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Let’s Illuminate the Shadow and Bone Universe

Photo: Netflix

It’s time to step into the Grishaverse with Netflix’s latest original series Shadow and Bone, based on best-selling author Leigh Bardugo’s YA fantasy Grisha trilogy and Six of Crows duology. (There’s actually a second duology — King of Scars — set in this universe, too, but we DO NOT HAVE THE TIME.) It’s the story of Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a young woman who comes to realize she is a very powerful Grisha who can save her war-torn homeland, but before you even get into the plot of Shadow and Bone, there are some things you need to know. As with any fantasy universe, this one comes with important people and places, a rich history, and its own vocabulary and rules, so even peripheral knowledge of some elements from the books will make your time with the series much more enjoyable. So, if you’re reading this going, What the hell is a Grisha? Congratulations, this post is for you. Let’s find out.

[Some spoilers below.]

An Abridged Ravkan History Lesson

Oooooh, so that’s why it’s called the Shadow Fold. Photo: Netflix

Welcome to Ravka, the central location for the Grishaverse, a fictional nation that is sort of a stand-in for Russia/Eastern Europe — you’ll notice the influence in the language, architecture, etc. It’s a nation that’s spent the last hundred years or so engulfed in war with its neighbors to the north, Fjerda, and to the south, Shu Han. So, basically, not a super fun place to live unless you’re rich (what’s new!). Ravka is ruled by the Lantsov monarchy. The king at the time this story begins lives in relative safety in the Grand Palace in the capital city of Os Alta, where he commands the First Army, made up of non-Grisha Ravkan citizens, and has a … let’s call it tenuous command over the Second Army, made up of Grisha (those people with powers I mentioned, don’t worry, we get into it below).

Whether you’re reading the books or hopping right into the show, you’ll catch on pretty quickly that the king may think he has control over the Grisha commander of the Second Army — in the novels, he’s called the Darkling; in the show, he’s Ben Barnes’s General Kirigan — but the Darkling is an extremely powerful Shadow Summoner (he, uh, controls shadows and darkness and stuff) and can pretty much do as he pleases, when he pleases. The king especially needs the Darkling on his side because he is key to dealing with the major obstacle stopping Ravka from being victorious over their enemies: the Shadow Fold.

What’s the Shadow Fold? Well, good on you for asking, because it is central to all of the shenanigans going on in Shadow and Bone. The story goes that the Shadow Fold, sometimes called the Unsea, was created hundreds of years ago by a Shadow Summoner known as the Black Heretic, hellbent on power and destruction. It stands where there was once farmland and bustling villages stretching the length of Ravka and is basically a swath of land filled with shadow and darkness and these fun little creatures called Volcra just waiting to rip apart anyone who enters the Fold. It is the stuff of nightmares. People do make the perilous journey through it, but it comes with enormous casualties. And because it completely cuts East Ravka off from the coastline and its major port cities in West Ravka, it severely diminishes Ravka’s power, which is great for its Fjerdan and Shu enemies but not so much for the Ravkans.

There’s really only one option: They need to destroy it. It’s a task that only seems possible with a Sun Summoner — a type of Grisha who can control light and therefore destroy the Fold. But as far as anyone knows, no Sun Summoner exists. Not until our heroine Alina Starkov, an unsuspecting cartographer in the First Army, gets on a boat that’s crossing the Fold and bursts into light when she and her best friend are almost killed. Yep, that changes some things.

Grisha 101

Okay, Grisha fashion. Photo: David Appleby/Netflix

If you’re out here calling Grisha people with “magic powers,” you better check yourself, okay? As the novels explain, Grisha powers aren’t really “magic” but more of a mastery of “manipulating matter at its most fundamental levels.” Grisha are born connected to elements in the air or sun or earth or the human body and can manipulate those elements. They can raise the ocean, set things on fire with a swipe of their hand, or make someone’s heart explode — should that be a thing they need to do. Typically, Grisha are born with just one type of power and live longer lives than non-Grisha, especially the more powerful ones.

To figure out if someone is Grisha or not, all Ravkan children are visited by Grisha Examiners at a very young age to see if they possess abilities. If they do, those children are sent to a special school in Os Alta, called the Little Palace, where their skills are honed and they end up joining the Second Army or working exclusively for the Darkling or the King. Although relations between Grisha and non-Grisha Ravkans aren’t necessarily great, it’s much better than in Fjerda or Shu Han, where Grisha are hunted down and killed, experimented on, or sold into slavery. So, that’s cool and not at all terrifying for Grisha people.

There are various types of Grisha, and there’s a hierarchy to the whole thing, so let’s run through them, shall we?

At the top sits the Corporalki, or the Order of the Living and the Dead, which contains Grisha known as Heartrenders, who have the ability to control things like a person’s pulse, heart, and other organs of the body. They can definitely kill you pretty easily (also great for getting people to confess things!) and are the most prized soldiers in the Second Army. The other type of Grisha within Corporalki are Healers, which is pretty self-explanatory; they’re the medics around these parts. Tailors would also be included in this group — they can manipulate the way people look, like all of your facial serums in human form! — but aren’t officially recognized in the hierarchy.

Under Corporalki are Etherealki, also known as the Order of Summoners. Of course our resident Shadow Summoner and Sun Summoner are technically in this group of Grisha, but because they are so rare and so powerful, they are much more revered (or feared, depending on how you feel about Grisha!). Other Summoners include Squallers, who manipulate the air and wind (so, great for boat trips), Inferni, who manipulate fire, and Tidemakers, who are masters of water.

The final group within Grisha are called Materialki, or the Order of Fabrikators. Fabrikators are split into Durasts, Grisha with the ability to manipulate materials like metals and textiles, and Alkemi, who deal more with chemicals (you need something that will explode, you call an Alkemi).

Got it? Good, because we’re not done yet — there are three other Grisha-related terms you should have a basic understanding of:

• Keftas: These are the robe-like uniforms worn by Grisha. Each order of Grisha wears a different color to denote which group they belong to. The Darkling is the only Grisha allowed to wear a black kefta … until he requests that Alina, our Sun Summoner, wears one too. That’s, like, a big fucking deal. Oh, also, keftas are made by Fabrikators and are bulletproof. Okay, fashion.

• The Cut: Just a deadly move only the most powerful Grisha can perform in which they use their abilities to slice people and things in half.

• Amplifiers: A mysterious and important element of all this Grisha stuff, friends. Aptly named since they amplify a Grisha’s powers, amplifiers are typically made from the bones/teeth/claws of certain animals, and they are rare and difficult to find. A Grisha must kill the animal him or herself in order to be able to wield its power. As the novel notes, a Grisha only gets one amplifier in their lifetime, and once one Grisha has claimed an amplifier, it can never be possessed by someone different. There is a certain unbreakable bond forged between the amplifier and the Grisha. Those are the rules as we are told, anyway. And rules are made to be broken, right? Oh, also! A person can be an amplifier — the Darkling is one of them – and they enhance the powers of the Grisha they touch. But their bones, too, would be very powerful to a Grisha, which is not super fun to think about!

Additional Reading Materials

Wait, you guys aren’t supposed to show up for several more books! Photo: David Appleby/Netflix

Season one of the Shadow and Bone TV series follows the events of the first novel in the Grisha trilogy, Shadow and Bone, but it also pulls in some characters from the Six of Crows duology. Book readers know that in the novels Six of Crows and its sequel Crooked Kingdom take place a few years after the events of the Grisha trilogy, so this story line within the show is (mostly) all new. Some context, however, might still be useful.

Six of Crows is pretty much like a fantasy Gangs of New York mixed with Ocean’s 11. It takes place mostly in Ketterdam, the capital of the island nation of Kerch, which is an important port. There’s lots of gang turf skirmishes within the Barrel, which is the seedy part of Ketterdam, full of gambling dens and brothels. We’re mostly concerned with the Dregs, the gang to which our main characters belong, who own several establishments, including the Crow Club. Their main rivals are the Dime Lions, run by an awful dude named Pekka Rollins. In the novel, several of the Dregs are hired to steal a very important person out of the Ice Court, the Fjerdans’ impenetrable prison. In the TV series, the heist they are roped into has a similar objective, albeit a different target. It is equally perilous.

A Character Primer

Just good buddies. Clearly no romantic tension here at all! Photo: David Appleby/Netflix

You’ll meet a lot of characters throughout the series, but here is a quick introduction to some of the most important ones.

• Alina Starkov: Our reluctant hero! An orphan who only feels at home with her best friend and secret love Mal, who gets thrust into a life she never expected when it’s revealed that she is the long-awaited Sun Summoner who might be able to save Ravka. But how did she keep her abilities a secret and what will she do with them now? Who! Can! She! Trust!

• Malyen Oretsev: Oh, Mal! We love a handsome, popular guy who will do anything to be reunited with the person he loves most in the world. But he’s not just a sidekick. Mal is a highly skilled tracker and hunter. Perhaps the most skilled.

• The Darkling: We’ve already noted the Darkling’s importance to this story, but you should also know that this Shadow Summoner is as charming as he is powerful.

• Baghra: She’s a mysterious old Grisha who is tasked by the Darkling with teaching Alina how to use her new powers. She’s not the warmest but there are reasons for that.

• Genya: A Tailor who is more of a royal servant than a highly regarded Grisha, regardless of her talent. The Darkling has her become a confidant to Alina, helping her navigate life at the Little Palace.

• Zoya: A powerful Squaller who used to be the Darkling’s favorite, until Alina showed up. So there’s some, uh, tension there.

• Kaz Brekker: Kaz is one of the main characters in Six of Crows, the de facto leader of the Dregs, and known for having sought-after thievery skills. He has a lot of demons which may or may not be related to why he won’t be seen without leather gloves on.

• Inej Ghafa a.k.a the Wraith: Inej is another Six of Crows character and one of the few people in the world Kaz trusts. She was working at a brothel called the Menagerie until Kaz started to pay off her contract and she became a spy for the Dregs, since she’s skilled in getting in and out of places without being detected and an expert with knives. She’s a person of great faith, which makes her a nice foil to the Über-cynical Kaz. The two are clearly drawn to each other.

• Jesper Fahey: Kaz would probably never call anyone his best friend, but if he did, it would be Jesper, who typically acts as Kaz’s right hand. A charmer who’s never seen without his pistols, he’s a near-perfect shot.

• Nina and Matthias: Crows No. 4 and 5. Nina’s a Heartrender and Matthias a Fjerdan Grisha hunter (or Drüskelle). When we first meet them in Six of Crows, they arrive with a backstory that is complicated, and in the TV series, we get to see that backstory play out.

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Let’s Illuminate the Shadow and Bone Universe