A Searing Burst of Fantastical Brilliance: A Review of Shadow & Bone

Described as the next Game of Thrones with a magic system similar to Avatar the Last Airbender, Netflix’s Shadow & Bone is the beginning of an epic fantasy with multiple intricately woven plotlines and character arcs. The opening premise presents Alina Starkov, an ordinary mapmaker who serves alongside her best friend Mal in a war-torn Ravka, a country divided in two by the mysterious Shadow Fold. When Alina discovers something extraordinary within herself, the fabled ability to summon sunlight, she’s brought to the Little Palace by General Kirigan, leader of the Second Army of magic-users called the Grisha. There, Alina must master her powers as the Sun Summoner and become the powerful Grisha who has long since been foretold to be the only one to banish the Fold. And while Shadow & Bone’s main plot is based on Leigh Bardugo’s YA trilogy of the same name, the Netflix series also weaves in characters and settings from the Six of Crows duology. 

On the surface, Shadow & Bone might seem like another case of the age old Chosen One trope, but the series executes the complicated narrative in an incredibly compelling way. Alina might be the Chosen One, but the best moments don’t revolve around her destiny to banish the Fold. Shadow & Bone’s strengths lie in the complicated and flawed characters, from Alina Starkov to even the one-or-two-episode side characters, and the relationships between them. One of my favourite aspects of Shadow & Bone is how it emphasizes the closeness of Alina and Mal’s friendship, something that is not as present in the books. From the moment that the two childhood friends are shown on screen, it’s clear how much they mean to each other and their banter is also incredibly enjoyable. In addition, the book trilogy only has Alina’s singular first-person point of view, but the Netflix series aims to show both Alina and Mal’s journeys once they’re separated, and seeing Mal’s side of things definitely adds layers him as a character and to their friendship. 

Shadow & Bone has a very large and lovable cast of characters, expanded by the introduction of three of the main characters of Six of Crows: Kaz, Inej, and Jesper. The Crows make a really interesting addition to Shadow & Bone, adding a whole new set of stakes and conflict. Originally, I wasn’t sure how the Crows’ storyline was going to fit in with Alina and Mal’s, but I thought their interactions were true to character from the books and well handled. And it definitely helps that Jesper has the best dialogue in the entire series.  The setting of Ketterdam and familiar places from Six of Crows, like the Crow Club, also helped to expand the world and provide an interesting contrast to the Ravkan cities and the Little Palace. 

Arguably one of the best things about translating the stories of Six of Crows and Shadow & Bone from prose into live action is how the editing and cgi of really brings the worldbuilding to life. In particular, the magical aspects of the world like the mythical creatures or the Shadow Fold, which is described as a swath of darkness, and it’s perfectly depicted on screen with the smoky dark effects that make it seem large and endless. I really enjoyed seeing the architecture and interior design of the Little Palace, the contrast between clothing throughout the world including the detailed wardrobing of the Grisha keftas, and the beautiful landscapes. The displays of Grisha magic, especially Alina’s, are breathtakingly spectacular and there’s a uniqueness to the magic of each type of Grisha order–Materialki, Corporalki, Etherealki–instead of just plain coloured energy blasts. Shadow & Bone also does something which I rarely ever see in high fantasy by including the effect of  industrialization–machine guns, trains, Materialki-made mechanics–on a world and how magic plays a role in the development of technology. 

Shadow & Bone’s eight-episode first season is streaming on Netflix beginning April 23, and the second season is already being teased by the show-runners. I’m really excited to see what is next in store for the characters of Shadow & Bone and the rest of the Grishaverse. I would highly recommend giving Shadow & Bone a try, as well as the first book of original book trilogy and Six of Crows for more insight into the universe. 

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