‘Shadow and Bone’ brings beloved fantasy universe to life

I first fell in love with the Grishaverse when I read “Six of Crows” in high school. I remember getting a hardback copy of the book for Christmas four or five years ago, and being the bookworm that I am, I immediately dove right into it, without even glancing at the premise on the inside of the dust jacket. I read the original “Shadow and Bone” shortly afterwards; I was so engrossed in the story that I started and finished the book in less than a day. Even when I reread the “Shadow and Bone” trilogy at the beginning of this year, not only to prepare myself for the show but to also escape from the endless void of time that was winter break, I was instantly drawn back into the world and the characters’ captivating stories.

Like many others in the book community, I had been counting down the days until April 23, when Netflix released the first season of its adaptation to the fantasy series, titled “Shadow and Bone.” So when I logged onto my Netflix account this past Friday and saw the poster for the show advertised on the home page, I was filled with excitement as I immediately clicked on the first episode.

The show is based on the bestselling fantasy series written by Leigh Bardugo. Named after the first installment in the fictional “Grishaverse,” the show features characters and storylines from Bardugo’s debut “Shadow and Bone” trilogy alongside those of her “Six of Crows” duology. In this world, some  people, known as Grisha, have certain powers that allow them to control the elements; some Grisha can summon fire or wind while others can heal or stop someone’s heart.

The show mostly takes place in Ravka, a country inspired by Tsarist Russia. Hundreds of years prior to the events of the show, Ravka had been split into two by an ominous region known as the Shadow Fold, a long strip of land brimming with darkness, shadows and scary, winged monsters called Volcra. Now, people struggle to cross the Fold without being killed by the Volcra, while also fighting in a war with neighboring countries.

The events of the show revolve around the story of Alina Starkov, a cartographer for Ravka’s First Army and the protagonist of the original trilogy. While trying to cross the Fold on a supply run, Alina, played by Jessie Mei Li, discovers that she has the unique power to summon light, a power that could destroy the Fold and reunite her country. While many had speculated about the existence of a Sun Summoner for years, Alina’s newfound power sparks the hope that the reign of the Fold will finally end.

Alina then meets General Kirigan, the leader of the Second Army of Grisha fighters, who is better known as the Darkling in the books. Kirigan, portrayed by Ben Barnes, is the only other person who has power as great as Alina’s, except instead of sunlight, Kirigan summons darkness and shadows. Kirigan whisks Alina away to the safety of the Little Palace, where she meets other Grisha and hones her power under the mentorship of the stern Baghra, portrayed by Zoë Wanamaker. However, this new journey in Alina’s life separates her from her childhood friend, Mal Oretsev (played by Archie Renaux), which causes a lot of emotional turmoil for both Alina and Mal, who tries to find a way to reunite with her.

The news of Alina’s power spreads across this fictional world; it eventually finds its way to Kerch, the home of the beloved Crows from Bardugo’s “Six of Crows” series. The leader of the Dregs gang, Kaz Brekker (portrayed by Freddy Carter), takes up a job from a wealthy merchant willing to pay someone a lot of money to kidnap the new Sum Summoner, an endeavor which would require crossing the dangerous Fold and breaking into the heavily-guarded Little Palace. Kaz brings two other vital members of the Crows crew along with him: Inej Ghafa, a spy skilled with knives and acrobatics played by Amita Suman, and Jesper Fahey, a skilled sharpshooter portrayed by Kit Young. While their heist to kidnap Alina was not a part of the original book series, the show weaves these characters into the new storyline almost effortlessly. The show acts as a prologue to the main events in “Six of Crows,” so the creators incorporated some key details about the characters and their personalities and life stories into the adaptation.

We also see the storyline between Nina Zenik, portrayed by Danielle Galligan, and Matthias Helvar, played by Calahan Skogman; Nina and Matthias are two other characters who join the Crows in future heists. For now, we see the beginning of their enemies-to-lovers relationship, as they struggle to put aside their hate for each other (Matthias helps hunt Grisha, and Nina is a Grisha) in order to survive after they end up in a shipwreck.

The show has a nice balance of staying true to the original series while also exploring new details and plotlines. It retains a lot of the major plot points from the “Shadow and Bone” book, including most of the key moments in Alina’s storyline and her journey discovering her new power. Some of the scenes resemble their book counterparts almost word-for-word, especially with Nina and Matthias’s story. 

The show adds other new elements to the story as well. In this adaptation, Alina is half-Shu (Shu Han is one of the countries neighboring Ravka and is based off of Mongolia and China), which influences a lot of the interactions she has with other soldiers in the army as well as with some of the Grisha. “‘Shadow and Bone’ was my first book, and I think I was unconsciously echoing a lot of the fantasy that I had grown up with, which sets a kind of default for straight white characters. And that’s something I’ve tried to improve on as I write, to write more authentically and reflect the people around me in the world, around me more realistically,” Bardugo commented in an interview with NPR.

“Shadow and Bone” boasts a talented cast who excelled in bringing their characters to life. Many of the actors read the books as they took on their roles, and their dedication to the Grishaverse shined through in their performances and ability to capture the nuances of their characters. For example, Barnes notably conquers the darkness and moral ambiguity of his General Kirigan. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of the “Six of Crows” characters, especially Jesper; Young dazzles in his role, perfectly capturing the humor and charm of his character.

Leading up to its release, I was both excited and nervous for the show. Book-to-screen adaptations, especially of popular YA books, can either be amazing (as with “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “The Hunger Games” and the plethora of “Little Women” adaptations) or disastrous (we don’t talk about the “Percy Jackson” movies). So, while I was really eager to see all of my favorite characters on the screen and witness this world that I love come to life, I still hoped that it wouldn’t be a disappointment. 

Following the show’s development made it almost impossible to not get excited; from all of the initial casting announcements to the trailers and clips released during the weeks leading up to the show’s premiere, even just seeing these bits and pieces of what was to come, these glimpses into this cherished fictional world built up my expectations for the final product.

“Shadow and Bone” provides a beautiful example of a book-to-screen adaptation that captures the essence of the fictional universe that it stems from while also adding new elements that only strengthen the storyline. The first season establishes the world and the characters, while also opening up for future stories within the Grishaverse (I may or may not be foraging the internet for any and all details about Season Two).

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