I’ve talked a lot about Shadow and Bone, but now that the series is finally out, we can finally discuss some of the best and worst moments from the new Netflix series. As a book reader, it was impossible not to compare this series with the book of the Grishaverse by Leigh Bardugo. And of course, like most adaptations, the show did some things better than the book series, but an adaptation is an adaptation. Here’s my list of the best and worst of Shadow and Bone Season One.
Warning: The following article has spoilers for Shadow and Bone Season One, as well as some mild spoilers for the Grisha Trilogy and the Six of Crows Duology.
Best: The Character Glow-Up
By far, the best thing to come from the show has been the casting of the characters. From casting Jessie Mei Li to be the lead as Alina Starkov to Ben Barnes and Archie Renaux as her love interests to the perfect casting of Freddy Carter, Amita Suman, Kit Young, Danielle Galligan, and Calahan Skogman as the Crows (Yes, I count Nina and Matthias even though they’re not officially part of the gang yet), the series has done wonders with these new actors as well as they have with Barnes who is a familiar face to fantasy fans.
Li is fantastic as Alina, able to balance the scenes she plays opposite to her castmates while also flourishing in the quiet scenes she has with herself. She’s able to embody the loneliness that Alina feels when she first enters the Little Palace as well as she is able to harness the wonder and power when she fully grasps her abilities as the Sun Summoner. Renaux is a stand-out as Mal, who is improved so much as a character he might as well be a completely different character in the show. Barnes gives the ominous Darkling a healthy dose of emotional gravitas, reading many of his lines with weight and sometimes even a tear in his eye.
The Ketterdam trio seems to work seamlessly together, with Carter, Suman, and Young trading looks with one another and looking as thick as literal thieves. Given how beloved the Crows are, there’s no doubt that the stars felt pressure from eager (and sometimes overeager) fans. Actors like Young and Galligan were criticized heavily by fans before the show debut for misrepresenting their favorite characters, however, it’s hard to imagine anyone else twirling pistols while clutching a goat as smoothly as Young or someone else flirting with the enemy while swathed in furs as naturally as Galligan. Carter and Suman have immense chemistry that would make the heart of any Kanej shipper proud, as do Galligan and Skogman who are well on their way to the main storyline of Six of Crows which sees Nina in Ketterdam trying to free Matthias from Hellgate.
Worst: Only 8 Episodes of Shadow and Bone
The series could definitely have benefitted from ten episodes. With so much world to build, it needs some slower scenes to pin down the importance of some of the scenes. Who were the Fjerdans? What does it mean to be Shu? Where is Ketterdam exactly? Those are all questions I’ve gotten from non-book reading viewers who felt unmoored by being tossed into the world of Shadow and Bone without much of a preamble. Some more time would have given the story room to breathe for its fans who are coming into the show without any previous knowledge.
Giving time to explore the geopolitical landscape of the world, and also looking into the East vs West Ravka conflict would have done wonders for the storyline. It would also have given time for more character moments, including scenes like Alina realizing that by burning the maps, she essentially doomed her entire map-making crew to their deaths, or Inej grappling with the fact that she has officially made her first kill. Although I loved the momentum of the episodes, it can be very jarring for someone jumping in without seven books worth of knowledge locked down.
Best: Production Value
The production value for this series is amazing. From the set designs to the costuming to the scoring, everything is meticulously detailed. I went into specifics in my review of the series, but the kefta were beautiful and looked like pieces of art. The design of the Crow Club and Ketterdam stood out from the design of Ravkan cities or the palaces of Os Alta. It’s clear a lot of money went into the creation of this world and it benefits from it. The score, by Joseph Trapanese, adds the final flourish as it sets the tone for each of the scenes. I particularly enjoyed the themes with the Crows. You can listen to Trapanese’s soundtrack on Spotify.
In many ways, the way the bone amplifiers were styled fit the tone of the story. It’s grotesque and horrific. In the series, bone amplifiers are basically like jewelry that you can never take off. Zoya’s amplifier is a bracelet, Alina’s antlers are a necklace. But, the way in which Grisha must meld bone amplifiers to their own bodies in the Netflix series reminds you of the gruesome nature of an amplifier. There’s a lot of talk in the books about amplifiers. Bardugo wrote a whole short story called The Demon in the Wood that addressed how Grisha view human amplifiers like The Darkling and his mother.
What’s bad about the bone amplifiers is how much of this seems to have been left out. We don’t learn about how Zoya got her amplifier, we don’t learn much about The Darkling’s amplifier abilities and how that affects him. For such a pivotal moment in the climax of the story, amplifiers as a whole aren’t explored as much as they should have been. The way that they take on a more pivotal role in Siege and Storm and also Ruin and Rising means that now is the time to lay the groundwork.
Best: Special Effects and Action
Aside from the production value of the practical effects and the sets, there are also the special effects, which deserve their own praise. From Alina’s Sun Summoner effects to The Darkling’s Cut to the Shadow Fold, the VFX strengthen the effect of the magic which was crucial in telling a story so centered around the summoning of these two characters. For many of the other Grisha practical effects could do the job, but when it comes to The Darkling bringing up the Cut or Alina lighting up the fold with sunlight, special effects are vital. The volcra and the nichevo’ya (shadow creature that crawled out of The Fold with The Darkling) are menacing and don’t look overly done, which make them worthy opponents when our heroes must cross through The Fold.
Worst: Lack of Wylan
We are Wylan fans here. The fact that there was a small scene written with Wylan where Kaz went to visit him about making him something in case he had to face The Darkling, and we didn’t get it, devastates me. It’s sad to think that show fans who haven’t read the books won’t know about Wylan and his flute and his love for explosives. Jesper does mention a demo man early on in the series, but that’s about as much as we get into a potential Wylan shout-out. (That and the DeKappel painting in Kaz’s office.) Season Two, Eric Heisserer, Season Two.
Best: The Crows Integration Into Shadow and Bone
But, despite the lack of Wylan, the inclusion of the rest of the Crows was a welcome addition to the story of Shadow and Bone. A lot of the talk before the series premiered revolved around concerns about how the Crows would be integrated with the series, and Heisserer and the writing team found a seamless way of bringing in the storylines. Of course, some of the criticism has come up about Nina and Matthias’ story, which can feel like it comes out of nowhere when all the characters are so centralized in Ravka, but I think it’s vital for the future of the show. Introducing Fjerda early with a point-of-view character like Matthias is vital in understanding Fjerda, a country that plays a major role in the entirety of the Grishaverse. Again, if more time was spent on explaining and developing the Druskelle, this story might not have seemed so out of place.
To add another thing about spending more time on worldbuilding, the series would have benefitted massively from exploring Shu Han if they intended on bringing in half-Shu Alina. There’s been a lot of criticism for the racism Alina faces in the series, with many people saying the slurs that she is called are unnecessary and are heavy-handed. But the problem lies in the fact that we don’t know anything about Shu Han other than the fact that it’s a neighboring country that is warring with Ravka. At least we meet another Fjerdan in Matthias. The only other Shu character is Botkin who is played by Hon Ping Tang, who acts as the combat instructor at the Little Palace.
In the books, Botkin was once a mercenary who fought in multiple wars and a fearsome warrior. He trains Alina when she arrives at the Little Palace and we get scenes between the two of them where he teaches her to fight. Botkin is also known for favoring other Shu and notably gifted Alina a Grisha Steel knife. And when she thanked him he replied, “Not ‘thank you,’” he said. he tapped the ugly scar at his throat. “Steel is earned.” So why didn’t we get a scene between Alina and Botkin, one where he is training her and gifting her a Grisha steel dagger?
The racism Alina faces is very real and not something that is out of the normal for people of color, but you can’t show the racism without talking about the race. I could have done with fewer meadow flashback scenes and maybe with more scenes between Alina and Botkin where she finds a mentor who doesn’t hit her with a stick or manipulate her, and instead is fair and offers her a bit of solace when it comes to feeling out of place.
Best: Original Story Content
On top of integrating Six of Crows characters into the story, Shadow and Bone also introduced some original plots into the mix. The main one being the introduction of the idea of West Ravka wanting to secede from East Ravka due to the burden of The Fold and East Ravka’s wars. It’s a pity that this wasn’t explored more and we didn’t get to know more about General Zlatan (Tom Weston-Jones) because it really was an intriguing conflict within the country.
On top of that, we were introduced to the idea that Inej has a brother who was kidnapped along with her and sold into slavery. With the unlikelihood that they’ll introduce the main Six of Crows’ storyline into the next season with the main Grisha trilogy conflict still ongoing, perhaps we will see the casting of Inej’s brother and a new original character folded into the mix? This offers the Crows a way to expand beyond Alina and her storyline, which becomes far more insular as the stories progress.
And, of course, it was amazing getting to see the creation of The Fold and a glimpse into The Darkling’s past. We watched as he attempted to lead a Grisha rebellion with the help of his lover Luda (Lucy Griffiths) only to see her get killed in front of him. Like I mentioned above, it would be great to see glimpses of The Darkling’s past since it only serves to remind audiences about the struggles that Grisha face. It would be amazing to see a The Demon in the Wood flashback to counterbalance the newly scarred Darkling we get in the finale.
Worst: The Final Battle
Speaking of that finale, this is a small point, but what is with that fistfight between Mal and The Darkling? One guy is nursing a healing leg and maybe fifteen other injuries and the other guy is an immortal demi-god. How is any fight between the two of them equal? It’s a small quibble but it was hard to believe this ancient being who has been fighting wars for hundreds of years was coming up against a twenty-something. It might have added tension, but that scene made absolutely no sense.
Best: Milo The Goat
The unexpected hero of the season was Milo the goat. Picked up in West Ravka by Kaz, Milo became an emotional support animal and friend to Jesper in his darkest hour and even managed to break Mal out of his shackles. If we can’t agree on any of the points I made above, maybe we can at least agree that this is Milo’s world and we’re all just living in it?
Shadow and Bone is now streaming on Netflix!
(Give us some Milo bloopers!)