2012 brought a lot of significant moments with regards to genre young-adult fiction — the Twilight franchise was just wrapping up its five-film saga, and The Hunger Games found a whole new audience with its jump to the big screen. That same year also brought the release of Shadow and Bone, Leigh Bardugo's first book in what would go on to be dubbed the "Grishaverse" of novels and short stories. Nearly a decade later, the Grishaverse officially gets its live-action turn with Shadow and Bone, a Netflix series from Shawn Levy's 21 Laps Entertainment and showrunner Eric Heisserer — and if the eight-episode first season is any indication, the wait was more than worth it. Shadow and Bone is a perfectly cast, exquisitely-constructed fantasy dream, one that will find ways to charm both new and existing fans.
Shadow and Bone takes place in the Kingdom of Ravka, a Russian-inspired kingdom that has been plunged into disarray ever since the emergence of The Fold, a strip of land filled with dark magical energy and unsettling monsters. On one voyage through the fold, a teenage mapmaker named Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) unintentionally awakens her magical powers, an act that sends her deep into the world of the Grisha, a race of infamous soldiers with various magic abilities. As Alina navigates this new world and her newfound abilities, she — and an array of characters in her orbit — are thrown into an unexpected and world-altering conflict.
If you're not familiar with the Grishaverse, that might sound a little confusing to you — and honestly, that's totally understandable. Initially, Shadow and Bone throws you head-first into its lore, but it creates a learning curve that all but disappears by the second or third episode. Even the biggest exposition dumps of lore will (hopefully) never become daunting to a viewer, especially as the information and plot twists are presented in some surprisingly cool ways. On a purely superficial level, the world of Shadow and Bone becomes something that fans would want to get lost in, with magical schools, madcap heists, and dozens of tropes that would make fanfic readers blush. This balances with some heartfelt ruminations about trauma, catharsis, and self-preservation — conversations that only strengthen the series as a whole. It all combines into a world that's comprehensive and lived-in, but ultimately accessible. Much of this is thanks to the decision to have the show include characters and storylines inspired by both the main Grisha trilogy and the Six of Crows duology that followed it, the latter of which revolves around a group of ragtag criminals known as the Dregs. That decision to cover the larger Grishaverse definitely surprised fans when the series was announced, but when implemented, it's a choice that feels both gutsy and a bit of a no-brainer. Yes, the narrative does occasionally get split between Alina's world and what's going on with the Dregs (to the point where it almost feels like watching two separate shows), but both storylines culminate in an unbelievably satisfying way.
A lot of that satisfaction comes from Shadow and Bone's approach to its ensemble of characters, which is easily one of the most magnetic aspects of the series as a whole. Even as many of its characters are essentially at the starting points of their epic journeys, Shadow and Bone goes to great lengths to immediately make them three-dimensional, whether in massive character moments or in incredibly subtle beats. Those moments could've easily been shortcuts in the hands of another creative team, but in Shadow and Bone, they only further add to the tapestry of the series' world, in a way that will surely validate years worth of headcanons book fans have had. As a result, once the series hits its stride, basically every scene and combination of characters — whether ripped straight from the book or entirely new — feels incredibly engrossing to watch. If anything, Shadow and Bone makes the argument for more high-concept YA fantasy to be adapted into television, as the canon provides a strong blueprint to go off of, but also a nearly infinite amount of room to build upon it and diverge from it.
In terms of casting, Shadow and Bone knocks it out of the park, as every member of the principal cast has the necessary amount of charm and inherent swagger. As Alina, Li beautifully carries the series, bringing an earnestness that adds a fresh take to the "chosen one" and "magical girl" storylines. The two men on either side of her love triangle — Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux), Alina's childhood friend and a fellow soldier, and General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), the mysterious "shadow summoner" of the Grisha army — prove to be wildly different but incredibly compelling foils to her, with Barnes particularly shining in every scene he's in. The Dregs — leader Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), spy Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), and sharpshooter Jesper Fahey (Kit Young) — are also sure to become fan-favorites, with each bringing a charming, swashbuckling, but meaningful energy to the whole affair. It's also worth celebrating the diversity of the series' cast, which is decidedly more reflective of the real world than what was canonized in Bardugo's initial books, but is effortlessly updated in ways that only add to the cast of characters.
On a technical level, Shadow and Bone feels as lush as its source material would call for, as each element of the series feels constructed like a labor of love. One of the biggest standouts is undoubtedly the gorgeous costumes, which balance extravagance and practicality with a massive sartorial flair, in a way that will hopefully inspire a flurry of fan-made cosplays. The visual effects are exquisite giving each attack from a Fold monster or each flash of Alina's powers a visceral feeling. Outside of a few small moments, the cinematography is largely well-executed, helping Ravka feel immersive from moment one. The score and soundtrack help it all ebb and flow eloquently, making each fight scene and pivotal character moment feel incredibly cinematic.
Shadow and Bone is a triumph on multiple levels — one that near-perfectly marries its source material with the best tropes and tricks from the YA blockbusters and prestige fantasy television of the past decade. With an incredibly charismatic cast, a lavish attention to aesthetic detail, and a story that only grows more captivating and moving, it represents a new gold standard for young adult fiction being adapted onto television, and it establishes a world that almost demands exploration in more seasons. Whether you've already spent plenty of time in the Grishaverse, or your first exposure to it will be via your TV remote, there is something in Shadow and Bone for you to obsess over.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
All episodes of Shadow and Bone will debut Friday, April 23rd, exclusively on Netflix.