Netflix’s fantasy series Shadow and Bone is a reminder of what television could feel like before COVID. The past year has been marked by ever-shifting premiere dates, shortened seasons, and episodes filmed with limited casts and crew. Viewers who are willing to dig deeper can still find plenty of good shows, but with many of the biggest and most buzzed-about TV series suffering production delays, the small screen has rarely ever seemed as small as it does these days.
Enter author Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, a much-loved fantasy adventure book franchise getting the Netflix treatment by way of Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer. Taking its name from the first Grishaverse novel, Shadow and Bone is an ambitious series, the type of sweeping post-Game of Thrones spectacle that the streamer has really only attempted once before — with The Witcher.
Shadow and Bone takes place in a war-torn world made up of cultures inspired partly by our own. The land of Ravka calls to mind Tsarist Russia, while orphaned part-Shu protagonist Alina (Jessie Mei Li) is often othered for her Asian features. Meanwhile, a band of skilled young criminals including ever-scheming Kaz (Freddy Carter), agile fighter Inej (Amita Suman), and sharp-shooting gambler Jesper (Kit Young) calls the Amsterdam-like city of Ketterdam home.
At the series’ beginning, Alina and her childhood friend, fellow orphan Mal (Archie Renaux), are underlings in an army fighting a seemingly endless war. She’s a cartographer and he’s a tracker, but their fates soon change when they’re tasked with crossing the Shadow Fold, a massive, dangerous dark magic barrier that stands between one side of the land and the other. When Alina displays a rare gift during their journey, she becomes known as a Grisha, a powerful being who’s seen by most as either a witch or a superpowered weapon. Soon, she’s whisked away to a palace, where she must answer to shadow summoner General Kirigan (Ben Barnes).
Shadow and Bone successfully streamlines the books’ complicated mythology, and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable, visually striking adventure saga that’s worth getting hooked on. The series occasionally calls to mind other successful fantasy franchises, yet it also easily differentiates itself with singular worldbuilding and swashbuckling action. The costumes, the set design, and the special effects are all impressive, creating an overall impression — one that’s increasingly rare on television — of a unique fictional world worth getting lost in. There’s some Guy Ritchie flavor to the series’ direction, especially when the camera hones in on the band of bandits who lead Bardugo’s Six of Crows book. Whip pans, “here’s-the-plan”-montages, and stylishly filmed fight scenes abound.
In literature, the term “young adult” (or “YA”) has become a catch-all for even the most mature stories featuring young leads. As a series, the TV-MA-rated Shadow and Bone, with its intricate plot and unflinching magical violence, has plenty of adult audience appeal. The closest it gets to teen drama is when exploring the flashback-heavy, wistful relationship between Alina and Mal, but even that is grounded in shared trauma.
If anything, the biggest limitation of Shadow and Bone is the streaming site it calls home. Over the past few years, Netflix has become known for churning out new original series every week, many of them mediocre, teen-centric dramas that may as well have been made by an algorithm. Netflix’s binge model also works against shows with watercooler potential, as an all-at-once episode drop doesn’t usually maintain as much cultural longevity as the week-to-week build of a show like Game of Thrones or WandaVision. With Stranger Things’ Shawn Levy among its producers, though, Shadow and Bone has both a grand vision and, seemingly, the blockbuster budget needed to pull it off. Despite all that, its streamer home means it still runs the risk of getting lost in the crowd.
Shadow and Bone includes everything that those lesser teen-targeting Netflix originals do — including diverse casting, casually queer characters, a strong female lead, and plenty of unexpected twists — but it manages to make each of these factors feel authentic rather than like obligatory box-checking. Filmed in Hungary with a cast that’s stacked with up-and-comers and British stage actors alike, Shadow and Bone is also the rare Netflix Original that doesn’t come across as disposable. That’s a good thing because Bardugo has written nine different Grishaverse-related books, and the first season of Shadow and Bone only begins to tap into the possibilities of the magical universe.
In the end, viewers’ response to Shadow and Bone will likely come down to the fantasy-shaped hole Game of Thrones left in our hearts. This series will never be that one, but God, it feels great to watch a solid, interesting fantasy series with all the makings of an epic hit again. The series’ lore speaks of a legendary sun-summoner, one whose power can unite the war-torn lands. It’s fitting that the hero is meant to bring light because Shadow and Bone might just be the light at the end of the tunnel for pandemic-weary, fantasy-hungry TV fans everywhere.
Shadow and Bone is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.