Shadow and Bone

Shadow and Bone, whose eight-episode first season based on the young adult fantasy books debuted on Netflix a few weeks ago, throws a lot of words at you in the blink of an eye: Grisha, Ravka, Ketterdam, Fjerda.

Without fore-knowledge, or even a prologue primer that sets up this fantasy world (ala the opening of The Lord of the Rings), it takes three episodes just getting attuned to the words. Until then you have little to no idea that what you are hearing refers to magic, sects, person, a city or a nation.

Written to quickly get to the point (it could have been more streamlined), the series, upon research, combines plots from the main Shadow and Bone novels and its interconnected spin-offs The Six of Crows — the adventures of another band of desperate anti-heroes. Without the narrative re-spun, I assume the novels may have been a bit of a drag.

Set in a land called Ravka, divided by the Fold — an impossible-to-cross dark energy landmass segregating nations, and filled with flying monsters — Shadow and Bone’s main plot is of its heroine Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), an orphan who has the latent ability of a Sun Summoner — a fabled saviour that can erase the Fold with blinding light.

The Netflix series Shadow and Bone requires some getting used to if you don’t know the source material

Alina, oblivious to her own ability, has romantic feelings for her childhood best friend “Mal” Oretsev (Archie Renaux), with whom she joins the Ravka army that continuously militarises itself to fend off spies, end other countries and clear the Fold.

Alina is technically called a Grisha — people naturally gifted to harness “small science” (it’s not magic, per se) that give them control over elements such as fire and air, or the power to read or stop hearts. Grisha’s, once identified, are usually used by the army; the normal folk, however, loathe them. Racial bigotry and equal rights are an ever-present sub-plot of the story.

Also with the army is General Kirigan (Ben Barnes, Prince Caspian from the Narnia films) — a rare, deadly and much-feared Grisha with the ability to summon darkness. It doesn’t take the wisdom of Solomon to realise that he’s not what he seems to be.

While the series picks up its pace by the end of the first episode, its tone and the world it inhabits take some time to get attuned to. There is enough intrigue and backstories to keep one’s attention in check though. Other than Alina’s story thread — which becomes pedestrian after a while — the ones that really hold the audience’s attention belong to a spy Grisha (a Heartrender, i.e. the ones who stop and hear hearts) by the name of Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan) from Ravka, and Matthias (Calahan Skogman), a soldier from the rival kingdom of Fjerdan.

There’s also an interesting separate sub-plot of a rag-tag group called the Crows — a strategic leader, a skilled assassin and a sharp-shooter (Freddy Carter, Amita Suman, Kit Young) — who are commissioned by the underworld to find the identity of the Sun Summoner and kidnap her.

These characters and subplots help navigate the almost predictable story turns and the pedestrian direction and editing of the show. Shadow and Bone is a good enough series in its first season, and as it climaxes into a high-point, chances are it’s a worthwhile investment of one’s time, as the story raises stakes in the second season.

Streaming on Netflix, Shadow and Bone is rated 16+. It has nothing objectionable.

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 30th, 2021

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