Based on the novel series of the same name, Shadow and Bone follows events in a richly developed world of magic and intrigue that breaks with industry standards to a degree by including both wizards and sharpshooters. Curious as that may seem in itself, the series also ultimately relates a wide swath of time, which sees some measure of the dilution of the power and import of magic as bows give way to early versions of firearms and then to repeating rifles. Moreover, the world is a genre-bending blend of burgeoning industrialization and constant war between countries that employ magic users, and those that kill them as inherently evil. The result is a near cacophony of characters, abilities, and cultural minutiae that weaves itself into a world almost more interesting than anything that happens in it.
The series opens with Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) and Malyen Oretsev (Archie Renaux) both in their early life near the frontlines of war, and through flashbacks in their early life as young children in an orphanage. They are lesser cogs in the war machine, a grunt soldier and cartographer, fighting alongside troops of Grisha (Shadow and Bone‘s magic users), but they are now near enough to the Shadow Fold (a magical, deadly barrier that divides their country, Ravka, into East and West territories), that we get a lot of backstory about its creation and dangers. Before long, circumstances, and Alina, will conspire to put our young heroes on board the ship crossing said Shadow Fold.
Meanwhile, over in West Ravka, Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) is trying to maneuver himself into a mysterious job that pays a fortune and also involves safely crossing The Fold, which is itself a nearly impossible task for any crew not backed by an army, and dangerous enough in any case. Getting a plan together and convincing his regular co-conspirators, Inej (Amita Suman) and Jesper (Kit Young), involves a number of convoluted machinations, most of them seemingly out of reach for the small group. Luckily, and in an almost “comic book crew” style, Kaz is something of a genius insofar as working out a plan, Inej is nearly magical in her “assassin” skills, and Jesper is a sharpshooter to a degree that is similarly fantastic.
With our West Ravka crew occupying equal time in the series, Shadow and Bone becomes an amalgam, and something of a bastardization, of both the Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows series.
When tragedy befalls the crossing, Alina is revealed as the mythical Sun Summoner, a Grisha who can use the power of light itself, which has heretofore only been a power theorized to potentially be possible because there are “Darklings” who can use some ill-described ability to harness darkness. This brings Alina to the attention of General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), not least because she could theoretically destroy The Fold. It also brings about a whirlwind of political possibilities around the world, and leads to the revelation that the job Brekker hopes to undertake is to kidnap Alina.
The series has two major positives going for it, and beyond them it hits and misses in equal measure by virtue of its strange adaptation. The hope rests on the ensemble and production design and they are both major wins. The stars deliver, but the fact turns out to be far less instrumental than might be expected because the supporting cast is more integral to delivering the world. We’re in something of a Game of Thrones category here, and while the main stars are great there, if they aren’t surrounded by people who believably “live in this world,” it all falls apart. Barnes is largely delicious in a role that requires a certain flamboyant mysteriousness, but if we aren’t following him up with people like Kit Young and his devil-may-care gambler, or Zoë Wanamaker‘s tortured teacher, nothing comes together. Fold the cast into a “not exactly steampunk” world of bars and alleyways, regal palaces, and ramshackle field camps, and you’ve populated a world that can’t help but pull you in.
The problem is that everywhere this merged adaptation shines, it also necessitates odd choices and delivery. The more we are hooked by Alina and her “fish on a hook” introduction to the life of not just a Grisha, but the most important one ever, we are equally drawn out of the story by characters we’re only following because, presumably, they are important next season, if then. Worse still, the Six of Swords characters are put in motion in a quest that was never part of the original work, and thus really have no ultimate point, except to have been introduced so that they can perhaps later take up the quest of the duology from whence they came. I want to love the possibilities such a move creates, but I’m left unfortunately having watched the story of people who do not have their stories written. Of course, circumstances do put them in the right place at the right time, and they are a lot of the fun the series can claim, but it feels rather hollow.
Difficulties and eye-rollingly “YA” plot steps aside, Shadow and Bone is a wonderfully rich and surprisingly complex web of stories within stories and it’s hard to truly fault a vehicle with this many balls in the air merely for falling short of perfection. Perhaps best, and perhaps most GoT-like, there’s always more going on than what’s going on, and there is always more to explore about the political landscape, religions, and the largely unrevealed surrounding territories.
While fantasy series that are not quite so grandiose as GoT have the deck stacked against them, especially when, let’s face it, they aren’t aiming at a similar level of seriousness and/or “adult” ambition, Shadow and Bone has only the lack of prebuilt audience and scope of effort against it in the comparison. It’s gripping, addictive fun with a few shortcomings, and something that deserves any amount of attention it gets.