It’s been such a long time since I’ve even attempted to write a review, although to be fair, they have always been the kind of post I have the most trouble with. The closest I’ve come recently is a Top 5 Wednesday back in March about movie adaptations, where I mentioned several of the movie and Netflix series that I’d been watching. I struggle a lot with reviewing books and movies because I prefer to be able to talk in detail about what I liked or didn’t like, and I find it so hard to do that without risking any spoilers. I guess I’m still a little put off by the time I wrote a detailed review of the soundtrack of the Addams Family musical on Amazon, where I gave context for each song, only to receive a comment from someone complaining that I’d revealed the entire plot. When I wrote that review, I’d naturally assumed that anyone who was listening to the soundtrack had already seen the show, although in hindsight, I guess it’s possible someone would be listening to the music before they’ve had a chance to see it. Either way, that comment was enough to make me nervous about spoiling things for anyone else, and it’s become really hard for me to figure out how to balance my reviews. For Shadow and Bone, however, I decided it was worth a try because this was one of my most anticipated adaptations! I will do my best to avoid any spoilers.
I was a little nervous going into this series at all because I remembered so little of the plot of the original Grisha trilogy. I never read the books when they originally came out, and to be honest, I don’t think I’d even really heard of them at the time. I started to hear a lot more about them through watching Sam at ThoughtsOnTomes on Youtube, who talked about the series and especially the Darkling a lot. Her videos really got me intrigued to try this one. I read the entire trilogy as well as Six of Crows back in 2018, and Crooked Kingdom shortly after in early 2019. I read King of Scars last year, and just recently finished Rule of Wolves as well, although that one was just after I finished watching the series. As a result, I remembered very little about the plot of the series, but it didn’t take long for it to come back to me while I was watching.
For those who might not know, Shadow & Bone is about a young woman named Alina who is a soldier living in a nation called Ravka that has been torn apart by the Shadow Fold. When an attack on her regiment leaves her best friend severely injured, Alina discovers a dormant power that marks her as a Grisha, part of the elite who can manipulate the elements as a kind of magic known as “small science.” Once her power is unleashed, she is rushed away to the royal court, led by the Darkling, to train to be able to use her powers to finally destroy the Shadow Fold. The first season of the show covers the events of the first book, Shadow & Bone, as well as adding in an additional subplot for the characters from Six of Crows. Kaz Brekker and his team of thieves in Ketterdam, who had a sort of prequel plot added to introduce these characters with a mission to kidnap the Sun Summoner for a wealthy merchant, in exchange for a huge payout.
One of the things I was most nervous about with the show was how the Six of Crows characters would be incorporated, since that duology took place after the events of the original series. I wasn’t sure how easily they could be included in a way that would still make sense, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how well this worked! At first, because I didn’t remember much of the books by time I watched the show, it threw me off a bit because I didn’t recognize any of this subplot, which I’d assumed had been in the books. Upon looking it up and realizing that it was brand new, I was impressed with how well it had been incorporated and especially how it fleshed out some of my favourite characters like Inej. It also provided an excellent way of including some of the scenes from the Six of Crows duology that had been in the books as flashbacks, such as the majority of Nina and Matthias’s storyline. While I’d still really love to see Six of Crows have its own adaptation, this was a great way to include these characters and offer a bit more worldbuilding.
In terms of the main plot, the series follows Alina as her Grisha powers are revealed while protecting her best friend Mal, causing her to be taken in by General Kirigan to be trained since her unusual power to harness light could help to destroy the Fold. Over the course of the season, Alina struggles with her new role as a Grisha and with her separation from Mal, her childhood friend with whom she had grown up in an orphanage and has always worked to keep them together. Much of the season is also devoted to a search for Morozova’s Stag, which is thought to amplify Grisha’s abilities, as well as Alina beginning to learn more about Kirigan and his true intentions. It is very difficult to mention much of the plot without risking spoilers, however I thought the series in general was very well-paced and I loved that it mostly stayed true to the books. There were a few differences, the most prominent of which was probably the backstory offered for The Darkling that didn’t exist in the books, aside from the addition of the entire Six of Crows storyline.
Characters & Casting
Like most adaptations, one of the most impressive things for me was the casting. I was immediately impressed by Jessie Mei Li, who was the perfect choice for Alina. Another change with the show which I didn’t yet mention is that Alina’s character has been changed to be biracial, with other characters often making assumptions about her and mock her due to her Shu heritage. While I’m not sure exactly why this change was made, I thought it did a lot to really highlight Alina’s feelings of being an outsider. Aside from her Grisha powers, she also faces a lot of negative comments about her appearance and stereotypes based on her Shu heritage. I have also seen quite a bit of criticism of the way race and racism were handled as a result of this change. This is not something that I’ve really looked into in detail at this point so I don’t really feel comfortable commenting on the topic. I did read one review recently that noted that none of the other diverse cast members seem to experience any form of racism or discrimination based on their colour, which makes the attitudes toward Alina that much more confusing, or at least lacking in context since not much was really explained about why the Shu are treated so harshly. Regardless, Jessie Mei Li did a brilliant job at bringing this character to life and her performance was a real highlight of the series for me.
Another character who has undergone some changes since the book series is Mal, played by Archie Renaux. As mentioned above, I didn’t remember too much of the book series, but I also remember that I wasn’t that invested in Mal, especially not as a love interest for Alina. In the books, the relationship seemed to be more one-sided with Alina’s initially unrequited crush on Mal, but the show develops his character and also their relationship a lot more thoroughly. The relationship between the two of them is such a strong part of the Netflix series, and I’m so happy they made these subtle changes to Mal to make it work a bit better. For the series, Mal was also changed to a mixed-race character which sets him apart as one of the few people whom Alina believes really understands her and shares her experiences. I think one of the main reasons that Mal could be fleshed out so much more in the series is because we’re not limited to Alina’s perspective like we were in the original books, which gives us room to follow him on his part of the plot and see what happens to him while he’s not with Alina. This was one of the best changes that could have been made, and along with Archie Renaux’s performance in the role, really helped make Mal a much more likable character.
Of course, I have to mention Ben Barnes as General Kirigan, who was another absolutely perfect casting choice. He strikes the perfect balance of sympathetic and villainous, and it is very easy to see how Alina falls for his ploys to get her help. He is manipulative, but you also can’t really help but by into the chemistry between them. In addition, I also enjoyed many of the side characters from the original series, such as Zoya (Sujaya Dasgupta) and Genya (Daisy Head). For some reason, despite Zoya being such a major player in the series in general, I’ve always had a bit of a mental block for the character and have to refresh myself on what exactly her role is every single time. Although her role in this season wasn’t huge, it did give her a bit more prominence earlier on than she had in the books. To be fair, I did not quite recognize several of the side characters on sight as soon as they were brought in, but once their names were mentioned, I remembered them. I think that’s mostly to do with my own lack of memory for details of the series.
Lastly, I have to give special mention to Danielle Galligan as Nina and Calahan Skogman as Matthias, who brilliantly brought to life two of my favourite characters in this series. I thought these two actors captured the dynamics of this pair so well, and Danielle Galligan especially stole every scene that she was in. I also loved Amita Suman as Inej, who played the character almost exactly as I had always imagined, and Kit Young’s comic relief as Jesper. I think the one and only actor who took a bit of getting used to for me was Freddy Carter as Kaz, but that’s mostly because I had always pictured the character a little differently. Even while reading the series, I imagined the characters being significantly older than the ages mentioned on the page, so it was a bit of a shock to me to see Kaz looking so young. While I did ultimately end up loving his performance, it took me a little longer than expected to get used to him in this role. It may have also been because his storyline was brand new, compared to even many of the other Six of Crows characters, so there wasn’t as much familiarity to latch onto. Either way, I thought the casting for the series overall was incredible.
As always, this is the most difficult aspect for me to comment on because it is not something I particularly pay attention to. Visually, I loved the way the series captured the world and helped to really show the conditions that the characters were living in. I loved the Little Palace and the drastic change in lifestyle that presented for Alina, and especially loved the contrast it gave to how the army was living. I thought the Shadow Fold was also very well-done. I think the biggest highlight of all was Alina’s encounter with the Stag, which was particularly visually impressive. I also liked how the fictional languages were incorporated directly into the scenes sometimes. To be honest, I can’t say that I really remember any of the music from the show at all by now, but from what I remember, it was a good fit for the tone of series.
I think it is safe to say that this is by far one of the strongest adaptations that I’ve ever seen. I loved how the series was able to mostly stay true to the original books, while changing just enough to keep it fresh and even updating a few elements (ie. Mal’s character in general). I was very nervous to watch this series because of how much I love Leigh Bardugo’s writing and wasn’t sure it would be done justice, but I ended up very impressed and I’m already really looking forward to more seasons! Like many adaptations, the casting was by far the highlight for me, and I thought the characters were perfectly cast in general. I’m very interested to see how the next books in the series will be adapted, and hope that any subsequent seasons will be just as strong!
Plot – 9.5/10
Characters/Casting – 10/10
Visuals/Music – 9/10
Overall – 9.5/10