It’s been so long since there was a good adaptation of a beloved young-adult book series that I almost believed it wasn’t possible anymore. So many have floundered, and so many others have been studio’d to death that the end result is unrecognizable, a Frankenstein’s monster version of a story that could have been truly remarkable onscreen but settled for something safe and stale instead.
And so, as someone who loves the books by Leigh Bardugo, I am extremely pleased to tell you that Shadow and Bone is not a repeat of YA adaptations past. Instead of doubling down on the worst-case scenario, Netflix has produced the best — an adaptation that stays true to the books, from the vast world-building all the way down to the most iconic lines, while remixing certain elements to create something entirely new. Book readers and new arrivals alike will be pleased: Shadow and Bone is an eight-episode addiction that will give you exactly what you didn’t know you needed and leave you wanting more.
The story follows Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Lin), an orphan, misfit and cartographer in the First Army of the kingdom of Ravka. Members of her unit, including her lifelong best friend Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux), are sent to cross the Shadow Fold — a rent of darkness full of monsters, which stretches from Ravka’s borders with Fjerda in the north and Shu Han in the south and which was created by a Shadow Summoner called the Black Heretic hundreds of years previously. They’re doing so with the help of the Second Army, manipulators of matter and the elements known as Grisha.
When the worst happens on the journey, Alina unleashes a power within herself that she never knew she had and everyone else believed was a myth. Alina is a Sun Summoner, the only Grisha with the ability to summon light and the power to eradicate the Fold. Her power is confirmed by the mysterious General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) — Ravka’s current Shadow Summoner, colloquially known as the Darkling and also the only Grisha of his kind — and suddenly, Alina isn’t no one anymore. She is Ravka’s only hope, and the greatest threat to Ravka’s enemies.
If that’s a lot to take in, don’t worry: The show elegantly handles the exposition in its first episode, never hand-holding but rather revealing this world full of saints and summoners right before your eyes. It helps tremendously that Bardugo’s meticulously detailed world-building translates easily to the screen without much need to over-explain anything. By grounding this fantasy world into a recognizable time and place from history (Ravka is a clear analog for World War I-era Russia), the story our main characters are plunged into immediately takes the forefront, and very little time is wasted on anything that might drag it down.
And that includes production value. It’s kind of a watered-down compliment these days to call a TV show “cinematic” when so many streamers are pouring buckets upon buckets of money into their franchise hopefuls. In Shadow and Bone’s case, though, I’m hard-pressed to think of a show outside of, like, Game of Thrones or Twin Peaks: The Return that would look as good in a theater as this one does at home. The costumes are drop-dead gorgeous, so detailed and elaborate that all I want to do is reach out and touch them, and the sets are similarly sumptuous, thanks in part to the show being filmed principally in Hungary. I really can’t stress enough how rare it is for an adaptation of a book — any book, not just YA — to look exactly how I pictured it in my head. This one totally nails it, down to the last detail.
As engrossing as Alina’s journey is — in no small part thanks to an alluring turn from Ben Barnes, doing that delightful thing where he weaponizes his handsomeness to the point where a well-twitched muscle can cut like a knife) — a completely separate group of characters steals the show. Literally. Woven into the main narrative is a parallel adventure featuring Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman) and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young), a group of thieves in Ketterdam who travel across the sea to Ravka for the biggest score of their lives. All three are miraculous finds for casting, as are many of the other relative unknowns populating the show, but Young is so irrepressibly charming that every moment he’s onscreen is an utter joy. It’s impossible to watch this show and not fall in love with Jesper. Impossible.
But really, I could say that about every character in this show, including a handful of secondaries I can’t mention without telling you the whole plot. The world of the Grisha is fascinating on its own, but it’s the characters that hook you and will keep you hooked throughout the show. Nobody is too thinly sketched here; everyone has personality, secrets, dreams, regrets. Every character is a little broken, and certainly imperfect, and that’s what makes them all so compelling, especially when you throw them all together. Too many fantasy franchises sacrifice character for spectacle, but this one knows that the spectacle is meaningless without well-developed characters to anchor it.
If there were any justice in pop culture, Shadow and Bone would be the next Game of Thrones. It won’t, mainly because Netflix kind of shoots itself in the foot with its binge-it-and-forget-it model. In this case, at least, you won’t easily forget what you just watched. And if you haven’t read the books? Do yourself a favor and pick them up. You’re going to want to spend as much time as possible with these characters before season two comes around. And you are definitely going to want to know what happens next.
Shadow and Bone streams on Netflix this Friday, April 23.