Shadow and Bone Series-Premiere Recap: Take Your Time or Take Your Chances

Shadow and Bone

A Searing Burst of Light
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

Shadow and Bone

A Searing Burst of Light
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Netflix/

Inside every Hollywood fantasy adaptation, there are two wolves. One wolf is the series’s existing fanbase; for this wolf, the most important question will be whether the adaptation stays true, if not exactly then at least spiritually, to its source material. The other is the series’s potential fanbase; this wolf really just wants to know what the hell is going on.

TV and film execs know they need to feed these wolves equally, but they often fail, which is how you end up with mediocre and downright embarrassing franchises. (It’s also how you get a four-hour grimdark superhero film recut, but I digress.) This is why the first wolf gets so nervous every time a new adaptation is announced. Admittedly, in the case of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, based on author Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, extenuating circumstances make the task of pleasing everyone all the more challenging, which might mean the first wolf could never have been truly satiated. But by the end of Shadow and Bone’s premiere — a gorgeous and surprisingly intuitive translation that actually fixes some things, even as it breaks others — the second wolf is still peckish. Let’s feed it here.

The Grishaverse novels — of which there are seven, comprising one trilogy and two subsequent duologies — are roughly modeled not on British history, like most Western fantasy, but on 19th-century czarist Russia and its neighbors. The series’s core magic-but-don’t-call-it-magic belongs to the Grisha, people born with the Bender-like ability to manipulate one of a handful of natural forces: Tidemakers command water, Squallers air, Heartrenders and Healers organic matter, Fabrikators elements like metal, and so on. (NB: Grisha get salty when you call it magic, insisting instead on “the Small Science,” due to the practice being about particle manipulation. Whatever.)

In this universe, most of the world fears Grisha. Shu Han (China) experiments on them; Fjerda (Sweden/Scandinavia) hunts and burns them like witches; and Kerch (the Netherlands), the trafficking capital of the world, makes a pretty penny buying and selling them as “indentures.” Only in Ravka are Grisha granted safety and status, thanks to a powerful Grisha general who began recruiting and training them to serve as the kingdom’s Second Army. And even then, there’s still lots of resentment toward Grisha in Ravka’s normie population; it’s just more “they’re bullies and snobs” flavored rather than outright fear.

The core Shadow and Bone trilogy takes place in Ravka, which, when our story begins, is divided lengthwise by a deadly, barren gulf of darkness called the Fold, or the Unsea. Created centuries ago by a very bad Grisha using merzost — black magic, which goes beyond simple matter manipulation and is the reason Grisha get big mad when you call what they do magic — the Fold is home to the Volcra, demonic winged creatures that hunt people who dare to cross on sand boats.

The Fold has politically devastated Ravka. East Ravka, where the monarchy sits, has been blocked from most international trade and suffers from widespread famine. In West Ravka, which has been all but abandoned by the seat of power, a separatist movement brews. Other countries, meanwhile, kind of appreciate the Fold, as it has kneecapped an imperial superpower that might otherwise dominate the globe with its army of sorcerers. Ravkan religion — basically the Eastern Orthodox Church sans Jesus, which makes sense when you consider that “miracles” are just “the Small Science” in this universe — has foretold of a Grisha saint born with the ability to summon light who will use their power to destroy the Fold. That’s where Alina Starkov, our orphaned heroine, comes in.

It’s a classic chosen-one YA epic with a Slavic twist. But here’s the thing: Among many fans (certainly every one I’ve ever spoken to), there’s a consensus that while Shadow and Bone set the terms for the Grishaverse — indeed, there is no Grishaverse without it — Bardugo’s best work in this universe actually came after the trilogy, with the Six of Crows duology. Six of Crows and its follow-up, Crooked Kingdom, follow a crew of mostly non-Grisha nobodies, a found family of teenage street criminals in Ketterdam (Amsterdam), who are recruited to pull off a kidnapping heist with a massive cash reward. The Crows are some of the most charismatic, complex, and heartbreaking protagonists in modern YA. All respect to the Sun Summoner and her catastrophic love triangles, but up against the Crows, they never stood a chance.

Here’s the rub. The creators of the Netflix series have to be aware of this consensus, because they’ve basically wagered the show’s success on it. Instead of keeping the books in chronological order and hoping audiences stick around through Alina’s story to get to the Crows’, Netflix made it clear early on that the show would introduce both stories simultaneously: The Crows would get an added prequel, in which three are hired by a wealthy merchant to kidnap Alina, while the book-based flashbacks of two others play out in real time. While ostensibly designed to satisfy fans, it’s also a huge risk: The Six of Crows duology is an antihero story, one designed in stark contrast to Alina’s hero saga. Their motto is “no mourners, no funerals”; her whole country has canonized her in advance. Forcing a group of abandoned, traumatized, and hardened street thieves to engage with an archetypal hero saga — indeed, to make their story about hers — is to betray them in a big way.

That said, if you can get around that major break with canon, the premiere also features some truly inspired renovations, a rare treat in this treacherous book-to-film landscape. First, Jessie Mei Li’s Alina Starkov doesn’t feel like an outsider because she’s “weak” and “plain” (which, yawn, we get it, you’re skinny). Now it’s because she’s a half-Shu refugee and people are racist. I’ll leave it to someone more qualified to expand on how culturally well-timed this portrayal of anti-Asian hatred is and just say that it’s a perfect patch job that requires Alina to do so much less justification of her insecurities. (It’s also era-appropriate: Those anti-Shu banners Alina side-eyes echo similar Russian propaganda distributed during WWI.) She’s allowed to be a tough, if initially unremarkable, cartographer, made all the better by the next upgrade: that of her lifelong best friend, Malyen Oretsev.

Famously despised by fans for being arrogant and selfish, Mal in the books is a laid-back golden boy who protects Alina from the other orphans’ bullying. By contrast, it is absolutely impossible to dislike Archie Renaux’s updated Mal. As children, he’s the softboy who just wants to track down baby bunnies and avoid chores while Alina protects them from bullies. (He’s also half-Shu, which is presumably how they became friends.) Toxic masculinity eventually pressures him into getting buff and learning to fight, but even as he rips off his shirt and wins an old-timey brawl, this Mal is turning down Zoya the Ür-Hot Girl Squaller just to bring Alina contraband grapes after she’s denied dinner rations by a racist cook. This Mal is so obviously in love with our heroine, just as she is with him; the awkward don’t-want-to-risk-our-friendship tension between them is mutual and thus far sweeter than the nerd-pines-for-oblivious-star-athlete dynamic from the books. And their new personality dynamics make Alina’s desperation to save him all the more tenable when he unexpectedly gets assigned to a Fold-crossing reconnaissance mission without her, and she secretly burns their existing West Ravka maps, forcing the commanders to conscript her and the other cartographers to cross with them.

As even the second wolf might imagine, the Fold voyage does not go well. Minutes into the trip, their sandskiff — which, unlike in the books, includes Zoya among the Squallers guiding its sails — is beset by Volcra. They make off with multiple soldiers before one attacks Mal; Alina fends off the monster until another grabs her from behind, inciting the moment that changes everything. In an instant, her whole body lights up like a glow stick and she passes out, scaring away the Volcra and giving the boat time to cut its losses and escape back the way it came. Not so ordinary after all!

Meanwhile, across the sea in Ketterdam, in its seediest neighborhood, some teenage dirtbags catch wind of a hot job. We meet Jesper Fahey first, which is great news. Perhaps the most flawless casting in the whole show, Kit Young’s charisma as the goofy, gambling gunslinger is off the charts, which softens the harsher entrance of the Dregs leader, Kaz Brekker. You ever follow a family recipe to the letter and still not get it to taste quite as good as the original? That’s Freddy Carter’s Kaz: a bit too flamboyant, and not half as enigmatic or dark as his literary inspiration. But he’s still the Bastard of the Barrel, the genius, teenage crime lord with a limp and a penchant for leather gloves. That he’s the Danny Ocean of the bunch becomes clear when he catches Jesper showing off and finding counterfeit coins at the Crow Club betting tables, then brushes off another foot soldier who offers to fence a priceless painting he’s heard was stolen from a wealthy merchant. (Spoiler: The wealthy merchant is going to be very relevant in later seasons.) Unbeknownst to him, it hangs in Kaz’s own offices upstairs. (They’re not your average thieves, see?) That’s where Inej a.k.a. the Wraith a.k.a. Kaz’s acrobatic and pious right hand drops in through the window like a cat to inform Kaz of said hot job.

Mashing together these two stories means that the Crows’ initial dialogue is almost all exposition: Inej has learned through a friend at the brothel where she used to work (read: She was kidnapped and trafficked into “indentured” sex work, until Kaz bought her contract and hired her to work for the Dregs) that Dreesen, a wealthy merchant, is offering a million kruge to the crew that can retrieve something from across the Fold. He is also in need of a Heartrender’s services, which becomes the key to winning the job. The other candidate in the mix is one Pekka Rollins, the most powerful gang leader in the Barrel — and, as we’ll discover in time, Kaz’s personal nemesis. His approach to obtaining said Heartrender from the brothel where she works is, in a word, overkill: first coerce Dreesen’s gambling-addict guard into holding off the competition, then coerce the brothel owner into simply giving it to him, thus ensuring the Heartrender in question works for him in toto. (I guess we’re supposed to conclude from this that Pekka and his gang, the Dime Lions, are the real baddies of the Barrel, that even the Dregs have standards.)

Meanwhile, Kaz, Inej, and Jesper have simply purchased a few hours of said Heartrender’s time directly and escorted her to Dreesen’s mansion, where they simply pay the guard more than Pekka did — sure, some of it’s counterfeit, but it’s better than torture and murder — and blackmail Dreesen into giving them the exclusive. They discover that the Heartrender is for extracting information from a prisoner: It’s Alexei, one of the cartographers Alina condemned by burning the maps back at their base camp. The Crows’ part in the story is taking place two weeks after the Volcra attack, which Alexei somehow escaped and made it all the way to the western side of the Fold, where he was kidnapped by Dreesen’s allies to hijack the intel. Now with the Heartrender lowering his heart rate to calm him, he recounts witnessing Alina’s big light show: The fabled Sun Summoner, the one with the power to destroy the Fold, is alive in East Ravka. Dreesen promptly shoots him, and now, Kaz, Inej, and Jesper have until morning to prove to the mercher that they have a way across the Fold and win the contract to kidnap Alina Starkov.

On one hand, it’s great to see non-Ravkans react to the prospect of the Fold’s destruction. It enriches Grishaverse politics; of course a crooked rich guy would try to sway international politics by paying lesser criminals to kidnap a high-value target. It even deepens Inej’s character as a true believer in the saints. But it’s kind of a raw deal for the Barrel rats, right? To send them all over Ketterdam, collecting Ravkan lore about the Fold and the Black Heretic? The point is only emphasized by Dreesen’s mere million kruge for this international spy mission when they’re offered 30 million for a comparable heist in Six of Crows. Everyone’s short-shrifting the underdogs — whether it will be worth the risk is yet to be seen.

Interior Monologue

• The show’s set and costume designers have done perfect work, in this premiere at least. The Grisha’s bulletproof keftas are works of art, and the Barrel, while light on the palpable desperation, is gorgeous.

• I love that the only word people in this universe ever use for sex, in both the books and now the show, is “tumble.” Literally the only one.

• Speaking of which, the one-two punch of meeting adult Mal as he’s ripping his shirt off and then him threatening to “carry [Alina] off the boat” if she doesn’t get off herself …? I want to believe the writers know what they’re doing here.

• Alina could at least try to feel a little guilty for effectively condemning every one of her cartographer colleagues to almost certain death!

• When the soldier lights the lantern in the Fold? Big “Put it out, you fools, put it out!” moment. Again, I want to believe this was intentional.

• Feels like there was a huge missed opportunity with the Fold to really underscore how dark it is up in there. The sequence in the show is lit as though they’re traveling by moonlight! We get to see everything! Picture instead: The scene starts out pitch-black with just the sounds of heavy breathing and the boat creaking, maybe a few flashes of lightning to illuminate the gnarled trees and wrecked ships and markers along the way. Then, when the blue lantern (hey, fun easter egg: it’s a corpse light, from Crooked Kingdom!) goes out and the Volcra attack, then you can light everything up with Inferni flames. Effective, terrifying, and accurate! This is my headcanon.

• Another more minor tweak from the books: the Darkling, played by Ben Barnes, has taken on the moniker of “General Kirigan,” which makes a lot of sense when you consider that calling himself “the Darkling” always just seemed like bad PR to me!

Shadow and Bone Recap: Take Your Time or Take Your Chances