Review: Netflix’s ‘Shadow and Bone’ Adaptation Outshines the Books

Netflix’s highly anticipated Shadow and Bone series has arrived it’s time to enter the Grishaverse. 

Shadow and Bone can be confusing at first, but what immersive fantasy doesn’t come with a learning curve? Whether it’s Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Witcher, or Dragon Age — there are a lot of elements that will make more sense once you delve into the world for yourself. New words, new realms, new moral codes, and new magic are waiting for you across the Fold. 

While there is a healthy dose of Game of Thrones-style politicking at play in Ravka, the human element is the centerfold of the series. 

Shadow and Bone Adaptation Outshines the Books

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SHADOW AND BONE (L to R) JESSIE MEI LI as ALINA STARKOV of SHADOW AND BONE Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) is Shadow and Bone’s ‘Chosen One.’ She was raised as an orphan alongside her childhood best friend Malyen “Mal” Oretsev (Archie Renaux) in the fictional realm of Ravka, a world that feels much like a magic-infused Russia. 

Ravka is torn apart by the Shadow Fold, creating an East Ravka and West Ravka that aren’t impossible to visit, so long as you don’t mind being plunged into monster-filled darkness, where a single spark of light can set vicious winged beasts upon you. They’re actually, admittedly, pretty terrifying. 

As you may have guessed, this world is filled with magic as well. In Shadow and Bone, the magic users are called Grisha and they are an elite group of people who work mostly for the military, lending their abilities to the struggle against the Fold and the political conflicts at play. Grishas are humans that practice what is called “Small Science,” which allows them to manipulate the world around them in different ways. There are three different categories of Grisha — Corporalki, Etheralki, and Materialki. 

At the tail end of the first episode, Alina is revealed to be the long-awaited Sun Summoner, a Grisha with the ability to banish the darkness of the Shadow Fold. And if there is someone who possesses the light, it would make sense that there is a darkness that rises to meet her, right? That’s how these stories often go. Enter General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) aka The Darkling. 

Ben Barnes just exudes charm in every role he’s ever portrayed and Kirigan is no different. General Kirigan is clever, charming, and devilishly good on screen. His chemistry with Alina is hypnotic, which is precisely what it’s meant to be. I know the Darkling is “the big bad” of the Grishaverse… but if Darkling bad, why he so sympathetic? His backstory did not have to go that hard, but they did that.

Shadow and Bone Impressions 

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SHADOW AND BONE (L to R) BEN BARNES as THE DARKLING / GENERAL KIRIGAN in SHADOW AND BONE Cr. DAVID APPLEBY/NETFLIX © 2021

My to-be-read pile is very high and I was not able to make my way through Leigh Bardugo’s books to form my own opinions about the characters in Shadow and Bone. I knew, for the most part, what to expect. It’s hard to exist on Twitter without seeing spoilers for a popular book series, or in-depth thought pieces about ships on Tumblr, or gorgeous fanart for characters whose names I don’t know. 

Coming into Shadow and Bone I had three expectations: I was going to love the Darkling because I’ve adored Ben Barnes since I was fifteen, I expected to ship Darklina because I love a good enemies to lovers ship, and I wasn’t going to like Mal Oretsev because of the book passages I read. 

Dear reader, don’t be like me. Don’t approach Shadow and Bone with expectations. My biggest suggestion for those who have read the books or, like me, allowed Twitter to shape your opinions of the characters: give them an opportunity to surprise you. 

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SHADOW AND BONE (L to R) BEN BARNES as THE DARKLING / GENERAL KIRIGAN and JESSIE MEI LI as ALINA STARKOV in SHADOW AND BONE Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

In the first two episodes, I found myself really annoyed with Mal’s existence, and then — somehow — I found myself liking him. The production has gone to great lengths to make Mal a more fleshed out and likable character that is actually worthy of Alina’s affection. It’s honestly really difficult to even want to hate Mal with Archie Renaux playing him. The character I was expecting is not at all what I ended up seeing on screen. 

Am I allowed to ship both Darklina and Malina? Because both hit sweet spots for me, but ultimately they were not the relationships or characters that stood out for me in Shadow and Bone

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SHADOW AND BONE (L to R) ARCHIE RENAUX as MALYEN ORETSEV and JESSIE MEI LI as ALINA STARKOV in SHADOW AND BONE Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

When I approached the series, I only really knew about the existence of the Darkling, Alina, and Mal, so consider my surprise when my favorite characters ended up being none of those characters. Sure, I would do almost anything for the Darkling, but he was not my favorite character. My favorite trio of characters actually originates from Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology. 

Honestly, even though I may not knowing anything about Shadow and Bone, I feel confident in stating that these three characters make the series a stand-out series. 

The Dregs (aka the Crows) are a gang of thieves that operate within Ketterdam, the capital of Kerch. The thieves operate out of the Crow Club and are led by Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) who is just so fascinating. As are his accomplices Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman) and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young) who bring such incredible performances to the series. Kaz and Inej have such a compelling connection that plays upon one of my favorite tropes — Kaz and Inej both have trauma that prevents them from wanting to be touched. In Kaz’s case, he endured a traumatic experience in his youth, and in Inej’s case, she was captured by slavers as a young teen and forced to work in a pleasure house. 

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SHADOW AND BONE (L to R) KIT YOUNG as JESPER FAHEY, FREDDY CARTER as KAZ BREKKER and AMITA SUMAN as INEJ GHAFA in SHADOW AND BONE Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

Look, I spent a lot of my time wondering when we’d get back to scenes with the Dregs. They were that interesting. A band of broken thieves overcoming trauma, grief, and learning to trust each other? Sign me up, Netflix. 

Another pair of characters that captured my interest was the Drüskelle, Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman) and the Grisha, Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan). No one told me there would be a ship that was comprised of a literal witch hunter and a witch! Of course, all five of these characters originate from the Six of Crows duology, which serves the question — why was this not the Six of Crows series? These characters are all so strong, engaging, and wonderfully flawed. 

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SHADOW AND BONE (L to R) DANIELLE GALLIGAN as NINA ZENIK and CALAHAN SKOGMAN as MATTHIAS HELVAR in SHADOW AND BONE Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

I think there are some issues that will arise in the discourse surrounding the series. As I understand, in the books, Alina Starkov is white, which was a reflection of the Imperial Russia aesthetics co-opted by the story. But in casting the incredible Jessie Mei Li as Alina they chose to change the character’s ancestry to half Shu to reflect her own Asian heritage. 

I first watched my Shadow and Bone screener in the days following the March 16th attack in Atlanta and found myself feeling deeply uncomfortable about how her Shu heritage was approached in the series. People make condescending remarks, they try to run her out of town, they treat her like she is less than human, and then of course there’s the power imbalance between Alina and the Darkling. Watching him literally try to collar her and control her powers felt unsettling with the backdrop of a national — and international —  conversation being brought to the forefront. Sometimes it is difficult to separate real-life issues from the excitement of fantasy. 

Is Shadow and Bone the New Game of Thrones

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SHADOW AND BONE (L to R) JESSIE MEI LI as ALINA STARKOV and BEN BARNES as THE DARKLING / GENERAL KIRIGAN in SHADOW AND BONE Cr. DAVID APPLEBY/NETFLIX © 2021

Could Shadow and Bone become the next Game of Thrones? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see where the showrunners decide to steer the series because the book series left some readers feeling distinctly like the viewers of the final season of Game of Thrones. The Netflix series has already made strides to improve upon the concepts and relationships presented in the book series, but will it be enough to satisfy frustrated readers? 

If you are someone looking to dive into a new expansive and, frankly, intriguing fantasy realm filled with political intrigue, frightening monsters, magic, and complex relationships — Shadow and Bone will fill the hole left in your life by G.R.R. Martin’s Westeros. 

Shadow and Bone is, of course, an adaptation of a young adult book series, so we’re never going to get the saucy HBO content that we got from Game of Thrones, but there is a scene of Alina on General Kirigan’s desk that made me wonder what we’re letting the youths read these days. But if you’re looking for gritty Game of Thrones bloodshed, Shadow and Bone does have plenty of grizzly deaths! 

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SHADOW AND BONE (L to R) JESSIE MEI LI as ALINA STARKOV and BEN BARNES as THE DARKLING / GENERAL KIRIGAN in SHADOW AND BONE Cr. DAVID APPLEBY/NETFLIX © 2021

While Shadow and Bone has familiar beats to its fantasy predecessors, it holds its own as a formidable and binge-worthy series. The cast is phenomenal and I am confident that other viewers may walk away with a newfound appreciation for unexpected characters because of their performances. The world of Ravka feels grungy and lived in and yet, at times, I feel like I’m watching a fictionalized story about the Russian Empire and its neighbors. 

Leave your expectations behind as you prepare to cross the Shadow Fold. You may find your allegiances tested, discover new characters to obsess over, or you may find yourself still swooning over Ben Barnes like it’s Prince Caspian all over again. 

Shadow and Bone

9

The Adaptation Outshines the Books

9.0/10

Pros

  • A dynamic ensemble cast 
  • Ben Barnes being the master of seduction 
  • Gorgeous production and costume design 
  • The Crows being the stand out characters 
  • Mal’s characterization being improved 

Cons

  • Still feels very YA, despite story improvements
  • Alina’s storyline felt weak at points and revolved around seeing Mal again
  • The CGI was weak, but par-for-the-course for Netflix fantasies