Like any well-written fantasy, Shadow and Bone operates on an allegory for the real world. Underneath the phenomenal directing, the stunning sets, and the magical special effects, it is a story about prejudice and otherness, about faith, zeal, and overreaching.
The series is an adaptation from the novels by author Leigh Bardugo known as the Grishaverse and a crossover of sorts between the eponymous Shadow and Bone trilogy, about Alina Starkov, an orphan and soldier in the First Army who goes on a classic hero’s journey, and the Six of Crows duology which is about a band of – for lack of a better term – criminals who make heists an art form.
The show did a spectacular job staying true to the nature of the source material while becoming more conscious, more dynamic, and full of surprises for book fans. There aren’t many significant differences in plot, apart from those that stem from the Six of Crows characters being inoculated in the main storyline in a very welcome mix. The Crows add a completely different dimension to the show, contributing to what can effectively only be described as a heist storyline. This creates a highly heterogenous ensemble cast where everyone is driven by a different motive and goal, and the viewers have fun uncovering all those layers to most characters, while some may remain a mystery reserved for future seasons.
“What is infinite? The universe and the greed of men.” The iconic saying that the entire series revolves on doesn’t make it into the show in words, but it still hovers over the story constantly. All the characters are hungry, some even greedy, for something. More power, more money, more love, more acceptance, more freedom, more ambition, more time.
Alina Starkov’s (Jessie Mei Li) storyline perfectly follows that of any chosen one: ordinary girl – what’s more ordinary than a soldier in a land that’s based on Tsarist Russia? – becomes extraordinary in the span of a moment, finding out she’s always possessed a unique power that could save her country. She’s the Sun Summoner, one of the most powerful Grisha who’s ever lived. Alina initially rejects her new status as it takes her away from the only home she’s ever known, her best friend Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux). Through time and with a little encouragement from new acquaintances, Alina gradually comes to accept and embrace her nature.
The show follows a circular structure. Alina starts off as a nobody, a little girl everyone picks on, who strives to be ordinary so as not to draw unwanted attention; she ends the season disguised once more as a nobody, trying to escape her Saint’s notoriety. She doesn’t take her gift lightly and she isn’t leaving her country behind for good. The promise of her return feels as tangible and as sure as the Crows’ next heist.
As a fan of the books, I believe the show really enhanced the story. The new medium allows us to not be limited to the first-person point of view, one that’s tied to the main character’s biased narration with only Alina’s thoughts and feelings to establish the world and the relationships. In fact, the true key is seeing all characters and how they act when they aren’t around Alina. That makes all the difference when it comes to her two love interests (which I know you are all here to read about): halfway through the season, Alina is mad at Mal because she thinks he’s deliberately ignoring her, and the show lets us see Mal is actually on a dangerous quest that will take him to her, while Alina’s many letters to Mal are being intercepted by General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), who sees Alina’s need to be wanted and loved, and uses it to his advantage to manipulate her.
In the book, we are stuck in Alina’s head along with her frustration with Mal and her budding attraction to the Darkling, never seeing what they are really up to. The show uncovers their motives for us. General Kirigan is not romanticized through Alina’s eyes. Ben Barnes did a spectacular job diving into his layers, humanizing him while playing a twisted character. There is no doubt he is a megalomaniac, thirsty for blood and power, who doesn’t care about others as long as he wins. What makes the story so intriguing, though, is that a part of him genuinely craves Alina’s approval and love, mirroring that side of her.
That’s what is so tragic and refreshing about this series: just because opposites attract, doesn’t mean they’re right for each other. Sometimes, one’s opposite is beyond saving and redemption, because the choices they make should be more important than the qualities they’re born with. As Alina points out in the last episode, she and Kirigan could have saved and ruled Ravka together as equals, but he overreached and put a collar around her neck to control her power like a puppet. What people find romantic about this, I will never know.
Through everything, Mal and Alina always strive towards each other, towards home. In the same way that Alina causes the death of her companions when she burns the maps so she can go through the Fold with Mal, Mal’s friends die on the mission to find the Stag so he can go see Alina. How Alina can only let herself be seduced by the Darkling’s charm after she’s apparently moved on from Mal (and how even before she kisses Kirigan, she looks at the scar on her palm) isn’t lost on the audience, either. In the meantime, while they are unable to communicate, we are the repository of the words Alina and Mal want to exchange. Poetically, they both write to each other about true North, a trope that I can never get enough of.
At the end of the day, it matters little that Mal and Alina’s undeniable love wasn’t labeled. There was no need to charge the last few episodes emotionally even more by having them share a hurried kiss in the wilderness. It would’ve stopped the action, slowed the pace down, and for what? They’re each other’s home and true North and have been all their lives, which is worth a lot more than a kiss or two. In any other story, the protagonist might’ve at least tried to push the best friend away, saying the mission was too dangerous, to save their life, but Alina doesn’t, and it’s not out of selfishness. It’s because, for both Mal and Alina, there simply isn’t a scenario in which they’re not together and things can go well.
Alina and Mal have always been outsiders and they are subject to the outward racism that we still have in our world. We see another kind of prejudice in the show too, the loathing of the Other. Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman) and Nina Zenik (Danielle Calligan), a Fjerdan Druskelle and a Ravkan Heartrender, provide us that exposure: the real reason why Ravka is at war with all neighboring countries is that they are scared of their Second Army of Grisha. Fjerda in particular believes Grisha to be abominations, inhuman creatures who go against nature and Djel, witches who should be burned at the stake. That is what drives Kirigan – an urge to make the Grisha safe (and to rule the world, of course) because he remembers a time when they were hunted even within Ravka’s borders. Through Nina and Matthias, we see that this prejudice is born of ignorance, not of inherent evil.
When Nina and Matthias prioritize survival and put aside their differences, their personal beliefs and vendetta, they become better for it. They come to realize that what they both fear and hate is the unknown, because up until that point, they believed the lies they had been fed to perpetuate the war between their countries, a conflict that Fjerda excuses to effectively plan the genocide of all Grisha. When Nina and Matthias, twin souls, soldiers destined to fight for different sides, finally make their own choices, they are finding not only each other, but themselves.
Greed is a lever
The missing piece of the puzzle are the criminals who call themselves the Crows: Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), a rising star of the underworld of Ketterdam, Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), his most trusted spy, and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young), his sharpshooter. They see an opportunity to strike a life-changing deal and they take it. What drives them? Greed, on a superficial level, but so much more. Vengeance, freedom, faith, debt. We mostly hear about Inej’s backstory, but it doesn’t mean the stories of the other Dregs have been erased: Easter eggs are scattered across the episodes. It’s only fair that we come to uncover Kaz’s secrets with time instead of all at once, but just hearing the way he utters Pekka’s name is enough to tell us there is more. I am sure his and Jesper’s backstories will be shown in due time next season.
These events are set before Six of Crows, so it’s wonderful to see the dynamics between the trio gradually shift until they become what they are at the beginning of the books. Kaz and Inej melt hearts with their intensity. Their relationship was one of the things I was worried about in the adaptation because slow-burn doesn’t even cover it, and that’s exactly how it should be; the show captured it flawlessly, without the characters having to explain themselves. Jesper, too, was simply perfect and he stole hearts especially in the scenes with Milo the goat, the true MVP.
The Crows’ plot is all original to the show, so it’s where the showrunner could express his true potential as a creator and storyteller, and I daresay he passed with flying colors. Kaz’s plans are true brain-teasers, but not enough that they’re impossible to follow; the dialogue is witty. It’s clear from the casting of the show that the writers’ room cared deeply about diversity and representation. By adding Poppy, they wrote in the first-ever trans woman of color in a fantasy show, and with Jesper, they added a bisexual and biracial sex scene that somehow didn’t come off as tokenism.
When the future of the world feels like it hangs on Alina’s shoulders, it’s nice to have the Crows balance the stakes. It was entertaining to witness Jesper’s jokes, Inej’s faith, Kaz’s scheming and how the three intersect to create the perfect trio. Even the directorial choices when it came to their story were refreshing. They mixed up the pacing and provided a constant change of scenery, allowing us to see more of the world—and how word of the Sun Summoner is spreading throughout Ravka.
No matter how confident he is, Kaz completes a 180-degree turn by the end. Though a firm non-believer, he recognizes that Alina must go free, and he puts aside his pride when he lets her go and renounces the promise of one million kruge. Perhaps kidnapping a Saint was crossing a line even for Dirtyhands.
That restraint goes to reinforce the overarching message of the show, setting the good guys apart from the villains: overreaching is never good. Excess of greed, of ambition, of power, can only lead to true corruption. Even in a world of magic, there must be a limit to what humans—and Grisha—can do without upsetting the order of things. Alina understands that when she refuses to kill the Stag to take his power for herself.
In the finale, everything comes full circle for our cast, with a delicious role reversal: Mal and Alina are on the skiff again, one hovering over the other on the brink of death; Nina and Matthias are again on a ship where one of them is a prisoner; the Crows looking for a Heartrender for the next con.
It was lovely to see the characters come together at the end and how they quickly forged alliances. Honorable mention to Inej and Zoya Nazyalensky (Sujaya Dasgupta), the duo I didn’t know I needed. The entire cast portrayed their characters spectacularly, and I wish I had words to describe how much I loved Genya Safin (Daisy Head), David Kostyk (Luke Pasqualino), and Fedyor Kaminski (Julian Kostov), as well as the scene-stealing Baghra (Zoe Wanamaker). In addition to the brilliant writing, a note must be reserved for the details of the spectacular sets and the intricate costumes as well as the score and special effects.
Shadow and Bone is a transformative experience for audience and characters alike. In the span of the 8 episodes all characters, perhaps with the exception of the long-lived General Kirigan, have come a long way, and we cannot wait what there’s in store for them.
We can only hope that Netflix announces a season 2 (and 3, while we’re at it) soon so that showrunner Eric Heisserer and his brilliant team can continue adapting this masterpiece. There are a couple of new characters we are dying to see. After all, what is infinite? The universe and the greed of fans.
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