Netflix’s Shadow & Bone: a review from a long-time book fan

"The adaptation itself is one of love and respect from the creators, and it shows."


I’ve loved Shadow & Bone and the Grishaverse for a really long time – since the first book came out in 2012, to be exact. Unsurprisingly, I’m very attached to the books. When an adaption was announced I was excited but wary, knowing how adaptations had turned out in the past – but when the trailers began releasing, I swayed more and more to quietly hopeful. And now the show is out, I can see it’s one made with care, love and respect.

Some critics are saying Shadow & Bone is Netflix’s newest attempt to recapture the popularity of Game of Thrones, but I’d point to Netflix’s other fantasy series The Witcher for that. In fact, it’s slightly futile to compare every new fantasy show to Game of Thrones; it is pitting new and untested shows against a cultural behemoth, and it only hinders the success of getting new fantasy shows out there when everyone tries to measure them up against a multi-million dollar production. Whilst Shadow & Bone is meant to capture a wide audience across ages, the core focus remains the young adult audience the books were released to rather than the older audiences Game of Thrones and The Witcher cater for.

As with any YA adaptation, Shadow & Bone comes equipped with a passionate fanbase that some critics choose to deride. But the show runner, Eric Heisserer, has made his respect for the fandom clear. The first hurdle any book-to-screen adaption comes across is casting, and it’s here that Shadow & Bone pole-vaults the hurdle. The Darkling (or General Kirigan, as he’s known in the show) was set to be the biggest challenge: finding someone who’s hot but feels immortal, and can effectively demonstrate calculating wisdom? It’s a daunting task, and there’s pressure of fan expectations on top of that. One of the fandom’s favourite fancasts was model Sean O’Pry (who had excellent Darkling vibes in Taylor Swift’s music video Blank Space), and another popular contender was actor Ben Barnes. Sean O’Pry had the face and the Darkling’s cold quartz eyes, but he was a model rather than an actor. And Ben Barnes was an unlikely wish, so much of the fandom had no clue what to expect.

Except . . . they secured Ben Barnes. And in one efficient move, by casting someone already loved by the book community ever since his role in Narnia’s Prince Caspian, and who had already been fancast as the Darkling across the internet, Netflix’s Shadow & Bone adaptation was off to a stellar start.

Whilst some characters look different to their book counterparts (such as Alina and Mal), they carry through the spirit of the characters perfectly. Others, such as Inej, are alarmingly perfect in disposition and appearance. Jesper and Nina have been rightly criticised for not reflecting the appearances of their book characters (Jesper has much darker skin in the books, and Nina is plus sized) and playing into Hollywood stereotypes of beauty, but the actors do pin down the essence of their characters perfectly – it’s as if Jesper walked off the page, and Nina and Matthias’ chemistry is ridiculously compelling. The only one I wasn’t quite sold on was Zoya, who lacks the knife-sharp wit and fiercely independent streak she possesses in the book.

For new viewers, the snare likely to trip people up lies in the expansive worldbuilding. The Grisha orders are not overly well-explained within the series, and Ketterdam can be confused as a city on the other side of the Fold rather than an entirely separate nation. You also have Fjerda and druskelle thrown into the mix a few episodes later. It is a lot to take in, and those who haven’t read the books may flounder for a moment or two before finding their footing with the support of handy guides on the internet.

As for those who have read the books – it was a delight seeing the Grishaverse come to life. The cinematography of the series is stunning, and the director of the first episode (Lee Toland Krieger) sets a lush tone for the fantasy series. There’s also some really clever editing across the season (especially in the Crows’ scenes), and the score by Joseph Trapanese raises goosebumps. Despite Heisserer saying that the series didn’t have an expansive budget, they’ve utilised it incredibly well. The sets and locations are stunning, and, for the most part, the special effects (which can make or break a fantasy series) look really good. The one exception is Alina’s human flashlight look in the first few episodes, but it makes sense once you realise that’s because she doesn’t know how to focus her power.

There are times where the grand locations sometimes feel a bit empty – many of the scenes in the Grand and Little Palaces feel smaller than they do in the books, and the Little Palace’s beautiful wood carvings aren’t present in the series. The Netflix series leans more into French-influenced Russian architecture than the traditional Russian architecture of the books, but considering the budget and the filming locations in Hungary, they did really well in finding locations that looked stunning on screen.

The narrative of the Shadow & Bone series contains three separate plots drawn from two different books. Whilst Alina’s narrative is drawn from the titular book Shadow & Bone, Kaz, Inej & Jesper follow a narrative that forms a sort-of prequel to the events in the book Six of Crows. Similarly, Nina and Matthias’ narrative also works as a prequel to Six of Crows by embellishing on events mentioned within Six of Crows, but only through flashback. Those who don’t know the books might wonder why Nina and Matthias are relevant at all, but the hate-to-love plot they’ve got going on is incredibly compelling – and the scenes in the whaler’s hut are golden. Especially the utilisation of the ‘only one bed’ trope, and the delivery of the fan-favourite line ‘it’s not natural for someone to be as stupid as he is tall, and yet there you stand’.

When it was announced, this merging of the two narratives was something I was concerned by, but in the end I thought it worked very well. There are times in the beginning where it feels like you’re watching two different shows (something more traditionally fantasy, and then a version of Peaky Blinders, perhaps), but it does meld together. And the possibilities it brings in for future seasons is incredibly exciting.

Another thing Netflix’s Shadow & Bone does is give a point of view to Mal. The entire Shadow & Bone book is written in first person from Alina’s perspective, so we never get to see what’s going on when the action isn’t around her. Mal in the books was never the most popular in the fandom (mainly because he seemed to prefer plain old Alina over sun summoner Alina), but in the series his character is revisited and given greater depth. And it goes a long way. Alina and Mal’s relationship feels more genuine in the Netflix adaptation, and Mal demonstrates that he cares about her regardless of who she is – sun summoner or his little friend from Keramzin. In fact, the Netflix series and Archie Renaux’s portrayal have made me do an entire 180 on Mal’s character.

The Netflix adaptation also brings in more of General Kirigan/the Darkling’s perspective. Whilst in the books we didn’t get his backstory until the final instalment, Ruin and Rising, and the short story The Demon in the Wood, viewers get it in the second-to-last episode. The Netflix series does tweak his backstory in order to evoke some sympathy (I’m not sure why, as his original backstory was good too) and his name is revealed in . . . episode three, whereas book fans had to wait until the final instalment in the trilogy. The fact that it’s revealed so easily in the series, combined with the altered backstory, means Netflix’s version of the Darkling feels slightly less callous than he does in the books. But it has to be said that Ben Barnes does an amazing job. Charming and enigmatic, but also cold and calculating when it’s called for. Barnes also has incredibly dark eyes that are near-black, and whilst they are nothing like the quartz-grey colour of the Darkling’s eyes in the book, there’s something about the darkness which suits Barnes’ Darkling very well. Barnes also keeps all the essential Darkling lines, from ‘fine, make me your villain’, to ‘I’ve been waiting for you for a long time’ and ‘there are no others like us and there never will be’. One that doesn’t pop up is ‘wanting makes us weak’, but it could in later seasons. An excellent show addition also arises in a scene mid-season where the Darkling runs back to give Alina a quick second kiss in the map room, and he also filches Mal’s knowledge of Alina’s favourite flowers to benefit himself in the same episode.

Another change was made to the series by making the world more casually queer, but it should be noted that the representation was largely M/M – one female character had a throw-away line, and that’s it. I’d like to see more F/F rep in future seasons, alongside it being made clearer that both Jesper and Nina are bisexual.

On the by and large, I enjoyed the new additions and tweaks they made to the series. But one significant aspect where they stumbled and fell, even with originally good intentions, is how they chose to engage with Alina being biracial – which is a change made for the show, as Alina was wholly Ravkan and thus white in the books. In the first few episodes, there are explicit anti-Shu sentiments directed towards Alina. Whilst the narrative of Shadow & Bone is set against a backdrop of war and Shu Han is an enemy (even if the actual war felt insignificant compared to the focus placed on the civil war brewing between East and West Ravka), the inclusion of anti-Shu vitriol felt shoehorned, heavy-handed and completely unnecessary. This in turn meant it also lacked the nuance I imagine they were attempting to bring in. It wasn’t just Alina who was the focus of these remarks – there were some anti-Suli statements that showed Ravkans are just xenophobic across the board – but you do not need to sprinkle racism over your fantasy world to give it texture. I hope that in later seasons Alina is given time and space to engage with her Shu heritage, and the racism evident in the first season is contested.

At the end of the day, I believe Shadow & Bone succeeds as an adaptation because it captures and preserves the heart of the Grishaverse, even if it isn’t a perfect scene-by-scene adaption. This is something those adapting novels sometimes fail to comprehend (see: Percy Jackson), but not here. Given the current success of Shadow & Bone (number one in several countries globally!), I’m sure a season two confirmation is imminent. This leads to the next big hurdle: who they choose to cast as Wylan and Nikolai. They’ve demonstrated that sometimes they’ll deviate from a character’s book appearance when an actor carries the character’s spirit, so it’ll be interesting to see who they choose. But until they confirm season two, you can catch me on my sofa rereading the books and rewatching those eight episodes over and over.

P.S. Milo the goat? The MVP of the show.

Shadow & Bone is streaming on Netflix now. 

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