TV review: Why Netflix’s new fantasy series ‘Shadow and Bone’ deserves to be the next big hit

For an author, having a film or television adaptation of your book is either a dream come true or your worst nightmare. For every successful book-to-screen adaptation, like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or Andy Weir’s The Martian, there are plenty of misfires. Remember the franchise non-starter based on Christopher Paolini’s Eragon? Or how the Divergent film franchise fizzled out and didn’t even finish? 

I’m not about to project my own thoughts onto Leigh Bardugo, whose best-selling “Grishaverse” series of fantasy novels has just been turned into a Netflix show called Shadow and Bone. However, I would imagine that Bardugo is extremely pleased. Shadow and Bone is a lavish adaptation with a fantastic cast and film-quality visuals, and it’s gotten great buzz from critics and fans. 

For the uninitiated, Bardugo’s novels are set in a fictionalized, fantasy/steampunk Russia (a.k.a. the land of Ravka), which is populated by magic-wielders known as “Grisha.” Grisha can summon elements like fire or light, or use their powers to heal or manipulate people. 

Ravka is divided in two by a dangerous shadow dimension known as the Fold. Although a Grisha’s powers can make a journey through the Fold safer, trips sometimes still turn deadly, due to the dragon-like creatures called Volcra that inhabit the Fold. 

Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels are classified as young adult fiction, and sometimes there are unfair misconceptions about the YA genre. Although YA may technically be targeted towards teenagers, I’m 33 years old and I read a lot of YA. The authors in this genre are doing some amazing, boundary-pushing storytelling that’s prime material for TV or film adaptations. 

Traditionally, a lot of fantasy has been inspired by medieval Europe. There’s nothing wrong with this per se (again, just look at Lord of the Rings). Yet after a while, this setting can get a little stale, and all these novels start to feel a little like the LOTR template has been copied and pasted too many times. 

Some recent YA book series have offered fresh perspectives that helped me get excited about the fantasy genre again. Authors that are worth checking out include Bardugo’s Russian culture/mythology inspired work; Pakistani-American author Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series inspired by ancient Rome; Tomi Adeyemi’s West African-inspired Children of Blood and Bone; among others. Each of these books had a unique element that was unlike anything I’d ever read before in the fantasy genre, and they felt more ground-breaking than a lot of fiction I’ve read that’s targeted to adults. 

Anyway, back to the Shadow and Bone Netflix series: if the YA label put you off initially, I’d encourage you to give it a chance anyway. There’s a lot to love about this series, starting with the setting. While the costumes and culture of the show may be inspired by historical Russia, Ravka feels like its own unique place. I’m already contemplating a new cosplay project because of this show (not that I really need another cosplay, but you know how that goes). The Grisha wear customized tunics called “kefta,” which are both elegant and practical.

Also, gone are the days when TV meant “lower budget.” The settings in Shadow and Bone feel worthy of the big screen, and the Fold is suitably chilling. It’s also cool to see the Grisha display their powers, in a way that reminds me of a better version of M. Night Shyamalan’s ill-fated, live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender.

My favorite part of the series, though, is the colorful cast of characters. While the Netflix series is titled after Bardugo’s first book (also called Shadow and Bone), I’d argue that the novel is actually not her best work. I prefer her later Grishaverse novel called Six of Crows, which is a fantasy heist tale. 

The Shadow and Bone Netflix series combines characters from the Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows novels. This could have easily resulted in a story that was cluttered and overly complicated, but it works remarkably well. The TV series also adds more layers and nuance to the characters introduced in Shadow and Bone. Main character Alina Starkov, a newly discovered Grisha called the Sun Summoner, gains more agency, and Ben Barnes brings his A-game as a sympathetic villain known as the Darkling. 

I’m assuming that a second season of Shadow and Bone is all but guaranteed based on the success of season one, and I can’t wait to see what happens next for these characters. 

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