(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Series: Shadow and Bone

Where You Can Stream It: Netflix

The Pitch: Set in a war-torn fantasy world where people, called Grisha, have the magical ability to manipulate matter, young orphan Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) discovers that she is a fabled Grisha called the Sun Summoner — the only person with the ability to tear down a swath of permanent darkness called the Fold, which splits her country in two. She’s taken in by General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), the leader of the Grisha and a Shadow Summoner who believes that together, he and Alina can change the world.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: YA fantasy? You may roll your eyes as I did when you heard the genre and heard of the following that Shadow and Bone has, from Leigh Bardugo’s beloved Grisha trilogy novels. A chosen one heroine, a love triangle between the handsome brooding one and the childhood friend one, a magic academy where the students are divided up by their very specific powers. And yet, half an hour into the first of the eight episodes of Shadow and Bone, I sat up and thought, “Oh, no.” I could feel an obsession setting in that I hadn’t felt since I was on tumblr in 2012. These overly familiar elements were coalescing in a way that was exciting, and imaginative, and compelling, and appealed very specifically to me in a way that meant I was going to be nursing a new Netflix addiction.

I’m not the first to say that YA fiction has become pretty hacky since Hunger Games and Twilight forced Team Peeta and Team Edward on us. The genre has devolved into a painfully familiar formula — the chosen one, the love triangle, the division by personality traits. It’s a shame that this is what emerged from YA, and not the rich and challenging storytelling that you could get from lesser-known works like House of the Scorpion (don’t get me started on how the novels that broke the YA mold were usually categorized as children’s lit). But I’m not here to complain about the state that YA is in, but rather to praise when a show can have all those elements and get it so, so right. And that’s Shadow and Bone.

Right off the bat, Shadow and Bone shows off a rich, almost confusingly complex world. Alina Starkov is a half-Shu orphan raised in the Russian-inspired Ravka, which is at war with its surrounding countries — the Scandinavian-inspired Fjerdato the north, and the East Asian-based Shu Han to the south. Alina’s ethnicity earns her the scorn of her fellow orphans, except for Mal (Archie Renaux), another biracial outsider who becomes her best friend. There’s a lot of interesting racial politics at play in Shadow and Bone, which the show admittedly hammers in pretty heavily with characters frequently spitting “half-breed” at Alina, or calling attention to the anti-Shu propaganda which looks eerily like anti-Japanese propaganda from World War II. But it’s the way that Shadow and Bone effortlessly introduces this world while setting the stage for all the characters and the pieces to come together that makes it such a splendid watch.

Because not only do you have Alina’s chosen-one story to keep the show moving forward, you’ve got a colorful cast of characters that flesh out the world. While Alina is being discovered and squirreled away to train for her world-saving fate, we have the “Crows,” a trio of criminals led by the hilariously spiteful Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) who set out to kidnap Alina for a huge fortune. The series juggles storylines and a vast ensemble in a manner that has been compared to Game of Thrones, but the thing about Shadow and Bone is that it has fun with it. There’s an awareness that the series is a YA fantasy series that is 99% people pining for each other, and maybe 1% people kissing (and they all look great doing it). Shadow and Bone refreshingly doesn’t take itself too seriously — that’s for the fans to do.

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