Netflix took a shot at making the next big fantasy adaptation with Shadow and Bone, and while the streamer may not have Jesper's aim, it did an excellent job. This screen adaptation of Leigh Bardugo's bestselling "Grishaverse" novels satisfied new viewers and die-hard fans alike, while hinting that its world and its story could be so much bigger with more exploration. Still, as with so many Netflix original series, it could have benefited from more episodes.
Shadow and Bone brings fans into an epic fantasy world based on the culture and mythology of Russia, though the world-building is fast and not particularly subtle in the beginning. The plot feels a little rushed in the first and last episodes, though otherwise, the pacing issues melt into the shadows. Like many other fans, I'm willing to forgive the show for this issue since it was almost certainly a decision made by Netflix, not the creators. On top of that, there's so much more to love about the show that it's worth the rocky entry.
With this predictable caveat established, it's easy to praise what Shadow and Bone accomplished in its first season. The show finds time to hit the biggest story beats hard and space them out nicely from Episodes 2 to 7. For book fans, it even succeeds in weaving together the separate storylines from the Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows duology — the aspect that seemed most daunting on paper. It really benefits from the third-person omniscient perspective of TV instead of the third-person limited perspective of the books.
This perspective shift goes a long way in making the story feel grand in scale, and perhaps this is the right place for the inevitable Game of Thrones comparison. If there were any doubt that Shadow and Bone could be a contender in the burgeoning genre of high fantasy adaptations, it would be assuaged when you find yourself tracking different plots and relationships across this fictional map, watching a nod and a wink pay off with a magical showdown half a season later. The TV audience will be able to take in the scope of the Grishaverse much faster than a newcomer to any of the books will.
This is all the more impressive because Shadow and Bone seems to put less importance on map memorization than some of its peers in the genre do. The show's creators knew what fans wanted — emblematic character moments, relationships, and lots of romance — and they gave it to them. The show is brilliant at letting each of its many stars have their spotlight, and the cast is almost eerily pitch-perfect. If you came to see your personal ship get its fan service, you won't be disappointed. Additionally, if you think you can get through this season without falling in love with Kit Young as Jesper Fahey, guess again.
Speaking of whom, the addition of the Six of Crows characters into the Shadow and Bone storyline is carried out so lovingly that even viewers who haven't read the books will likely see some of those seams. The success of that process matches the success of the pacing described above — it feels clumsy at the start, but it hits a perfect stride for most of the season and then its momentum seems to send it careening into its ending. I want to get into some specifics about this, but to do so, I need to warn you that the rest of this review contains spoilers for all eight episodes of Shadow and Bone.
It makes sense that Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) and his gang wouldn't just sit on their hands during the events of Shadow and Bone, especially in this version where they're a bit older than they would have been in the books. Still, the speed and readiness with which they leave Ketterdam make it hard to strongly establish their reputations within the city, and it may be disappointing to fans who wanted to spend some time at the Crow Club or the Slat. On top of that, it feels like it may cheapen the story of Six of Crows itself when it comes, where it is played as a huge deal that Kaz agrees to leave his city at all.
There are other moments where it feels like the legend of Kaz Brekker falls victim to the butterfly effect. Spending a whole season with this character outside of his element changes him fundamentally, for better or worse. It also changes Inej (Amita Suman) when she chooses to stay with Kaz rather than go along with Alina, although the ship-focused fans are unlikely to have a problem with this part. Overall, dropping the Dregs into the hero's journey-style tale of Shadow and Bone rather than the heist-style story of Six of Crows forces them to become heroic archetypes, which inevitably changes who they are in some ways.
I can't necessarily say that I disliked these changes, but they definitely didn't dampen my enthusiasm for a potential second season. Still, they're the kind of adaptational choices that will have ripple effects for as long as the story is allowed to go on. Speaking of which: the finale leaves no doubt that the producers have their hearts set on a Season 2, which this production absolutely deserves.0comments
However, if they get it, the best thing Netflix could do for this show is to give it more episodes. A 10, 12, or even 13-episode season would serve this story much better and give it more time to focus on its strengths. Still, knowing that the episode count is not up to the creators makes it much easier to accept and to look past when possible. It's up to Netflix to give shows of this genre the time they need to compete with the heavy-hitters coming soon to other streaming services.
Shadow and Bone Season 1 is one of the most lovingly made adaptations of a book series ever brought to the screen, even when it is not the most faithful to the source material. It deserves a chance from all fans of the genre, including book-readers and newcomers alike. The show is now streaming on Netflix. This review was originally published on April 23, 2021.