The search for the next Game Of Thrones is ongoing, as networks and streamers try to make their next big fantasy (sometimes sci-fi, occasionally horror) adaptation reach the same levels of cultural saturation. Netflix has a few contenders in The Witcher and, though it’s not the same kind of fantasy, Bridgerton—two series that not only dominated the conversation upon their respective debuts, but have garnered even more anticipation for their second seasons. And with the premiere of Shadow And Bone, a lush new fantasy drama based on Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books, Netflix races ahead of the competition.
Arrival and Birdbox scribe Eric Heisserer draws from the first book in the Grishaverse series (which is also titled Shadow And Bone) as well as the Six Of Crows duology. If you aren’t one of Bardugo’s many readers, those titles won’t mean much to you. But Heisserer’s combination of these works pairs a more straightforward “Chosen One” narrative from YA novels with heist crew hijinks, creating a solid foundation for not just this eight-part season, but also a potential new franchise. It may take non-Grishaverse readers an episode or two to grasp the terminology and geography, though that’s often the case with adaptations based on multi-book series. Terms like “Inferni,” “Drüskelle,” and “volcra” (giant flying bat-like creatures) are bound to sail over heads initially. Illegible world-building has been the undoing of other Thrones wannabes like Carnival Row. But it’s Heisserer’s attention to detail, along with performances perfectly attuned to the conflicts in this fantasy world, that makes Shadow And Bone such an immersive experience.
First, a brief primer: The “Grisha” of the Grishaverse are elite (in every sense) warriors in the Second Army with powers that look like magic to regular humans, but are actually manipulations of matter. (The practice is called the Small Science, which is adorable.) The Second Army is led by General Kirigan (Ben Barnes, fulfilling many an online poster’s dream by taking on the role of the Darkling), who’s probably more powerful than the rest of the Grisha, and certainly has more black leather and fur than any of them. The existence of a Second Army means there must be a First Army, which is where we find our protagonist, Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li). Orphaned at a young age, Alina clings to her best friend Mal (Archie Renaux), with whom she grew up in a group home in a town called Keramzin. Military service is required of virtually everyone in Ravka (inspired by imperial Russia) since the Shadow Fold, a foreboding and nebulous partition, arose centuries ago, cleaving the country and others around it.
This backstory is laid out efficiently in the first episode, as we learn just how dangerous the Fold is. Even seasoned soldiers and the odd Grisha fear venturing into it. But they regularly cross it for supplies and diplomatic efforts—we soon see that the riven Ravka is divided by the Fold as much as politics. It’s on one such journey that this world is once again irrevocably changed. Alina is no mere cartographer; she’s the missing piece in the puzzle to undoing what the Black Heretic, Kirigan’s forebear, wrought. Her powers are unleashed when all hope seems lost; and as they grow, so does the belief that life can return to something resembling normal.
It’s at this point that you might think you know where this story is going… and Shadow And Bone does indeed walk the old “messianic figure who struggles to believe in themselves” path. But Heisserer makes several detours from that archetypal story, as well as Bardugo’s work, to create a more powerful narrative. One of the most significant (and effective) changes from the Shadow And Bone book is found in Alina herself. She’s no longer a bland protagonist who sometimes needlessly struggles to accept her fate (though, to Bardugo’s credit, Alina becomes more interesting in later books). Alina has some doubts, but the series provides a more compelling reason for them. Here, Alina is half Ravkan, half Shu (from the country Shu Han, which is inspired by China), and is often met with wariness or bigotry. She has an innate understanding of what it means to be caught between two worlds and feel like you don’t belong to either.
The series mostly handles Alina’s biracial background with thoughtfulness, though the naked hatred she encounters seems odd compared to the way Mal, who is also biracial, walks through life. But it’s part of an unfolding exploration of identity, and how we construct it. Is our identity built on our phenotype—facial features that can be altered by Grisha “tailors” (who can modify appearances) in this world? Do we draw our identity from our homeland, even when it’s been split in two? Or is it possible that we truly discover who we are when everything we care about is at stake?
Shadow And Bone frequently combines the life-and-death matters of fantastical sagas with smaller character-driven stories. Alina’s bond with Mal is viewed as important as her savior training. But there’s also a madcap energy that runs through the show, courtesy of the Dregs, a charming gang of no-goodniks. Kaz (Freddy Carter) is the mastermind, Inej (Amita Suman), his knife-holding right hand (who has hidden motivations all her own), and Jesper (Kit Young) is the kind of cheeky sharpshooter who makes time for a literal roll in the hay with a stable boy mid-heist. When Shadow And Bone initially works to bring these disparate groups together, the seams show. In a world already populated by magical warriors in floor-length embroidered dusters, flying demons, and a saint or two, it’s almost too much to add this Ocean’s 11-like gang. But by the end of season one, the Dregs (who come from Bardugo’s Six Of Crows) are worthy of their own spin-off.
And, like any good YA yarn, Shadow And Bone infuses this story of divided nations and crepuscular dangers with some red-blooded romance. Alas, it’s nowhere near as horny as The Witcher, let alone Bridgerton, but all the aching glances, hard swallows (that is, at the sight of a bewitching figure), and stolen kisses are enough to make you swoon. In a tertiary story involving a “witch” (Danielle Galligan) and a “witch hunter” (Calahan Skogman), Shadow And Bone riffs on the “There’s Only One Bed” trope. A love triangle begins to assert itself, which even non-book readers will see coming. The writers, including Heisserer, Shelly Meals, and Christina Strain, do find ways to complicate it so that your first ’ship might not be your last ’ship.
These elements, along with Wendy Partridge’s almost unbearably luxe costuming, add some razzle-dazzle to what might otherwise be a well-worn narrative. But just as in his work on Arrival, Heisserer strives for a balance of the epic and the intimate, and often succeeds. The sprawling scale of the show, from the Ketterdam underbelly through the Fjerdan tundra (things that’ll make sense soon enough), skirts the unmanageable. There are several spot-on performances here, including Barnes’ turn as a brooding immortal-ish figure capable of garnering sympathy even at his most imperious. As a tutor of sorts, Wanamaker can make even words like “Corporalki” sing. But it’s Li who holds it all together as the person tasked with reuniting this war-torn world. Alina is as compelling in her moments of doubt as she is in triumph, and Li gracefully takes us through every step of that journey.
Shadow And Bone is an engrossing experience, if not an especially novel one. The series plays a bit with our expectations of the genre, including the makings of a hero and of redemption. But even when we can see the turn, it’s no less riveting. That might be its greatest trick.