The first post about fantasy entertainment on my blog might make it look like I never enjoy anything, but that isn’t true! Recently, the Netflix adaptation of Shadow and Bone blew me away, and not in the hyperbolic sense (no show/movie/book is perfect, even to the creators), but in the sense that I didn’t know Netflix could do decent fantasy. After the massive disappointment that was The Witcher, and the confusing garble of teenage emotions that was Fate: The Winx Saga, it was nice to sit down and watch a compelling, beautiful, tightly woven show set in an interesting secondary world.
So yeah. I loved Shadow and Bone.
- Diverse casting. Frankly, there was no good reason not to do this. The books were pretty homogenous, I think in some ways because Ravka is based loosely on Russia, but in other ways (speculation incoming) because Leigh Bardugo was a debuting author who probably wasn’t fully cognizant of all of her worldbuilding choices. I’ve been there, and I think it happens to every fantasy writer. In a visual medium, though, representation matters. And—not that this would be a problem either, if you ask me—it isn’t just representation for the sake of it: Russia historically was/still is an insanely diverse country. So Alina having Shu blood absolutely makes sense in this context, and it’s a solid choice for worldbuilding the Grishaverse as a whole. It also reminds me of a quote attributed to Malisha Dewalt in The Dark Fantastic: “The only thing that can fight a pervasive cultural assumption that was purposely created is to in turn purposely create an accessible, shareable, citable, visual counternarrative that can inspire people’s imaginations via history in the same way that it has for Whiteness.” To make progress, we have to rewrite the assumption that white is what people should expect to see (and read), and the casting choices made in Shadow and Bone work toward that.
- Alina isn’t such an asshole. (I’m looking at you, Bloom the fire fairy.) One of the reasons I only read the first book of the trilogy and did not continue with the rest of the series was because of how Alina internally thought about other women. In the show, it’s nice to see her interacting with minor side characters as if they’re truly her friends, because that whole “women competing against women” narrative is super played out. Having Zoya be a weird racist created the divide that needed to exist between those two, but the other girls who were always happy to see Alina and seemed to genuinely care about her didn’t deserve the Alina from the first book. I think this was a great adjustment.
- Ben Barnes is the Darkling. Um, yeah. Enough said. (Okay, not totally enough. He really nails the facial expressions necessary to pull off this role. It’s extraordinary.)
- The Shadow Fold / Unsea looks so cool. Petition for it to be called “The Unsea” WAY more often.
- The acting and production values are on point. Just the exchange of angst and facial expressions between Alina and Mal is impressively engaging, but on top of that, the costumes, cinematography, everything—it’s so good! At times, my immersion with The Witcher was broken by just how cheap everything looked (Nilfgaardian scrotal armor, please die a true death), but that never happened with Shadow and Bone. One thing I will say: that type of shot in every Netflix show now, forever and always, where the edges of the frame are all out of focus to make things seem spooky? I’m sick of it. For the love of gods, make it stop.
- It’s a great example of good Young Adult. Now, I’ll admit that I don’t have nearly as much bias against YA as some people seem to. I think what teenagers go through to find themselves, fall in love, and kick ass is pretty universal, and I’ll fight anyone who disparages the quality of YA. There are some incredible YA authors and stories. That being said, I have seen some stuff that gives the rest of the genre a bad name. But the story in Shadow and Bone never feels sidelined by melodrama, and the characters act in ways you would expect them to in context. Overall, the writing and dialogue work really well, minus several moments between Nina and Matthias. That arc definitely floundered in quality compared to the others.
- The pacing is perfect for Netflix consumption. I watched the whole thing in two days. And honestly, the show did not overstay its welcome in my brain. I was never tired of it or looking for the end, and these days, I can’t say that about many things.
Shadow and Bone is great, and if you haven’t watched it already, you should.
Everyone who worked on this show should be really proud! And I’m so excited about the doors this might open for more great fantasy books and series. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Did I miss anything in my list of things to love? Or perhaps you have other thoughts? Leave a comment below!