'Shadow And Bone' Review: Netflix's New Fantasy Series Is Complex And Compelling

When people hear the words, "epic fantasy," most will think of dragons and wizened old wizards, of giant battles fought with swords and staffs, or maybe an elf or a white walker or two. Netflix's Shadow and Bone, an adaptation of Leigh Bardugo's books, is a series that has none of these things. It is, however, unmistakably fantasy—there is magic, a Chosen One who must fulfill her destiny by overcoming a dark force threatening the land, and scary bat-like beasts called volcra who would give any dragon a run for its money. The show, however, takes place in a world full of rifles rather than swords or wands. The main country, Ravka, is based on 1800s Tsarist Russia, and has the military technology to match it. But unlike historical Russia, the Ravkan army also has Grisha—people with the magical ability to manipulate matter. What kind of matter depends on what kind of Grisha they are—there are Inferni, for example, who can conjure fire, Heartrenders who can stop a person's heart, and Squallers who can make hurricane-level winds appear on a breezeless day. And then there's Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li). Alina is a Ravkan orphan who is half-Shu, an outsider in her own country until one day, it's revealed that she's the mythic Sun Summoner, a Grisha who can harness sunlight (I promise this isn't too spoilery—the two trailers reveal all of this). Only the Sun Summoner, people believe, can vanquish The Fold, a tear of perpetual darkness that splits Ravka in two. The Fold, also called The Unsea, is also the home of those very scary volcra who would rip any human it comes across to shreds.  Alina's tale is a classic one in fantasy, right down to the potential love triangle set up between her, her childhood best friend Mal (Archie Renaux), and the powerful General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), a rare Shadow Summoner who can call forth darkness and destruction. What gives the show its rich complexity, however, is how Alina's storyline converges with the heist storyline going on with a gang of thieves from Ketterdam, the capital of the island nation of Kerch. This gang—the so-called Dregs—is led by the ruthlessly shrewd Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) and includes the witty sharpshooter Jesper (Kit Young) as well as the acrobatic, knife-wielding Inej (Amita Suman). The trio's relationships with each other, along with what's hinted about their pasts, are what gives the show that extra bit of dimension and depth to make it a truly great watch. Another thing that's truly compelling to watch is Ben Barnes' delicious performance as General Kirigan. The dynamism he and Li have together is tough to beat, which may be why the show arguably over-emphasizes Mal and Alina's childhood together to hammer home their bond. (How many flashbacks of the child versions of Mal and Alina lying in a field are necessary to understand their connection? The answer, the show thinks, is more than two.)If epic love and/or Chosen One stories are your thing though, Alina's journey will be an engaging one. And if ensemble heist stories are more your jam, you'll find the Dregs' storyline to be more your cup of tea. The lack of dragons aside, there's something for pretty much every kind of fantasy fan. Like other good genre shows, Shadow and Bone also ties in the personal struggles and motivations of its characters with the larger events moving around them. Take for example how different countries treat the Grisha. While their magic gives them great power, Grisha have historically been persecuted in Ravka and elsewhere, and their persecution continues to this day in Fjerda (based on Scandinavia), Ravka's neighbor to the north. The status of Grisha are also intertwined with religion for groups in this world as well, which has a direct impact on more than a couple of characters. And what will the toughest critics think of the first season? Those who've read the five books that the show is based on—the Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows duology—will likely be impressed with how showrunner Eric Heisserer (Arrival) has melded the different characters, plot points, and timelines into one, cohesive tale. Even those new to the Grishaverse, however, will enjoy the thoroughly developed magic system (I'm looking at you, Game of Thrones), the detailed, rich worldbuilding, and—most importantly—the cast of characters heading on a compelling journey that's clearly just getting started.  


Shadow and Bone premieres on Netflix on April 23, 2021