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Will Netflix's Shadow and Bone be your next binge watch?
Streaming giant Netflix has a pretty solid track record with its exclusive shows. Whether it’s lush period dramas like Bridgerton, The Crown, and Queen’s Gambit, or character-driven genre fare like The Umbrella Academy, Sense8, and The OA, or high fantasy like The Witcher, Cursed, and The Letter for the King — Netflix is a proven heavy hitter.
In the new big-budget fantasy series Shadow and Bone, Netflix adds one more title to its growing stable. Based on YA novels by Leigh Bardugo, the series is set to turn heads later this month, with its blend of world-building, romance, and action.
We had a look at season one of Shadow and Bone ahead of its premiere. Is it worth checking out? Below, you’ll find a breakdown of what to expect and when and where to tune in.
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What is Shadow and Bone about?
In a fictional world not entirely unlike our own, society is broken up into classes of people who wield magic (the Grisha) and those who don’t.
The Grisha serve the king of Ravka under a mysterious “shadow summoner” who rules them as an elite army. In a battalion of mortal soldiers, a young cartographer, Alina, realizes she’s a rare type of Grisha spoken of only in myth. She is a sun summoner, able to harness the light and power of the sun. She may hold the key to destroying the Fold, or the Unsea, a wide expanse of shadow, full of violent wraiths, created generations ago by a previous shadow summoner working for the king.
As Alina grows accustomed to the Grisha lifestyle, learning to control her magical gifts, she also begins to question the shadow summoner’s motives and seeks to be reunited with her childhood best friend, Mal, who makes his way back to her as political forces get murkier and murkier.
Meanwhile, criminals across the Fold have gotten wind of the Sun Summoner and want a piece of the action. A team of thieves wins the contract to go after Alina, complicating her life even further as they make their way to Ravka to stir up trouble. But they may be her only way out, as friends and foes become harder to identify.
When and where can I watch it?
Shadow and Bone will launch on April 23, 2021 as a Netflix exclusive. As a Netflix-produced series, it will be available on the streaming platform all around the world.
The entire first season, which comprises eight one-hour-long episodes, will drop at once. No word yet on a second season, but this is likely to be a big release for Netflix.
Shadow and Bone was developed by Eric Heisserer, who also serves as showrunner, executive producer, and writer. Heisserer wrote the Denis Villeneuve-directed sci-fi drama Arrival, which earned him an Oscar nomination. He also wrote the 2018 Netflix original horror film Bird Box.
Directing is executive producer Lee Toland Krieger, who also directed Netflix’s Riverdale-adjacent Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Other directional credits for Shadow and Bone belong to Dan Liu, Mairzee Almas, and Jeremy Webb.
In front of the camera are stars Jessie Mei Li, Archie Renaux, Freddy Carter, Amita Suman, Kit Young, and Ben Barnes.
Joining them onscreen are Sujaya Dasgupta, Danielle Galligan, Daisy Head, Simon Sears, Calahan Skogman, Zoë Wanamaker, Kevin Eldon, Julian Kostov, Luke Pasqualino, Jasmine Blackborow, and Gabrielle Brooks.
Author Leigh Bardugo, whose novels the series is based on, also serves as executive producer.
Which book is Shadow and Bone based on?
While Shadow and Bone is technically an adaptation of Bardugo’s novel Shadow and Bone, some of the series may come as a surprise to readers.
Shadow and Bone (the book) was Bardugo’s debut novel and is the first part of her Grisha trilogy. The trilogy is in turn part of Bardugo’s wider “Grishaverse.”
Here’s where things get interesting. Her later novels Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom are part of the Grishaverse, but they take place in a different fictional country (loosely based on Amsterdam) and are set a generation later. Nevertheless, that duology also finds representation in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, marking a major departure from the two-book series.
In the Netflix show, the characters from Six of Crows, a ragtag team of thieves, are now looking for a way to cross the Fold to find Alina. It’s a plot point that fits with the novels — where Alina is wanted by other countries and the thieves are part of the underworld that might seek her out — but it also shakes things up and makes the show a bit more complicated, with new factions to get invested in on all sides.
Do I need to read the books first?
Shadow and Bone works on its own as a series. You can certainly go in fresh and get something out of it. Reading the books will certainly give you more of an appreciation for the storyline and its changes from the book, though. I’m always excited to see shows and movies take liberties with their source material. And Shadow and Bone does an impressive job of juggling these two storylines.
The characters make sense together. Their conflicts fit into a common world. And their personalities blend and clash in interesting ways.
It may irritate some fans of the books looking for a faithful adaptation, certainly. But Shadow and Bone joins a rich tradition of projects that seek to creatively engage with their source material rather than just transpose it onto the screen. Some things work better on the page, and others can only be properly expressed visually. It takes skill to recognize the difference.
More shows and movies could stand to take liberties with their source material like Shadow and Bone.
David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is one famous example of this kind of creative exchange with a novel. The Canadian cult director both told the story of the novel and dramatized its very writing by William Burroughs. Annihilation, which became a Netflix original in international markets, is a more recent example, in which the hit novel’s enigmatic tone was recreated while major plot points and characters were fundamentally changed for the screen.
I don’t believe any book is “unadaptable,” but some do make it hard. Certain kinds of narration and characterization resist a neat translation to the screen. Filmmakers might choose to engage with source material as more of a dialogue to tell the best story possible. While Shadow and Bone can feel a bit overfull at times, it’s stronger for expanding its scope to include several complementary storylines.
Another fun thing about this approach is that everyone goes in on semi-equal footing. Do you have a friend who read Shadow and Bone? They’ll be just as surprised by some of what happens in the show as you are. At least if you’re going in fresh.
Is Shadow and Bone good?
Books aside, the show is a lot of fun. It has a hard edge without straying too far from YA territory. It’s not hitting Game of Thrones levels of dark and gruesome, but it’s not pulling its punches.
Jessie Mei Li and Archie Renaux play the main teens as tragic, star-crossed lovers in a believable and compelling way. You get invested in their struggles immediately, and Ben Barnes is perfectly cast as the handsome, mysterious, and brooding shadow summoner. Meanwhile, the thieves from across the Fold are a charming found family of ruffians. There’s no way everyone’s needs are aligned, and it’s hard to look away as their paths cross and clash.
Shadow and Bone also pulls off its aesthetic beautifully. The costumes evoke Imperial Russia, and the digital effects animating the Fold are absolutely gorgeous. The sublime power of the Unsea comes across as soon as you see it. It sets the stakes right out the gate.
It’s not perfect, and at times it feels like one or two subplots could have been dropped to keep things moving a bit more smoothly. But I suspect fans of fantasy will find something to like in this one.
If any of that sounds good to you, don’t sleep on Shadow and Bone. Check it out when it drops April 23 on Netflix.