Back in the mid-2010s before all of pop culture was filtered through the lens of Marvel’s superhero zeitgeist, there was the era of the young-adult (YA) fantasy novel film adaptation. It started with 2012’s “Hunger Games” and burned on with “Maze Runner”, “Divergent” and “The Immortal Instruments: City of Bones”. Every single one of them was attempting to launch a cash-cow franchise on par with J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. Most of them ended up being middling affairs with the same tired formula. Cue down-on-their-luck protagonist having greatness thrust upon them. Then, they embark on an epic quest alongside a plucky crew of misfits and heroes. All in the effort to bring down some evil empire/ corporation/ regime.
For a time, it seemed like the world was done with fantasy YA novel adaptations. We’d see the occasional “His Dark Materials” once and a while but that was mostly it. Now Netflix unearths this relic to hopefully jumpstart the trend with an adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s “Grisha” book series named “Shadow and Bone”. We approached the series, hoping to find some reprieve from the onslaught of comic-book based films and shows raining down upon us. A campy bit of YA fun to hit that nostalgia button and “Shadow and Bone” hits the spot with plenty of magic and flair!
If you’re looking for a more comprehensive look into the “Shadow and Bone” universe, feel free to check out our breakdown of the show’s sprawling lore. The main crux of the entire show is one Alina Starkov, an orphan soldier from the kingdom of East Ravka. A foreigner, treated with disdain by Ravkan society. Her only friends are her fellow soldiers and her best friend Malyan Orestev. Her life is forever changed though when she discovers she is Grisha, unique individuals born with magical abilities. Not just any Grisha though, a Sun Summoner.
Long has East and West Ravka been separated by a wall of darkness full of nightmarish creatures. She is the long-awaited saviour Ravkans have been waiting for, the one to unite the nation. Now this unwanted orphan is the object of powerful rulers, desperate criminals and an enigmatic Shadow Summoner, General Kirigan. In a world torn apart by darkness, Alina will bring forth light!
Let’s not sit here and pretend like we haven’t heard this a thousand times before. The whole reluctant-hero-destined-for-greatness trope is a well documented one at this point. What separates “Shadow and Bones” from the pack is Bardugo’s worldbuilding. The author has managed to craft a world of different nations, populated with various factions with distinct interests. Too often do these YA-novel adaptations descend into these monotonous fish-out-of-water protagonist journeys. Don’t get us wrong, there’s still plenty of that here.
Unlike some YA film series, “Shadow and Bone” doesn’t need to clumsily attempt to truncate and shove the broad strokes into a 2-hour runtime. Having the first book adapted as an 8-episode season lends more than enough room to explore the source material. Hopefully, this becomes the preferred choice of novel adaptations throughout the YA fantasy genre. The world of Ravka takes clear inspiration from Russia during the final days of the Tsar reign. From costume design to the Ravkan language.
There are moments in which “Shadow and Bone” attempts to translate some of the geo-political history of our world to its own. Some of these fantastical re-imaginings are inspired while some of them feel antiquated and corny. We get it, Russia borders between Europe and Asia, the same way Ravka does between its Eastern and Western fronts. The series also has a bad case of jargonitis with its tendency to shove term after term at viewers with little to no explanation. From Fabrikators to Heartrenders to Darklings to Grisha to Sun Summoners. Eventually though, you’ll adjust to the meanings of these specific terms.
By far the most interesting aspect of “Shadow and Bone” are the Grisha. Much like the wizards and witches of Rowling’s Wizarding World, these magic-users are looked upon with both awe and fear. Wonder and disgust. Once persecuted, the Grisha are now viewed as members of the upper class. That being said, there’s a fair bit of ambiguity regarding whether they are honoured members of society or exploited living weapons.
Seeing Alina live within this tension, having to choose between her two worlds is where most of the suspense and fun of the series is derived. There’s of course the usual love-triangle nonsense, friendship rifts and chosen-one twists and turns as well. Still at least it’s all wrapped in a sleek and stylish package.
Unfortunately, the characters that populate the world aren’t nearly as complex as the plots and schemes spun from them. This is the classic case world-building over character driven narratives. The dialogue is pretty much drivel with ham-fisted zingers, emotional charged outbursts and dramatic pauses. Even the leads Jessie Mei Li as Alina and Ben Barnes as the sexy General Kirigan are subjected to the script’s painful call for overacting. However, there are some characters who get a few good lines in. By far our favourite has got to be the gunslinger Jesper. A bright spot in a sea of brooding, self-serious darkness.
When it comes to costume design and sets, “Shadow and Bone” spared no expense. From the seedy charm of the gentlemen mobster to the regality of the Grisha uniforms, the designers have injected a ton of life and personality into the aesthetics. The use of Grisha magic, however, is a bit of a mixed bag.
There are times the effects look top-notch with the Infeni and Dark Summoners. The less pronounced use involving hand movements make the Grisha look awkward, if not downright constipated. Furthermore, the winged beasts that inhabit the wall of darkness, the Volcro, don’t leave much of an impression. Their creature design is as generic as they come.
“Shadow and Bone” will definitely find a place amongst wide-eyed teenagers and fans of the YA fantasy genre. While the writing wavers, there’s still enough magic to warrant a weekend investment. If you’re looking for the next “Game of Thrones”, look elsewhere. It’s a cliche and it owns it to a fabulous degree! You can now catch the first season of “Shadow and Bone” on Netflix today!
What do you think of Netflix’s latest fantasy series? Is “Harry Potter” good or “Divergent” levels of bad? Be sure to let us know in the comments down below!
Netflix's Shadow and Bone Season 1 Review
"Shadow and Bone" will definitely find a place amongst wide-eyed teenagers and fans of the YA fantasy genre. While the writing wavers, there's still enough magic to warrant a weekend investment. If you're looking for the next "Game of Thrones", look elsewhere. It's a cliche and it owns it to a fabulous degree!
- Netflix's "Shadow And Bone" Season 1 Review: