“One day, you will be old enough to start reading fairytales again.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia
What if darkness was a place? This was the initial question Leigh Bardugo asked herself that inspired her bestseller book trilogy. The first book Shadow and Bone has been adapted into a Netflix Series by the same name. It premiered on April 23rd and right after its opening it has dominated the Top 10 list for 12 consecutive days. I know I’m late to the game but this won’t stop me from writing about the show. More people watching and tweeting means more chances there’s a second season.
The show’s premise looks simple. Alina Starkov lives in an imaginary country called Ravka, which is constantly at war. She is a cartographer in the army, and on a mission, she discovers that she has a very rare special power. With this power she can save the world but there are people who don’t want her to do that. The show invites you to an adventure, one that will provide you with great characters, effects, music, images and most importantly a great story. Let’s dive in and I should warn you, there may be some minor spoilers, so if you’re annoyed with spoilers, watch the show before you read.
Adults Can Enjoy Young Adult Literature Too
As you know when we refer to “young adult” we talk about ages between 12 to 18. I was already 17 when the first Harry Potter book (Philosopher’s Stone) came out so I was already a bit old for them. In 2007 when the last one came out, I was 27 years old but I enjoyed it nevertheless. I haven’t re-read the books but the Harry Potter movies are always my safe place. When I was watching Shadow and Bone and later started reading the book, I wondered, what is it that draws adults to YA literature? My online research about people’s reactions to the series is proof that I’m not the only adult who happens to love YA literature or series adapted from YA.
I think one of the main reasons adults love YA as much as teenagers is because there’s good storytelling in them. I guess that’s also why movie producers and streaming services want to adapt them to the screens. Series like Shadow and Bone are not just being made into movies to please the readers, they have interesting stories that attract all moviegoers.
We as adults do feel a certain hunger for good stories. I know there is a lot of content for us out there. But how come YA is easier to consume? Why do we as adults find those stories with wizards or magicians and filled with fantasy so close to us? Although I must say not all YA is fantasy for instance, shows like Anne With An E are proof that YA stories can be successful even when they are not fantasy.
I think what it boils down to is, we too are all still growing and most of YA stories are coming of age stories. They show us one or more characters’ growth over a period of time and as adults we haven’t really completed our growth. We love watching a protagonist’s adventure on becoming who she/he is supposed to be. It’s easier for us to relate to protagonists in YA because we have all been there, trying to decide who we want to be.
I have never been prejudiced against YA but if you have been, try giving it a chance. You might find something you really like. If Shadow and Bone is too magical for you, try starting with something like Anne With An E which is one of my mom’s favorites too. Then move on slowly to the magical world of Shadow and Bones. Oh, “what is the world of Shadow and Bones like?” you ask, let me tell you.
Shadow and Bone Presents A Brand New World
Leigh Bardugo was inspired by imperial Russia when she was creating the country called Ravka. Just like Tolkien’s middle earth, this is a completely fictional country but it’s so well thought out. Ravka has been divided into two parts accidentally by the Black Heretic centuries ago. The east and west parts of Ravka are separated by the Shadow Fold which is a dark misty place full of monsters that attack and kill whoever enters the fold.
Ravka is at war with its north and south neighbors. The reason is that some of Ravka’s inhabitants are Grisha who have special powers. On the north the Fjerdans see the Grisha as witches and they hunt and kill them. On the south Su-Han catch the Grisha and torture and experiement on them. That is why Ravka has to travel all around them to pass the fold which takes months or they have to go directly through it which is very risky because of the volcra, the monsters that live inside the fold.
As all countries who are constantly at war, Ravka has an army. Actually it has two armies. The First Army is called Otkazat’sya which is non Grisha folk. Interesting to note Otkazat’sya also means orphan in Ravkan, which most of the First Army Soldiers are. These are regular soldiers without powers. The Second Army consists of the Grisha who use the small science to manipulate matter. Ravka depends on them to survive. They have 3 different orders; Etherialki, that summons the elements (like fire, air, darkness and light), Materialki that manipulates physical materials to make things/objects, and Corporalki which can manipulate the human body (to heal or to attack).
What’s It All About?
I loved the simplicity of the story. The world building and the amount of characters that are introduced are complicating enough. The story itself isn’t. An important thing to note is, the Netflix series Shadow and Bone isn’t based solely on the first book of the trilogy. It also includes characters from the first book of her duology Six of Crows. I found this to be really refreshing. The writer of the teleplay, Eric Heisserer has done a brilliant job and I think having Leigh Bardugo as one of the executive producers really helped.
The story starts with Alina Starkov, as she reunites with her best friend Mal Oretsev. When Mal who is a talented tracker in the First Army gets assigned on a mission beyond the fold, Alina makes sure she’s on that ship too. Something happens in the fold and it is discovered that Alina is a sun summoner, which was believed to be a mythological story only religious people believe in.
Alina and Mal are separated from each other and Alina gets taken to the Little Palace to get her training with other Grisha. The Second Army’s leader is General Kirigan who takes a great interest in Alina and tells her that together they will change the world. He tells Alina, he hopes to demolish the fold with her powers so that their people will be free.
While Alina is getting her training and getting acquainted with General Kirigan and Mal is trying to reach her, we also get to know the Crows, a gang of three who are planning a heist and intend on kidnapping Alina for money. The Crows are Kaz, Inej and Jesper, all three very charismatic and cool characters.
At some point they do find Alina but the kidnapping doesn’t go as planned. The Crows are situated in Ketterdam on West Ravka and they have to cross the fold to find Alina. They are called the Crows in the books because Kaz owns a club called The Crow Club. Jesper is an incredible shooter and Inej is described as the wraith and a master of knives.
While all of this is happening we also meet Matthias, a Fjerdan and Nina, a Grisha spy who works for the Second Army. Nina gets caught by Fjerdans and they also have an interesting storyline and at some point in the story their way intersect with the Crows since these two characters are also from book The Six of Crows.
Some Important Themes
Accepting Who We Are Is Not Easy
I think that introducing characters from another book into the story is a brilliant thing. It gives the story another layer and a faster pacing. Since it’s a YA book it sometimes gets a bit boring with Alina’s internal struggles. The book is told in first person and as an adult I sometimes have a hard time relating to an 18 year old girl, but the show has none of that and gives us the possibility of seeing the story from different POVs.
Fans of the books have commended the script saying that it allowed them to understand some characters better, especially Alina’s best friend Mal. Whereas in the book up to a point Alina’s feelings for Mal feel platonic, and he comes off as a jealous and insensitive jerk, in the series, we can relate to his feelings. Alina struggles a lot with having these newfound powers. She has tried to fit in her whole life since she’s half Shu, she was an outsider all her life. When she goes to the Little Palace for training, she feels unsafe and judged and also like an imposter because she can’t yet summon light as she wills.
General Kirigan, or with his most used name, the Darkling makes her feel like she belongs with the Grisha which is new for her and also fascinating. As for her gift, she finds out that first she has to let go of her fear of being abandoned by Mal and truly embrace who she is. As Bhagra tells her, wanting someone is weakness, only when she accepts that Mal is not coming for her, she is able to summon light at her will. This is a good message for young people, to be independent and to stay away from co-dependent relationships to reach their true potential.
Being Different Is Cool
The show’s message about embracing our gifts reminded me a bit of X Men. Until Professor X unites mutants and shows them they’re not freaks, they feel lost with their powers.
In Shadow and Bone, apart from the Grisha I loved how each character’s gift came in handy in some situation that helped them bond with someone. Matthias and Nina saved each other’s lives in the cold sea and snowy land. Inej saved Kaz’s life even going against her non kill policy. Jesper saved all of them while they were passing the fold. Mal risked his life many times to save Alina and used his tracking abilities to find her and the stag. The Darkling used his gift as a curse and caused nothing but harm, but he did save Alina’s life once.
This made me think, we all do have gifts, maybe not as mind blowing as summoning light or throwing knives but we all have something that we’re good at. It’s time we appreciate ourselves for them and use them for greater good. We also all have amplifiers (like the stag in the show), that increase our powers/gifts and I liked the symbolism with the stag. I also thought that whole human amplifier thing and I suspect that Mal is an amplifier too, go back and rewatch and you’ll see. In real life the biggest amplifier is our loved ones and the motivation we get from doing good.
We Can Co-Exist
Shadow and Bone doesn’t shy away from showcasing the race issue in Ravka as well as the prejudice Shu-Han, Fejerda and Ravka have against each other. The show has been applauded for its multi-racial casting as well but isn’t that a given? We need to normalize this. The race issue is all in our heads and as writers write more parts from different ethnic backgrounds, more actors from different ethnicities will get leading parts.
The show’s message on co-existence is subtle and hopefully we will see these characters re-unite and interact with each other more in the next season (not yet confirmed but hopefully there will be). The Crows, Zoya, Alina and Mal completed the journey together looking out for each other even though their initial goals were actually conflicting. When we do help each other out that’s actually how we survive. Thinking we can survive by ignoring other people’s misery only makes us selfish and lonely.
What Is True Love?
Let’s be honest, the show’s couples are getting a lot of attention. But most of the attention is focused on who Alina should choose between Mal and the Darkling (General Kirigan). I think the people who read the books mostly wanted Alina to be with the Darkling because he’s a complicated, attractive and also a passionate man. On the other hand Mal is Alina’s childhood friend, they grew up together in an orphanage.
In the series Ben Barnes plays the Darkling and he does a great job of giving depth to an evil character. Archie Renaux who plays Mal, is also great, giving a layered performance of a persistent young man who doesn’t give up even when he faces death multiple times. Jessi Mei Li as the protagonist Alina, is fantastic. She makes it seem effortless, looking vulnerable and powerful in just a matter of minutes.
Alina’s is a hard choice. At the beginning of the story she clearly has only eyes for Mal but after she goes to the Little Palace and doesn’t hear from Mal (we learn afterwards why), she starts seeing the Darkling in a different way. He makes her feel important, lets her know she’s not alone. She really bonds with the Darkling since they share similar gifts. As the Darkling tells Mal, he’s only mortal and even though he disappoints Alina, he’s got the time to wait until her anger cools down. Whereas Mal doesn’t have that advantage. He and Alina will always be different.
I did like the fact that when Alina felt that she had to explain her relationship with the Darkling to Mal, he said she owed him no explanation. Mal and Alina share a past and they know each other better than anyone. They also both are willing to sacrifice their lives for each other. The Darkling symbolizes something Alina would want to have, status and power. But that means he would also crush her, if she tries to stand between him and his plans. Who would you choose?
Need I say more? I loved Shadow and Bone and I’m eagerly waiting for a second season and even more seasons because Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books have enough material. I’m currently reading Shadow and Bone, the first book in the trilogy and after that I will move to the Six of Crows duology.
I think the show’s plot, world setting and characters were incredible. The Tsarist Russia influence was very interesting to observe, the politics, the decor and costumes and even character names. The idea of merging two unrelated books into one story and having them react to one another was brilliant. This is the kind of show you can enjoy with your teenage kids especially but it’s great for adults too and it provides the ultimate escapism we all need in these pandemic days.
I’m not sure how Alina and the Darkling will change their world, but shows like Shadow and Bone reach millions of people, so they do change the world a little too. It’s nice to see people everywhere (especially young people) watching this show and reading these books and relating to these characters and thinking, “well, I’m not alone, there are other people out there, who feel awkward and lonely just like me and it does get better”.
Dear reader, thanks for reading this far. This is my first foreign series review, normally I review Turkish TV or Netflix series. What do you think? Have I done a good job? Did you see Shadow and Bone? Are you team Darklina or Malina? Do you enjoy YA books and shows like me sometimes? Find me on Twitter at @edsavaseri and let me know. I love reading your comments. I hope you are safe and healthy wherever in the world right now. I’m sending you good vibes from a warm Istanbul afternoon.