her best friend, Malyen “Mal” Oretsev (Archie Renaux, Hanna, The Gold Digger), is also on the expedition. When the volcra attack, Alina saves the day thanks to her previously unsuspected grisha powers—she can summon light, making her the long-awaited mythical Sun Summoner.
Naturally, this catches the attention of grisha leader and Shadow Summoner General Aleksander Kirigan (Ben Barnes, Westworld, The Punisher), who brings her to the city of Os Alta, where she begins training with other grisha to control her powers. Genya Safin (Daisy Head, Harlots, Endeavour), a Tailor, becomes a welcome confidante and helps her navigate the strange new world of the Little Palace, while Alina clashes with the resident jealous mean-girl Zoya (Sujaya Dasgupta, Guilt), a Squaller. But her tutor Baghra (Zoë Wanamaker, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) warns Alina that Kirigan cannot be trusted. Many harrowing adventures ensue.
The TV series also incorporates characters and storylines from Six of Crows, introducing Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter, Pennyworth), aka “Dirtyhands,” a thief in the city of Ketterdam, and his partners in crime: acrobat and knife expert Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman, Doctor Who, The Outpost)) and sharpshooter and inveterate gambler Jesper Fahey (Kit Young, Endeavour). In the book, they are hired to rescue a scientist from a fortress known as the Ice Court. The TV adaptation brings them into Alina’s world; they are hired to kidnap the Sun Summoner instead. Plus, we get a third subplot (also from Six of Crows) involving a former brothel worker and Heartrender Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan, Game of Thrones), and a Fjerdan Drüskelle (witchhunter), Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman).
Bringing in those storylines was a smart choice, since it really fleshes out the richness of this fictional world. And for the most part, the adaptation is seamlessly done—having Bardugo herself involved in the process might be one reason for that. Alina is less passive than in the books, and making Kirigan markedly older (instead of appearing to be the same age) enhances the lopsided power dynamics between him and Alina. Mal is outright heroic and less of a callous jerk than he is in the books. The sole weak point is the storyline involving Nina and Matthias, which is where the show’s YA roots really show. Galligan and Skogman gamely do the best they can as shipwrecked enemies whose budding attraction is hidden beneath constant bickering, but mostly their journey took me too far out of the main action.
But that is the most minor of quibbles. Overall, this is a fine adaptation that captures the most critical elements that made fans fall in love with the Grishaverse in the first place. Best of all, it doesn’t end on an annoying cliffhanger, although the finale deftly sets up the inevitable second season.
Shadow and Bone is now streaming on Netflix.
Listing image by Netflix