Shadow and Bone Netflix Series

In American pop culture, when people think of the fantasy genre, they usually think of the same things: magic, wizards, elves, orcs, fairies, dragons, a European Middle Ages setting. Despite the genre predating these concepts, the unprecedented influence of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has so thoroughly wedged itself in our collective consciousness that it can seem impossible to disentangle. Everything from A Wizard of Earthsea and Harry Potter to The Dark Tower and Game of Thrones has found inspiration from Tolkien’s works. But there are so many other mythologies out there, waiting to be built and discovered. One of them, created in 2012 by author Leigh Bardugo, is unlike anything mainstream audiences have ever seen: Shadow & Bone, the first part of the Grisha Trilogy.

Originally set to be a film franchise by Dreamworks, the rights to the “Grishaverse” recently moved to Netflix. Eric Heisserer, the writer behind the streaming service’s horror film Bird Box, is set to be showrunner. This should give you some idea of what kind of tone to expect. While Bardugo’s series is sold as Young Adult, that doesn’t stop her from dealing in body horror and dark themes, all set against a backdrop based on Russian mythology instead of Nordic (where Tolkien mostly pulled from). The result is something worth checking out, for a number of reasons.

The World

Welcome to Ravka, a fantasy analog for Russia during the twilight years of the Empire. A country rich in history, it is bordered at the north by the Fjerda while the country of Shu Han shares its southern border. To the west lies the True Sea, a necessary distinction from the Unsea, which is a mysterious unnatural darkness full of monsters slowly encroaching on Ravka, destroying all in its path.

The Unsea is the main driving force of the narrative in the first novel. A malevolent cloud consuming your country tends to be front of mind, especially when it was created by someone known as the Black Heretic for unknown purposes. And then he had the gall to disappear. Or die. No one knows.

That’s not to say the Unsea is impassable. Situated in the middle of the country from practically the northern border to the southern, intrepid humans will always find a way. It is just an incredibly dangerous journey by skiff, flying low across the darkness and hoping the monstrous winged beasts known as the Volcra don’t carry you off into the void. Travel is even easier for those accompanied by the magical military force controlled by Ravka’s Emperor. Known as the Second Army, the complementary regiment to the traditional First Army uses a variety of spells to keep travelers safe. Oh right, did I mention the magic?

The Magic…Sorry, I Mean “Small Science”

Just don’t call it magic. Within the Grishaverse, what would normally be called wizards are merely naturally gifted Grisha. The term is a catchall for humans with the ability to manipulate parts of the natural world. If you’ve seen Avatar: The Last Airbender, think of it has similar to that. The Grisha cannot create matter, as the laws of science state matter can only be changed, so they see their powers as an extension of physics. Hence why it’s called the Small Science.

But not all Grisha are born with the same power. Each person is divided into one of three orders: the Corporalki, the Etherealki, and the Materialki. Each order is then sub-divided based on niche skill sets. For example, a member of the Corporalki may be healers or heartrenders or tailors. The former is self-explanatory, while heartrenders are basically inverted healers that do damage to their enemies, while tailors are basically plastic surgeons. Those belonging to the Etherealki can be squallers (manipulating air), inferni (manipulating fire), or tidemakers (manipulating water). According to legend, some Ethrealki can also manipulate either light or shadow respectively.

Finally, there are the Materialki. Looked down on by the other Grisha, the Materialki are subdivided into the durasts and the alkemi. The durasts changing solids on a molecular level. Despite having the ability to do everything from making flowers bloom or die to literally telekinesis, they are relegated to parlor tricks and factory work. Similarly, the alkemi work with chemicals, including transmutation and poison. Both groups are put to work creating more and better weaponry for the First and Second armies.

The Politics

Of course, you can’t mix regular old humans and science-magic humans in the same socio-political climate and not expect things to get testy. The Emperor of Ravka is just a guy while The Darkling — yes, that is what everyone calls him — who leads the Grisha does not exactly hide his machinations for power. I mean, you don’t tell everyone to call you the Darkling and then control the ruling class of not-wizards with an iron fist and expect the Emperor to just be chill about it.

This is compounded by the codependent relationship between the humans and the Grisha of Ravka. The Second Army is the reason Ravka is as large and independent as it is. A whole division of Small Science soldiers tends to run roughshod over the non-magical enemy. Without the Grisha, Ravka would be vulnerable to attack on both their northern and southern borders. This leads to resentment on the part of humans, who find the Grisha untrustworthy witches with a superiority complex. On the other hand, Ravka is the only country where Grisha aren’t killed on sight (or after a sham trial) simply for being born. So the two factions are stuck with each other, sniping and backstabbing their way through castles and parties until the heat death of the universe.

The Heroine

Into this simmering pot of political unrest, a young woman named Alina Starkov finds herself suddenly of interest to both the Grisha and the royal family. This next part should be familiar to anyone who loves YA fiction. Alina is a nobody orphan from nowhere who grew up in conditions one could describe kindly as “neglectful.” Along with her only friend, a boy named Mal, the two set off from their childhood home to join the army and make something of their lives. While crossing the Unsea, their skiff is attacked by Volcra and Alina’s power manifests: she is a rare and mythical Sun Summoner. Only she may have the power to stop the Unsea before it consumes the continent, but first she must learn how to be a Grisha and to control her powers at Grisha school.

While this is standard YA protagonist fair, Alina stands out due to the Grishaverse’s commitment to how terrible peasant lives are. Malnourished and underweight, Alina is all sickly angles for a good portion of the first book (though the author does have a Tailor come in to make her more palatable to the nobles). The psychology of an upbringing devoid of love makes Alina vulnerable to the manipulations of those who pretend to offer her love yet capable of self-preservation that crosses the line into sheer selfishness. That is to say, Alina is complex and has cracks like a real person.

With such a massive scale to the world of the Grishaverse, Netflix will have their work cut out for them. But shows like Altered Carbon and Stranger Things prove the streaming network is willing to shell out big bucks to keep audiences at home and out of the cineplex. Hopefully, they get the complicated, darkly beautiful world of Leigh Bardugo’s imagination right.

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