It feels good to finally announce officially that Shadow and Bone is a fantastic telling of a much-loved series. If you’ve been following along here, I have been posting interviews and coverage of the show for the last few weeks and I have been champing at the bit to finally be able to talk about how in love I am with this new series. Based on the Grishaverse books by Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone was developed by Eric Heisserer of Arrival and Bird Box fame. Acting as the showrunner, Heisserer managed to mesh the first book of the Grisha trilogy Shadow and Bone with a prequel of Bardugo’s later book Six of Crows.
So what is Shadow and Bone about? It is set in a fictional world where people known as Grisha have the power to manipulate the world like magic. We meet Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) a cartographer and soldier in Ravka’s first army. Her country, Ravka, has been torn apart by a mysterious void of darkness called the Shadow Fold. In a journey through the amorphous threat, Alina and her fellow soldiers are attacked by monstrous flying beasts called the Volcra and in protecting her friend Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux), Alina unleashes an extraordinary power. This catapults the entire world into action; Alina is the fabled Sun Summoner, and she could change the world with her power. This brings her to the attention of the Grisha and their leader, General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) and also to the Crows, (Freddy Carter, Amita Suman, Kit Young) a group of criminals across the sea in the city of Ketterdam.
Understanding the World
Coming into the series, I had read some of the books in Bardugo’s series, but admittedly the first big hurdle for many people will be the worldbuilding. The Grishaverse is not only introducing a new magic system to viewers, but new countries, cultures, and political landscapes. The series does a good job of immersing you into the world without requiring you to understand all of the working semantics. Do you need to understand the political relationship between the island country of Kerch and Ravka? Or Fjerda with Ravka? Not really. It might help you understand the characters a bit more, but on the whole, Shadow and Bone is a series that is driven by its characters.
On the same note, it is not vital that you understand the differences between the Grisha orders. Although being Grisha it’s an essential part of the world and the conflict within the world, you don’t need to know what a Durast is or what order the Squallers belong in. That is all secondary to the main story in the best way possible. It can be easy to get bogged down by the worldbuilding, especially when the series is also introducing the conflict with other countries like Fjerda and characters from Kerch. And while you can definitely get lost in looking at the map of this fictional world or spend hours looking at Fandom wikis, the worlds within the show are immersive.
High Production Value
Being a Netflix production, Shadow and Bone is definitely a big budget show. From the immense Shadow Fold to the smallest details like unique playing cards, it feels like no expense was spared. Costume designer Wendy Partridge created 250 kefta for the show. Kefta are worn by the Grisha and act as a uniform for the distinctive three orders. Red for Corporalki, Blue for Etherealki, and Purple for Materialki, of course, there is also the distinctive black kefta worn only by General Kirigan aka The Darkling. The kefta were hand-embroidered in the bullion embroidery style with actual pieces of small metal sewn into the fabric; they also come in three varieties, a bulletproof one for battle, velvet for everyday wear, and silk for social occasions like the Winter Fete.
General Kirigan’s black kefta includes several shades and textures of black, with a knife-like pattern in the embroidery as a nod to his ability to perform The Cut, a vicious attack used only by summoners. In contrast, Alina, as the Sun Summoner, has her own sunblast kefta embroidery pattern, one that is similar to Kirigan’s design. While the Grisha and Ravka have red, blue, and purple as their core color palette, the Crows and Ketterdam have the contrasting color spectrum of orange, green, and brown. Jesper is in green and orange plaid, Inej in dark teal (complete with places to sheathe her actual knives), and Kaz in chocolate brown to contrast Kirigan’s black.
Heisserer also worked alongside director of photography David Lanzenberg for the visual aspect of Shadow and Bone. Both were inspired by the 2015 Macbeth. For Ravka, Lanzenberg drew inspiration from 2017’s Dunkirk, and for Ketterdam, he drew inspiration from 2013’s The Grandmaster. The crucial element of the Shadow Fold drew visual inspiration from 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, specifically the bog sequence, and 2013’s Under the Skin. In The Crow Club in Ketterdam, everything was designed to meticulous detail, from the playing cards to the money, everything was custom made. Even the suits and numbering system of the cards are unique to the universe. I smell some merchandising opportunities, Netflix!
Of course, we’ve all seen what a low budget can do to special effects, and thankfully Shadow and Bone didn’t suffer from bad VFX. With Ted Rae, the VFX supervisor who won two Emmys for his work on Game of Thrones, the Shadow Fold came to life. He was inspired by the visuals of black fire, calling it a gas explosion that never runs out of fuel and glows black instead of red, reflecting light instead of creating it, for the depths of The Fold. The Volcra design pulled from the visual aspects of gargoyles and demons but strove to remain as grounded as possible. Special effects lent a lot to the insidiousness of The Darkling, who uses The Cut against his enemies (it appears in multiple scenes and looks amazing every time). It also adds wonder to the scenes where Alina uses her powers to summon sunlight, creating marvelous sunbursts from the palms of her hands.
On top of all that, Heisserer also worked with David Peterson, most well known for being the creator behind the Dothraki language, to create original languages for the show: Ravkan, Kerch, Fjerdan, and sign language for the three Crows so that they could communicate with one another.
But all the production and graphics in the world won’t help if you don’t have the right actors behind the characters and Shadow and Bone has that in spades. Comprised of mostly young and new actors, the main cast not only seem to be able to completely immerse themselves in their roles but have amazing on-screen chemistry with one another. After making the decision to change Alina’s character to being one of half-Shu ancestry, the series cast Jessie Mei Li as the lead. While the entire trilogy is written from Alina’s point of view, Li had the difficult task of weaving Alina’s dialogue with her signature wit and humor.
Li is the perfect Alina Starkov in many ways. Not only does she physically embody this new version of Alina, but she is able to touch on Alina’s determination, her initial self-doubt, her innate relatability. She humanizes and grounds a character who could easily fall into the tired tropes within a hero’s journey. With Alina, we are able to discover the world of the Grisha and also of Ravka, but she is not simply a stand-in for the audience. We watch as grows in confidence in herself, finds her place in the world, and also wrestles with this immense burden and power that she’s discovered.
At her side are her two potential romances Mal Oretsev, a childhood best friend from the orphanage, and the powerful General Kirigan of The Second Army. While shippers will always be torn on whether they ship Alina with Mal or Alina with The Darkling (or Alina just with herself), Archie Renaux had the difficult task of portraying a character who has generally been disliked by readers. Book Mal is rude, possessive, and generally ignores Alina until he realizes she has magical powers. Show Mal is a far cry from this toxic character. I can not stress enough how much I disliked Mal’s character from the book and how Renaux totally revitalized a character I had basically written off. A lot of that comes from Renaux’s amazing chemistry with Li, but it also goes to the actor himself.
Ben Barnes’ General Kirigan, aka The Darkling, is another highlight of the series. As one of the only seasoned actors of the main cast, viewers will recognize him from Chronicles of Narnia, The Punisher, or Westworld, but that doesn’t mean that Barnes has phoned it in when it comes to the charismatic, mysterious, and alluring Darkling. Barnes has talked about finding the humanity in a character like The Darkling, and while he possesses the gravitas to play The Darkling in his most threatening scenes, he also is able to balance that with fragility that adds an extra dimension to this complex character.
The Grisha trilogy may have been the books that kicked off the Grishaverse, but Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom are easily fan favorites among the readers. This means that the casting of Kaz, Inej, Jesper, Nina, and Matthias was vital to the success of the series. While there has been commentary on some of the casting choices from the fans, it’s hard to watch the series and not be totally convinced that the show has found the perfect Crows. Shippers will most definitely feel the sparks of chemistry from both Freddy Carter with Amita Suman and also from Danielle Galligan with Calahan Skogman. The dynamics between Carter, Suman, and Kit Young will spark the interest of any audience member; their storyline adds a heist element to the season as the trio traverse across The Fold into Ravka.
Two Stories in One
The Crows add an undeniable draw for audiences, especially ones that have read the books. While the main storyline of Shadow and Bone follows pretty closely to the first book of the trilogy (with some surprising flashbacks), the Crows story is a completely new story, taking place in a sort of prequel territory. Being able to dive into a time before Six of Crows and revisit beloved characters is an absolute treat. The pilot episode throws audiences into the world of Ketterdam, complete with a jaunty score that is easily my favorite musical theme of the entire series by composer Joseph Trapanese, introducing the criminals of The Dregs and The Crow Club.
For book readers, a significant figure is obviously missing from the motley crew. While the series has not cast anyone to play Wylan, the sixth member of the gang in Six of Crows, there are a couple of hints sprinkled throughout the episodes that can serve as a bit of an easter egg to those looking out for them. Shadow and Bone lays the groundwork for the events of the future books. It starts sewing the seeds for the rest of its supporting cast, including Daisy Head‘s Genya Safin, Luke Pasqualino‘s David Kostyk, and Sujaya Dasgupta‘s Zoya Nazyalensky. It starts hinting at the events of Six of Crows, though by the end of the series, it presents some questions about how the characters progress if potential future seasons will explore the storylines of Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising. It’s a conversation for another time, but one worth having.
Shadow and Bone is a perfect balance of fantasy, action, romance, and humor. While fantasy and sci-fi shows have definitely laid the groundwork for an environment where a show like Shadow and Bone can exist, the series stands out on its own merit with its talented cast, ambitious storytelling, and breathtaking world. At a time when new shows are sprouting up every couple of weeks, Shadow and Bone isn’t a show that relies purely on shock value or ultraviolence, the characters are slowly developed throughout the episodes as an intricate story unfolds.
It’s the beginning of the next pop culture obsession. Get ready, people!
Season 1 of Shadow and Bone will premiere on Netflix on April 23rd, 2021.