At a time when it can be hard to muster the attention required to re-watch The Nanny, Netflix’s Shadow and Bone is asking a lot of its viewers. Watching this young-adult fantasy series with subtitles on is highly recommended—lest you get lost in a sea of terms like “Heartrender,” “Grisha,” and, most ominous, “The Fold.”
But as confusing and chaotic as it can be to plop straight into this sweeping universe, Netflix’s dazzling new series rewards every bit of the attention it demands. The costumes are luscious, the action is engrossing, and most crucially, an impeccably chosen cast brings it all to life with winning performances that crackle with intensity. (Also, you’re probably going to want at least a few of these characters to kiss.)
Add all this together, and combine it with Stranger Things executive producer Shawn Levy, also EP on this series, and you’ve got the makings of what could be Netflix’s next big hit.
Shadow and Bone takes its title from the first book in Leigh Bardugo’s popular Grisha trilogy, in which Alina Starkov—initially a low-ranking soldier—discovers and harnesses her magical powers to save the world from a terrifying blight. (“The Fold” refers to a horrific shadow world that separates two warring nations, wrought years ago by a “Black Heretic.”)
Alina has spent her life resenting and fearing the magic-wielding Grisha, and the realization that she actually is one complicates her already complicated bond with her best friend, Mal Orestev. For most of their lives, each has been all the other has; Alina’s new powers separate them for the first time, both geographically and emotionally. Alina tastes the luxury of living among the Grisha Second Army in the Little Palace, where she quickly finds herself enraptured by the alluring but mysterious General Kirigan (Chronicles of Narnia actor Ben Barnes), while Mal continues serving from with the non-magical folk in the First Army.
As Alina, actress Jessie Mei Li’s conviction anchors Shadow and Bone, and her expressive gentleness imparts soul. As the indefatigable, utterly lovable Mal, Archie Renaux brings the heart.
Bardugo’s extended universe includes four additional books and several short stories beyond the Grisha trilogy. Rather than limit the series to the text from which it borrows its title, showrunner Eric Heisserer (whose previous screenwriting work includes Bird Box and Arrival) remixes characters and plot elements from other entries as well.
Still, building out any fictional realm on screen is difficult, and Shadow and Bone’s early episodes struggle with the usual issues. An endless stream of characters and nationalities and factions can be a challenge to navigate—where is “Kerch,” again?—and the show does non-book readers few favors in the beginning. (I say this as a non-book reader who admittedly had almost no idea what was going on for at least the first hour, if not the first few hours.)
It doesn’t help that at times, the proceedings seem designed to tease what might lie ahead at the expense of the immediate plot; certain characters and storylines arise and stir up a fuss only to disappear, at least for now. (Do a quick Google of the skulking gangster character Kaz Brekker’s backstory, teased endlessly by proxy of his arch-villain Pekka Rollins, and try to convince me that a potential spin-off has not already been discussed—just try!)
A leaner story could have allowed more time to develop General Kirigan with a little more nuance. As crucial as the character is, his story never quite finds a steady rhythm—and although Ben Barnes has clearly embraced his role, he struggles at times to strike the right emotional chords. The air-bending Squaller Zoya can also feel under-developed, with character shifts that are more plot-driven than earned.
Most notably, Netflix’s Shadow and Bone includes characters from Bardugo’s “Six of Crows” duology—and it’s in their scenes that Shadow and Bone’s casting really shines. (Well, that and the fact they brought in Harry Potter actress Zoë Wanamaker, AKA Madame Hooch, to play Alina’s tough-love magical mentor Baghra.)
Soon after Alina discovers her powers, there’s a hefty bounty on her neck. The black-hatted mercenary Kaz Brekker and his “crows” (knife-wielding rogue Inej and hard-partying sharp-shooter Jesper) are soon on the hunt, and the trio’s chemistry is as immediate and contagious as Li and Renaux’s.
Freddy Carter plays Kaz Brekker as loathsome and lovable in all the right ways—always emotionally removed, but with vulnerability simmering just beneath the surface. Amita Suman’s whisper-quiet Inej is equally complex, at once lethal and reticent to kill. (She has a very complicated relationship with her faith.) And as the endlessly quippy Jesper, Kit Young is an absolute knock-out.
Then there’s the C-plot, which centers around a Grisha named Nina Zenik and a Grisha hunter named Matthias Helvar. As ancillary as Nina and Matthias’ story is to Shadow and Bone’s core narrative, the winking approach the show takes with their trope-heavy subplot is perhaps the best lens through which to understand the series.
At every turn, Shadow and Bone demonstrates it knows exactly what it’s doing. It fully embraces the many YA and fantasy tropes that fill its story—furtive and longing glances between friends! characters who hate one another sharing beds! a lethal assassin befriending a baby goat!—and executes all of them with a hat tip and a wink. As vaguely sketched as its world remains by the end of this season, its characters leap right off the page—and their stories seem guaranteed to leave viewers, non-readers and Grisha obsessives alike, eager for more.