Based on Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, Shadow and Bone—which premieres globally on Netflix on Friday April 23rd—is a gripping epic fantasy series with immersive worldbuilding, lavish costume and production design, stunning visual effects, and an appealing ensemble cast.
As the series opens we meet Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) and Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux) who have grown up together in an orphanage, and have a bond between them that runs deep. With a war looming, Mal has been drafted into the First Army as a soldier while Alina works as a cartographer. Before too long though, she is hauled in front of the fearsome General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) who believes that Alina is not only gifted with special powers—making her a fellow Grisha who must join his magical Second Army—but the mythical sun summoner, a saint, essentially the chosen one. With her powers confirmed publicly, Kirigan sees to it that Alina is immediately taken to the Little Palace in the Ravkan capital to live alongside other Grisha, who have various miraculous abilities such as the tailor, Genya Safin (a wonderful Daisy Head), who can make scars and blemishes disappear, and would rack up millions of views on YouTube with her makeup application abilities.
Under an intense training regimen and isolated from everyone and everything she knows, Alina is unsettled and feels more like a prisoner at times than someone who’s being protected, while her many letters to Mal go unanswered. One of the highlights of the series is Zoë Wanamaker’s performance as the Yoda-like Baghra, who shines in every scene as a tough teacher on Alina, attempting to train her to harness her newfound sun summoning powers. While Ben Barnes is a commanding presence as the mysterious general.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Shadow Fold—a menacing divide of darkness filled with lethal pterodactyl-like creatures—an unlikely band of criminals led by self-serving Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), with the acrobatic Inej (a captivating Amita Suman) and skilled gunman Jesper Fahey (Kit Young), plan to take the perilous journey and cross through it to the north and launch an elaborate heist on the Little Palace. Elsewhere, a heartrender (possessing the ability to control someone’s internal organs) Nina Zenick (Danielle Galligan) is kidnapped by Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman), a Grisha-hunting Drüskelle from Fjerda, who perceives the woman as a witch and deeply mistrusts her. As their journey continues though, and the two are thrown closer together, the sexual chemistry between them becomes palpable, and Skogman taking his wet shirt off is likely to get more than a few hearts racing. The series creators also find plenty of opportunities for Renaux to be shirtless too, and although they’re not explicit, there are a few steamy romance scenes throughout, and as with the violence in the series it doesn’t feel held back by its YA origins.
In a world rife with othering and prejudice related to possessing special powers as well as ethnicity and race, highlighted by the fact that Alina is part Shu, queer characters are however accepted without comment and casually populate the series. For instance, Nadia Zhabin (Gabrielle Brooks), Alina’s friend at the Little Palace, mentions in passing that she is attracted to Zoya Nazyalensky (Sujaya Dasgupta), a Grisha woman who takes an immediate dislike to Alina. While Kit Young’s Jesper is the charismatic gunslinging queer fantasy action hero we’ve been waiting for; with the air of an adult Artful Dodger about him, he’s witty, sexy, whip-smart, and makes a for a deadly foe, but also finds time for some hot man-on-man action in the palace stable.
Having not read Bardugo’s books before watching the series, it took me a while to acclimatise to the world of the show; the unfamiliar history, geography, and politics, but the writers do a good job of bringing us up to speed without it feeling like exposition, and a few episodes in I was hooked. The material certainly benefits from an episodic format and would likely have felt rushed and convoluted in movie form. With Mal and Alina kept apart for several episodes things take an epistolary turn with some voice-over heavy sequences, which might not be the most cinematic moments of the series, but do allow us inside the characters’ minds. When Mal and Alina are together, Jessie Mei Li and Archie Renaux are both natural and familiar with one another, with a chemistry that makes us believe in the rich history between them. In its attempt to feel grounded in the reality of its otherworldliness, there’s an everyday ordinariness to much of the dialogue and its delivery, that generally works well, but occasionally robs some moments of the high stakes at hand.
The parallel narratives are nicely balanced, well-paced, and never confusing, and the myriad characters are given enough screen time for us to get to know them, while the world is further expanded in one episode containing some flashbacks to another era. It all builds to a thrilling finale, where the spectacular visual effects enhance the action sequences rather than distract from them. Shadow and Bone is a compelling tale of light vs darkness that feels fresh and left me looking forward to future seasons.
By James Kleinmann
Shadow and Bone premieres on Netflix globally on April 23rd 2021.
Joseph Trapanese’s soundtrack album for the series is available now on all major streaming platforms.