You know that anxiety dream where you find yourself taking an exam in a class for which you haven’t done any of the reading? Even if it’s a class that, by dream-logic, you think you’re familiar with, it’s like a veil of darkness is settling over part of your brain.
Coincidentally, a veil of darkness has settled across part of the kingdom of Ravka, the Russian-inspired land at the heart of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone. Called “the Fold,” it’s a nearly impenetrable magical partition populated by flying monsters called “volcra.”
Viewers coming into Shadow and Bone without any of the background from Leigh Bardugo’s novels are likely to feel at least somewhat thrust into darkness by all of series creator Eric Heisserer’s attempted world-building. I even started reading the books to improve my chances of swift acclimation, only to discover that in addition to the Shadow and Bone trilogy, the series has worked in Bardugo’s parallel/subsequent Six of Crows books as well. It was like an anxiety dream where you have to take an exam having done only half of the reading.
The eight-episode first season definitely feels like it’s a smushing of two not-particularly-synchronous books, resulting in some desired Game of Thrones epic scope at the expense of one story’s full emotional momentum and the other’s sense of fun.
Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) is an unremarkable orphan and junior cartographer, very clearly in love with her childhood chum Malyen “Mal” Oretsev (Archie Renaux), an expert “tracker.” Both Alina and Mal are part of Ravka’s so-called First Army when they’re drafted into a possible suicide mission across the Fold. Their expedition is attacked in the spooky darkness by those vicious volcra and, at the moment when all seems lost, Alina exhibits a special gift that saves the day.
Alina, it quickly turns out, isn’t unremarkable at all. She’s actually a “Grisha,” those gifted with what outsiders deem “magic,” but the series wants to make clear is actually a [magical] manipulation of matter. Some Grisha are “Etherealki,” summoners able to control elements, like wind and fire. Some are “Corporalki,” able to control the body, either harming or healing. Some are “Materialki,” able to work wonders with solid matter, through building and inventing.
I probably just lost you entirely, dear reader, so let’s just say that Alina’s gift could, for reasons I still really don’t understand, make her the most powerful of all the Grisha. She’s of particular interest to General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), the leader of the Grisha-led Second Army and possessor of a wide range of terrifying capabilities.
Soon, Alina is being whisked off to learn to refine her newfound potential, interrupting her flirtations with Mal and instigating new flirtations with General Kirigan. Swooning YA high jinks ensue.
Meanwhile, we’re introduced to the scrappy low-level criminals known as the Crows. There’s master-schemer Kaz (Freddy Carter), sneaky knife-thrower Inej (Amita Suman) and gambling-addicted sharpshooter Jesper (Kit Young). They reside in Ketterdam on the island of Kersh and really all you need to know is that Ketterdam is, in the Star Wars parlance, a wretched hive of scum and villainy and the Crows are a big part of that, always seeking the next get-rich-quick scheme, including a new adventure that will lead them to the mainland.
That, incidentally, was the easiest and least detailed version of the plot that I could give you. I could start nailing down minutiae like which colors are worn by which branch of Grisha or bigger topics like the Scandinavian-inspired Fjerda or the Chinese-inflected Shu Han, regions threatening to tear this realm apart. Heisserer’s assumption, one that seems reasonably fair, is that smart viewers will gradually be able to catch on to the terminology, spirituality and mythology; you may not know a Heartrender from a Squaller or a kefta from an ushanka, but that stuff is at least partially window-dressing here on a very, very conventional YA conceit.
Alina’s journey on the page is astonishingly familiar. She’s a version of every YA “Chosen One,” inevitably introduced as overlookably plain and inevitably just one makeover — courtesy, here, of Genya (Daisy Head), a Grisha whose magical makeover powers must make her popular at Ravkan slumber parties — away from being jaw-droppingly gorgeous. She’s thrust into an inevitable love triangle between the brooding guy who’s impossibly dangerous — General Kirgan can slash people to bits, Damien Hirst style, using only some variation on the Movements from The OA — and her hunky best friend.
Heisserer’s smartest adaption choice here was making Alina half-Shu. She’s suddenly the salvation of a country that always viewed her as “other.” She looks nothing like how Ravkans imagine their messianic figure, but they’re willing to put aside prejudices to properly honor her power — though she comes to realize that being Grisha makes her a scapegoat in other realms where her ethnicity might have allowed her to fit in. Even if we weren’t in a real-world moment of horrible Asian-American scapegoating, this change from the book would have added nuance. But in 2021, Heisserer’s alteration is as close as Shadow and Bone could possibly come to being thematically vital. The racial subtext doesn’t make the perfunctory love story any more interesting, but it gives Li something to play other than steadily decreasing awkwardness, and I warmed to the performance as the eight episodes progressed.
I don’t think Li has much chemistry with either Barnes or Renaux, whose performances range from menacingly brooding to amorously brooding, at least not enough to cause me to care (especially since at least one character twist is too obvious to even be a twist). She does, however, have great scenes with Zoë Wanamaker as her strict tutor, and having an actress of Wanamaker’s stature even in a minor role offers a big boost of credibility to the entire series.
Adding the Crows to the story interrupts the flow of Alina’s narrative, thwarting its emotional build and the clarity of her transformation. That’s not ideal. On the other hand, the thing that Alina, Mal and Kirigan are doing is mopey genre standard; no matter how much you invest in whether Alina will first get kissy with the tsarist version of Duckie or the tsarist version of Blane, nobody’s going to accuse that part of the series of being fun.
And the Crows, with their eagerness to turn every situation into a heist, are absolutely fun. Series directors, starting with Lee Toland Krieger, give each of the subplots a different aesthetic — close-up intimacy for Alina, epic landscape-driven grandeur for Mal — and the scenes featuring the Crows are adroitly edited and shot with a cheeky visual flair that make them an amusing diversion instead of a glib intrusion. Carter brings wry cynicism, Suman a spiritual depth and Young a suave silliness, and I quickly got over my initial cluelessness about the rules of their storyline. What I never figured out, even by the end of the season, was whether or not the show wanted me to be invested in the success or failure of anything the Crows were doing.
You can watch the first season for the twisty world-building, Wendy Partridge’s lovely costumes, several enjoyable performances and the comfort of its reliable YA plotting. Just don’t expect to immediately understand everything and definitely don’t expect everything to come together by the end.
Cast: Jessie Mei Li, Archie Renaux, Freddy Carter, Amita Suman, Kit Young, Ben Barnes, Sujaya Dasgupta, Danielle Galligan, Daisy Head, Simon Sears, Calahan Skogman, Zoë Wanamaker, Kevin Eldon, Julian Kostov, Luke Pasqualino, Jasmine Blackborow, Gabrielle Brooks
Creator: Eric Heisserer, from the books by Leigh Bardugo