Netflix has done it again! Another powerhouse fantasy series has practically superhero landed on the platform like Stranger Things and The Witcher before it. Shadow and Bone, based on the Grishaverse created by best-selling author Leigh Bardugo, is an epic beginning to a story that will sweep viewers into a battle over a nation’s future and a young woman’s destiny.
We start in the dirt. A fitting beginning for a hero’s journey.
Alina Starkov, played by the captivating Jessie Mei Li, is but a mapmaker in the Ravkan First Army. She’s rank and file. As is her best friend Malyen Oretsev (Archie Renaux) except, while they are both mixed, it’s Alina who receives the brunt of her fellow soldiers’ dismissive behavior and snide comments.
This is a change from the books that both the showrunner Eric Heisserer and Bardugo, who is also an executive producer of the series, have stated was a necessary alteration to the original story.
Shadow and Bone adds diversity to the original story
Bardugo counts how white and straight the first Shadow and Bone book was as a flaw. The show attempts to correct this through its lead as well as members of the main cast and supporting characters.
However, at times, the racism that is weaved throughout the overall story is heavy-handed and clearly there to show how isolating Alina’s life is due to being half-Shu. It’s oppressive. While that’s the everyday reality of marginalization, especially when you are overwhelmingly in the minority, sometimes writers can tip their pens too far into the oppression inkwell.
By that I mean there’s a line between showing the effects of race-based harassment, how pervasive it can be, and just including it because the character is now mixed. Shadow and Bone crosses that line occasionally.
A glaring example is the racist propaganda poster hanging in the main tent in the Ravkan encampment. I immediately thought of depictions of Japanese people in American war propaganda during World War II.
Yes, the Shu Han are one of two Ravkan enemies the troops are fighting. But the inclusion of that poster, especially unexamined, didn’t add anything more than once again enforcing that Alina is fighting for a country that repeatedly shows her she doesn’t belong.
Not to mention, if there’s a discussion of why the Shu and Ravkans are fighting, it’s a blink-and-you miss it talk that doesn’t explain the level of vitriol Alina endures, whether or not it’s tied to the war being fought, or if the Ravkans have always been prejudiced against the Shu.
It’s 2021, our depictions of racism in media need to say more than it’s horrifying and the people who perpetuate it are awful especially when there’s only one character of color experiencing this discrimination consistently with no real explanation of why that is.
Not that I wanted Jesper, Inej, or Mal (as a soldier) to have to deal with the same hatred that was continuously spewed at Alina, but it was odd seeing her dealing with it when they were largely untouched by prejudice or bias in comparison.
But, even bearing that in mind, the writers do an excellent job with the connection that forms between Alina and Mal as children. As two mixed kids, often bullied for being different, they find a home in one another. A place where they belong.
Alina and Mal are a compelling romance
People of similar backgrounds and experiences tend to gravitate toward each other, and this new element to Mal and Alina’s relationship adds a layer that deepens their bond. Growing into young adults matures and strengthens that connection.
Out of all the potential romances in Shadow and Bone, Alina’s with Mal is the most compelling. Much of that has to do with the writing and the visual motifs that are paralleled and repeated throughout the first season. The most obvious being the attention given to their hands, from their interlaced fingers to the scars on their palms.
However, Li and Renaux expertly sell this relationship. It’s in every longing glance, the wistfulness that fills the moments Alina and Mal are thinking of each other during their separation. The joy in their smiles whenever they’re reunited. A viewer would be hard-pressed not to root for the two because not only does the show clearly want you to but also their story is incredibly romantic.
After Alina’s powers unleash for the first time when they’re in The Shadow Fold, flooding the dark space with blinding light as she holds onto Mal’s hand, Shadow and Bone becomes partly about the two making their way back to each other. That’s in the story so intimately that it’s breathtaking.
As breathtaking as the visual effects in this show. Talk about a selling point! The elemental power on display in this series is exceptional. It’s depicted beautifully, each small science has its own flare and style, complementing its wielder similarly to how the keftas worn by the Grisha are eye-catching.
The transition from the First Army campgrounds and the opulence of the Little Palace showcases a striking contrast between the world Alina first inhabits to her new one now that she’s the Sun Summoner. With it comes General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), the Darkling and leader of the Grisha.
The love triangle in Shadow and Bone
This portion of the story transforms the narrative into one centered on Alina’s re-evaluation of her place in the world and what that looks like. It forces her to stand on her own and define herself on her own terms. Not the Ravkans, not Mal, certainly not Kirigan, and not the other Grisha. But in order to get there, she has to lose herself and who she loves first.
Kirigan is intoxicating to Alina, and it’s likely she is to him, too. Equally matched in power, though not in experience or ability, the two make a perfect pair on paper. However, the power imbalance in their relationship visually depicted in their obvious age gap and Kirigan’s control over her, breeds toxicity between them eventually.
Li and Barnes chemistry slithers through their scenes. Initially, it’s not insidious. Rather, it’s tentative and soft before becoming beguiling and then too much, too fast before exploding and then imploding on itself.
Kirigan’s actions, his repeated steps over boundaries that turn into controlling Alina entirely, stealing her powers for his use, is the antithesis of her relationship with Mal. While her bond with her best friend is a source of light in her life, her connection with Kirigan becomes a part of the darker elements she’s had to face and triumph against.
There’s a lot at play in this triangle that makes the promise of season 2 that much more enticing. The same goes for the inclusion of the Crows in the series.
Shadow and Bone season 1 could have used the Crows better
Personally, while I enjoyed the dynamic between Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young), I found myself wanting to return to what was happening with Alina. I suspect that’s because you can tell they’ve been fitted into this tale when they originally weren’t.
But, they do add more to the series, giving viewers the opportunity to see Ketterdam and get a taste of the gritty city full of thieves and scammers. Heisserer has referred to the Crows position in the first season as an origin story, and it definitely feels like a beginning.
I don’t think the inclusion of the Crows detracted from the overall narrative, but I wish they’d been integrated better into the story. Their entry point was attempting to kidnap Alina and much of their story was spent on how to do that as well as traveling to and through Ravka, so they felt like an addendum.
However, at least they didn’t feel like an afterthought, which was what Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan) and the Fjerdan Grisha hunter Matthias (Calahan Skogman) were right up until the end of the season when they wind up on a boat with the majority of our main players.
Despite this, I’m looking forward to season 2 of Shadow and Bone as Alina begins to come into her own more, navigating what it means to be Grisha and the Sun Summoner, as well as working to save Ravka from the brewing wrath of Kirigan.Next: What's next in Shadow and Bone season 2?