Ever since HBO’s big budget adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novels came to an end back in 2019, streaming services have clamoured to fill the Westeros shaped hole in small screen fantasy offerings. Following the success of the first season of The Witcher, Netflix has been dipping their toes into numerous other adaptations in an attempt to replicate the viewing numbers, but with mixed results. Cursed and Fate: The Winx Saga certainly didn’t hit the same heights, but with the huge fan base of Leigh Bardugo’s YA Grishaverse novels, is Shadow and Bone a worthy successor?
Adapted by Eric Heisserer, Shadow and Bone centres on a divided world due to the mysterious and deadly valley of darkness known as The Shadow Fold (a.k.a., The Unsea), which has literally split it in two. The war-torn fictional kingdom of Ravka isn’t inspired by the typical fantasy go-to of Medieval Europe, but oddly Tsarist Russia. The setting adds a grounded nature to the vastly differing East and West sides, with Os Alta a wealthy and political capital in the East, home to the monarchy safe in the Grand Palace, protected by the magical Grisha army. Meanwhile children who exhibit Grisha powers, along with the men, are plucked from the West to join the two armies of the East, having to make the perilous expedition across the Fold. Only the mythical Sun Summoner can destroy the wall of darkness and bring an end to the years of conflict and turmoil.
Navigating through the sprawling world, complete with three orders of Grisha (Corporalki, Etherialki and Materialki), various key regions and mythical beings (including the sun summoner and the shadow summoner) is often complicated, with Heisserer adopting a show rather than tell approach. Progressing at breakneck speed, the brisk pacing doesn’t wait for you to fully grasp the dense world-building before plunging you into the volcra-infested Fold alongside key characters cartographer Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), and her best friend and fellow orphan Mal (Archie Renaux).
I’m sure fans of the source material will become quickly immersed in the world of the Grishaverse, which is actually expanded upon with the inclusion of Leigh’s trio of likeable criminal rogues for hire from Six of Crows. While the narrative ditches traditional fantasy tropes, there are plenty of familiar beats such as the central love-triangle between Alina, Mal and General Kirigan aka ‘The Darkling’ (played by the ever-brooding Ben Barnes) which strays into distinctly YA romance territory (hello The Hunger Games), while the generic magical ‘Chosen One’ narrative screams Harry Potter. Thankfully the additional subplot following the ragtag Crows along their fun heists throughout Ravka’s underworld helps to elevate the series from a generic YA plot.
While the main Shadow and Bone arc is a lot more sombre and weighty, Jessie Mei Li, Archie Renaux and Ben Barnes are all hugely compelling, with their engaging performances keeping you hooked throughout the more dramatic fare. While Barnes brings his signature dark charisma, it’s Archie Renaux’s endearing turn as the relentless soldier who you’ll find yourself truly rooting for. However it’s the gang of guns for hire who are the real MVPs of the series, particularly Kit Young’s cocky but hugely likeable gunslinger who will undoubtedly steal the show.
Unlike Netflix’s Cursed, the production and visuals are excellently immersive, and it’s easy to see this definitely rivals The Witcher’s healthy budget. The costumes are particularly exquisite, ranging from Aliana’s detailed gowns, to the Crows’ outlaw inspired garb and the clearly colour defined gowns of the Grisha orders. The many locations filmed in and around Budapest, Hungary add an extra Game of Thrones feel, along with the similar blues and greens used in the colour grading. Netflix have certainly hedged their bets with the high production values, VFX and budget of this and The Witcher, and while it’s yet to be officially renewed for a second season, the cliffhanger surely highlights that the streaming service is confident in the longevity of the show.
While it lacks certain fantasy elements, Shadow and Bone more than makes up for it in expansive world-building and engaging characters – just don’t expect to understand it straight away.
Shadow and Bone premieres on April 23 on Netflix