Any show that has Ben Barnes and bone in the same sentence is already onto a winner, particularly for those that saw him as bad boy Billy Russo in The Punisher.
But before I get carried away let’s backtrack. Shadow & Bone (2021) is set in a fantasy world of magic and monsters and based on a series of books by Leigh Bardugo: the first is Shadow & Bone (2012) and the second is Six Of Crows (2015). It’s set in the Grishaverse, a sort of fantasy land akin to Tsarist Russia. This is where we meet cartographer Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), our hero and way into the world. She has a ‘best friend’, Mal (Archie Renaux) a soldier, who likes to take his top off. They’re quite obviously in love, but neither can admit it. At least… they can’t until they’re inevitably pulled apart when smouldering General Kirigan, aka The Darkling (Ben Barnes), is thrown into the mix.
Now you may detect a note of cynicism here. That’s because as far as YA fantasy goes, Shadow & Bone does nothing new. It’s a story told through the eyes of a teenage girl who turns out to be special, in that she has ‘a special power’. She has a hunky best friend/someone close to her, like a brother – but it takes her ages to realise she’s into him. There’s an extremely good looking older man who’s quite obviously bad for her, but she just can’t stay away from him. There’s magic and/or powers, exotic locations, palaces and high society, rags to riches stuff, and so on.
Anyway… you get the picture. None of this is new in terms of storytelling. The trick with any good story is the execution – the way you tell it. Which is easy to say but hard to do. In this case, the show’s creators have done so pretty well indeed. The world feels rich and full of history and mythology, but not overwhelming. There were terminology and references that I didn’t get (having never read the books), but I understood the context in terms of story and character, and that’s what matters.
On top of our main character and her love triangle there’s a couple of other subplots: one involving an intrepid gang of robbers called The Crows, with leader Kaz (Freddy Carter), assassin Inej (Amita Suman) and sharpshooter Jesper (Kit Young). Their story lightly brushes the main one and feels a little surplus to requirements at times, although I still found it fun. There’s another subplot that’s almost entirely separate to the main one; a love story between a Heartrender (Danielle Galligan), a witch of sorts, and a witch hunter named Matthias (Calahan Skogman).
My guess is that a lot of these stories happen in different parts of different books, but the show is trying to weave them into the mix from the get-go. It’s a shoot for the moon approach, but I think they pull it off. I found each story strand to be exciting and engaging, and I cared about the characters.
In some ways, the show reminded me of Carnival Row (2019) and The Witcher (2019) – both dropped you into a fully realised magical world half at war with itself. Both asked you to pay attention to the mythology and keep up – and if you did, you’d be rewarded. I like it when fantasy that does that.
So, all in all, this bodes well for Shadow & Bone. The show’s creators have many more books they can mine for story, and they’ve done a lot of the heavy setup in a concise and engaging way. Netflix have yet to renew it for a second season, but given the cultural conversation around season one, it’s only a matter of time.