(SHADOW AND BONE streams on Netflix Nordic starting April 23. Full series viewed for review.)
This looks familiar
In the vacuum of GAME OF THRONES, nearly every single streaming platform has tried to find its own Westeros to lure audiences into the platform. So far, none have succeeded — not even HBO, even though their HIS DARK MATERIALS series is by far the best of the lot. Netflix already has two attempts, one hugely successful, the other not at all. SHADOW AND BONE, based on the young adult series of books by Leigh Bardugo, fits squarely in the middle. It has elements and moments of greatness reminiscent of THRONES. But it also slouches far too often and relies heavily on dire tropes whose appeal depends entirely on your age.
Set in a thinly veiled fantasy world that looks and feels like the Eastern Europe of Tsarist Russia, SHADOW AND BONE hits all the major fantasy tropes right off the bat. There’s an impassable barrier splitting the world in two, one which nobody can pass through (except those that do), and the north and south borders are fierce warzones comprised of easily recognizable Nordic stand-ins.
The characters of the main story are highly recognizable, almost to the point of self-parody. Alina is a young, gifted, beautiful cartographer. Mal is her handsome, athletic, and dreamy best friend since childhood. They’re inseparable and in love, though that’s never been a topic of conversation despite their constant simpering and googly-eyes. There’s also a tall, dark, and handsome sorcerer, who might as well carry a sign about his intentions.
Hitting all the classics
On a routine mission through the impassable barrier (called The Fold), Alina and Mal are attacked by the creatures living within. Unexpectedly, Alina summons the powers of the sun, chasing away the beasts. In this world, certain people can harness different elements through magical abilities. These range from controlling wind, fire, water, and earth to healing bodies or building through telekinesis. Only the ability to control the sun has not been seen in thousands of years.
Depending on your age, you’ll see where all this is going from the first half-hour onwards. Granted, that isn’t inherently bad, but it’s certainly not great either. The series quickly devolves to a round of hacky-sack as Alina is hurried back and forth between different powers, each vying for her gift to control The Fold. It’s not exciting nor very interesting and feels like a waste of the wonderful universe around them.
None of this is the fault of Jessie Mei Li and Archie Renaux, who do their best in bringing their nothing parts to life. Li, in particular, works her charm effortlessly for much of the series and is way better than what she’s given. The same goes for Ben Barnes, playing General Kirigan. He has the capacity for far more interesting roles yet seems relegated to the brooding-dark-handsome-man role from year to year.
Two shows enter, one show leaves
Luckily, and quite happily, there’s an entirely different storyline running parallel to Alina’s. Across The Fold, in fantasy Amsterdam (it’s even named Ketterdam), a group of lowly thieves tries to make their fortune in a dangerous world. This storyline, driven by winning performances from Freddy Carter (Kaz) and Amita Suman (Inej), is so much more interesting than anything in the main plot. Where Alina and Mal are dull surrogates for the audience, Kaz and Inej shine as morally ambiguous, complicated, and above all fun. Their race against time is consistently engaging, and it’s wild to see how quickly it overrides the main plot.
I think the showrunners even know this; as the further the series progresses, it tries hard to find things for Alina and Mal to do while constantly side-lining their counterparts across the world. The teen romance is an easier sell, but it’s also one we’ve seen done before — and better.
But where SHADOW AND BONE shines is the gorgeous art and set design, terrific cinematography, and well-thought-out world-building. There’s a constant sense of place and motion, only broken up by a trite visit to Not-Hogwarts midway through the season. Everything in Ketterdam, on the other hand, is faultless.
I haven’t read the books the series adapts, but from what I gather, the first season combines the first book of the main trilogy (Alina’s story) with a spin-off (Kaz’s story) into one. For a novice viewer, this is both a blessing and a curse. It’s great because it allows for deeper immersion into this thoroughly intriguing world but also gives way too much information at once. Before you’ve finished devouring the first batch of exposition, it dumps you into the deep end with another.
It’s probably why Alina’s story also stands out so badly. She’s the archetype of a YA hero, right down to the “unremarkable orphan” storyline. She’s also two steps away from the “beautiful all along” trope, which remains utterly stupid no matter how you spin it. There’s a fascinating subplot regarding her heritage, which inspires great dialog about how a messiah should look and the expectation of legacy. But, ultimately, it barely affects the big picture. Instead, they feel like placeholders for a secondary plot in the coming seasons, nothing which will leave an impression for new viewers.
For a specific audience
SHADOW AND BONE isn’t terrible by any means. It’s perfectly serviceable for its short first season, and should a second one materialize; I’ll watch it happily. But it plays things so remarkably safe that all the edges feel filed off. There’s a far better show buried within, one involving intrigue, complicated morality, and the kind of material that a true successor to GAME OF THRONES should have.
So right now, it’s just fine. It will undoubtedly please the target audience, to which I do not belong. With that caveat, you might enjoy it more than fine. But one can dream that in the future, we can have an adaptation that isn’t afraid to break from free the shackles of YA stereotypes.