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Netflix’s Shadow and Bone is a muddled, joyless checklist of fantasy tropes

Two critics (and YA fantasy fans) discuss Netflix’s messy, dour Shadow and Bone.

A stag with elaborate antlers in front of trees and an eerie glow.
Shadow and Bone premieres April 23 on Netflix.
Courtesy of Netflix

The new Netflix series Shadow and Bone, which lumbers into the world on April 23, draws instant comparisons to the giant upon whose shoulders it stands. One of the streaming network’s more anticipated recent releases, it’s an adaptation of the Grishaverse, a bestselling young adult fantasy series of novels by Leigh Bardugo based loosely on Tsarist Russia. But inevitably, what most viewers will be reminded of as they watch the eight-episode first season is Game of Thrones.

It’s unsurprising that the end of Game of Thrones left a void in the fantasy landscape that many networks, including Netflix, have been vying to fill. Thanks to a run of successful original series like The Umbrella Academy and The Witcher, Netflix has increasingly embraced fantasy audiences, showing a willingness to back high-budget series adaptations like The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance and its popular update of Nickelodeon’s fairy fantasy Fate: The Winx Saga — which the network recently announced is its most-watched series of 2021 so far.

Out of all of these titles, Shadow and Bone feels the most like a would-be Game of Thrones successor. A typical Chosen One narrative, the story centers on a teenage orphan named Alina, who works as a mapmaker on the front lines for a perpetually war-torn country called Ravka. In the heat of battle, she discovers unexpectedly that she belongs to the Grisha — a group of humans with supernatural powers.

Alina’s long-dormant ability allows her to transmit powerful rays of sunlight, making her a vital and unique weapon. In fact, her emergent power reveals her to be a fabled saint known as the “Sun Summoner,” the only person capable of offering safe passage through the Fold, a pitch-black, monster-filled sea of fog that has split Ravka into two halves. Suddenly, Alina is the key to bringing peace to the nation — so naturally, it puts a giant target on her head.

Superficially, Shadow and Bone offers a lot to satisfy former Game of Thrones fans. It’s high fantasy, set in a totally different fictional world, like Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings. It’s got a large and diverse ensemble cast, spread out over the world’s fictional topography — from barren battlefields to opulent cities modeled after places like Amsterdam, Vladivostok, and Moscow. It’s got high-budget graphics and action sequences. And it’s got plenty of sex, with an array of teens flirting and scheming their way across the realm.

But beyond the superficial, Shadow and Bone fails to deliver any of the charm and emotional engagement of a Game of Thrones (when that show was at its best), or even a Winx Saga (which is objectively terrible, but in an enjoyably ridiculous way). Again and again, Shadow and Bone forces unearned story beats and melodrama. Its character-building is lackluster; its worldbuilding is mostly incoherent, and its script careens from one-liner to one-liner without much substance in between — all while the weak writing torpedos the efforts of its talented cast.

A frenetic, demanding action score accompanies nearly every minute of every episode, as if allowing us a moment’s silence might reveal that most of what’s happening onscreen is actually uneventful. Shadow and Bone’s opulent settings and production design work against it, because the story isn’t rich enough to fill it. And Alina herself is glaringly one-note, with actor Jessie Mei Li delivering constant wide-eyed shock but little else.

It’s not entirely clear how an adaptation of such a beloved book series could have fallen so flat. On the one hand, Bardugo’s original Shadow and Bone trilogy was written in the heyday of hormonal teen fantasy. Throughout the ’00s, Harry Potter had birthed countless urban teen fantasies characterized by complex worldbuilding, from the Percy Jackson series (2005) to the Mortal Instruments series (2007). To that ongoing trend, Twilight (2005) further spawned a generation of fantasies known for heady teen romance — series like Hush (2009) and The Raven Cycle (2012). Then The Hunger Games (2008) gave rise to a trend in fantasies with dark political, dystopian, and sci-fi elements like Cinder (2012) and the Divergent trilogy (2011–2013). All of those trends make their mark on the Grishaverse — particularly its first novel, Shadow and Bone, which sometimes feels like it’s running through a checklist of tropes, including a turbulent political landscape and a transparently loud teen love triangle. But those elements, which might have gripped teens reading that first novel, feel clumsy and obsequious here; they won’t hold everyone’s interests.

On the other hand, showrunner Eric Heisserer has gone out of his way to deepen the Netflix adaptation by incorporating elements from other books in the Grishaverse that gave the world more depth and introduced more interesting characters. Instead of actually giving the first season more complexity and scope, however, these additional elements are mostly logistically and tonally confusing.

In an attempt to figure out what works and what doesn’t about the TV series — and why it deprived us of at least a half-season of kinky evil 500-year-age-gap antler sex — I sat down to chat with my colleague, Vox book critic Constance Grady, who’s not only watched the show, but read the entire Grishaverse and knows what’s up.

Minor spoilers follow for the first season of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone and the source books.

Aja Romano: Constance, I read part of the first book but never made it much further. I thought I had enough grounding to follow the series. But when I watched Shadow and Bone, I had a really hard time following the geopolitical conflicts and orienting myself geographically. I still don’t understand basic plot questions like, “Why was the Fold created to begin with?” Were these stakes clearer to you as you watched?

Constance Grady: Eh … loosely?

I did have enough of an understanding of Bardugo’s worldbuilding to more or less follow what this show was doing — but that also left me distracted by everything Heisserer was changing up, and all the ways those changes were going to hamstring the mythology of future, potentially better installments in this series.

Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone is by far the weakest book in her Grishaverse. It’s very much a first book, and a derivative one as well. (You’re absolutely right, Aja, that this book is following the “YA fantasy in 2012 playbook” to a fault, with The Hunger Games probably serving as its most obvious antecedent.) It is mediocre and formulaic; it’s the work of someone who is still figuring out how to figure out how to write a book.

And then she gets it! If you read the full Grishaverse, you get to watch Bardugo level up with every single book. Each volume in the central trilogy sees the characters grow richer and more complex, the sentences more sparkling, and the plots more elaborate and nail-biting. And by the time Bardugo reaches the Shadow and Bone trilogy’s companion duology, Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, she has become a genuinely accomplished writer.

It is rare to see an author grow so rapidly from book to book, and in some ways watching Bardugo develop as a writer is even more fun than watching Alina develop as the Sun Summoner. There’s good stuff ahead here!

But very little of that future good stuff is visible in Heisserer’s Shadow and Bone, despite Heisserer’s decision to import the cast of Six of Crows into the action of the central trilogy. (If you’re wondering why the smuggling crew and the shipwrecked lovers all felt like they were from completely different stories than the one Alina is in, it’s because they are in fact from completely different stories.) Instead, it seems to have had the opposite effect: Bringing the richer and more complicated characters that Bardugo developed later into this early apprentice work has resulted only in flattening everyone out.

One of the things it felt like Bardugo learned from writing the Shadow and Bone trilogy is that her characters are at their most interesting after they are morally compromised. Alina becomes much more compelling after her spotless hands are muddied and the girl who refused to kill a helpless animal to save the world has become a distant and nostalgic memory. So as I read the final book in the trilogy, I found myself wishing that the whole thing had started halfway through the second installment, Siege and Storm, and that the first had been seeded in as flashbacks.

Everything from there on out was just so much more fun to read! Even the endlessly blah love story between Alina and Mal gets more interesting when it’s about two damaged people yearning to return to a lost childhood purity together, instead of two photogenic teens getting excited about being basically the only two people they have ever met.

So imagine my delight to see that starting in the middle of the story is in fact more or less what Bardugo does with Six of Crows. She learned her lesson with the main trilogy, and she begins the companion duology with her heroes already thoroughly and fascinatingly damaged, offering us glimpses of their innocent pasts only briefly, in nightmares.

But by dragging those damaged characters into Shadow and Bone, Heisserer has effectively made the opposite move. He’s shown us these intriguingly corrupt people in their state of boring innocence, and he’s thrown in so many of them that there’s no room even to establish the character traits that will inevitably corrupt them. And as a result, the whole story just feels crowded and impoverished and incoherent.

All of which means that none of the mythology ever truly makes a lick of sense: there simply isn’t room to explain it all. But here at Vox Dot Com (explain the news), we go into the weeds in even fictional politics, so let’s take a whack at this.

The Fold was created accidentally, centuries in the past. The infamous Black Heretic was trying to save other Grisha from political persecution, so he used dark magic to try to turn the king’s army to his own purposes. However, he could not control his power and instead turned the king’s army into monsters, with the Fold coming into being as a byproduct of his sin.

In Bardugo’s book, we learn all this in passing. But Heisserer gives the Fold’s origin the full flashback episode treatment, while somehow still leaving it all murky and confusing. (Side note: I did not care for Heisserer’s choice to give the Black Heretic a flashback girlfriend and then immediately fridge her.) Call me old-fashioned, but I just think you should not have to read five pretty lengthy books to understand the lore on a Netflix show! I also think the lore on a fantasy show should feel fun and magical, and not like someone dutifully checking off the rules by rote, which is the tone Shadow and Bone has.

And not only is the lore opaque and joyless on the show, it’s also been slightly tweaked from Bardugo’s version. I don’t want to get too spoilery here, but Heisserer has made multiple changes to the mythology, apparently in an attempt to streamline it a bit, and they end up undermining a lot of significant character beats.

The resulting losses might, incidentally, include the kinky evil 500-year-age-gap antler sex you’ve requested, Aja. Bardugo, an obliging author, is ready to go there in Siege and Storm with the help of a little magic, telepathy, and PTSD — but Heisserer’s mythology changes mean that if he chooses to take on the same plotline in a hypothetical season two, he’s going to have to find a different device to get him there. And while I’m sure he could put together a substitute for Bardugo’s magical MacGuffin given the time and the inclination, nothing he did in this season inclines me to think he would do so with any flair or elegance.

Would you be interested in even watching a second season if it came, Aja? Or has this first season killed your interest in the Grishaverse?

Aja: Ah, Constance, I think that all depends on whether it can find its way into a more playful, more buoyant storyline — and frankly one that’s less annoyingly transparent about its romantic entanglements. The romance in Shadow and Bone is rampant and omnipresent, but it’s just as poorly handled as all the other plot elements.

It’s also bafflingly, rampantly heterosexual. There’s a throwaway line from one minor character about another minor character that establishes, out of nowhere, that queer women exist in this universe — but that’s it! Even though half the characters are involved in sex work and/or are being sex-trafficked (a murky theme the show leaves in the background) Netflix’s Shadow and Bone is notably repressive, in contrast to the books. Most of the main characters practice chastity or nobly resist temptation, in between flowery love declarations and wholesome flirting. The only character allowed to be joyfully sexual is the show’s only queer character so far, Jesper (Kit Young) — but he only gets to have sex when it’s part of a manipulative strategy, with a boy he never sees again.

Do you know if we get to meet that stablehand again? Jesper and his troupe of plucky smugglers may be the closest thing I get to a queer polycule, so I might tune back in if you can promise more of them. Which leads me to ask: Knowing what you know about the overall direction of the books and the character growth ahead, what, if anything, do you want more of from future seasons, should Netflix make more?

Constance: The stablehand is a mystery to me. He is a Netflix original character, and while Bardugo did give Jesper a central love interest, that character didn’t appear on the Netflix series at all. Presumably, that’s because Heisserer was treating this plotline as a prequel to the duology, and Jesper and his true love don’t meet until Six of Crows, or even do so much as kiss until Crooked Kingdom. (Nina and Matthias don’t kiss until then either, which becomes a plot point, but that doesn’t mean that cut-off almost-kiss Heisserer gave them in the season finale feels any less awkward.)

However, if you’re looking for a lack of repression with Kaz’s gang of outlaws, then you are out of luck. Kaz and Inej are both deeply traumatized by their dark pasts, which is something Bardugo explores with a fair amount of nuance and grace, but it also means they find it difficult to touch other people when they are not beating them up. (This leads to a little “ah, is this the moment their hands will finally touch?” steaminess, which is all to the good if you like a slow-burn romance.) But that relationship also appears to be on ice in this first season, I can only assume in order to avoid cannibalizing the development that comes with Six of Crows. This is what I mean about dragging these characters back to a much less interesting point in their lives.

I do agree that Alina is stuck in a pretty clunky and hormonal love triangle, but I’d actually argue that’s part of the pleasure of both book and TV series. There’s a lizard brain satisfaction to the simplicity of the good boy/bad boy archetypes, and sure, you can find more stylish executions of the trope pretty easily (I’ll throw out a Naomi Novik rec here), but there is still something to be said for just watching a handsome man who is tortured by his own evilness gaze broodingly out of a TV screen while a cloak billows in slow motion around him.

Like: This execution of the love triangle is not good, per se, but it’s still a fun experience! And while Ben Barnes, who plays said handsome tortured evil guy, can’t do anything about the flatness of the character as written, he does bring a nice silkiness to his line readings that adds some flair to this whole enterprise.

And flair is, on the whole, badly needed here. Shadow and Bone’s whole vibe as it stands is very “Netflix gives you the CW giving you Game of Thrones, but more boring.” So if Shadow and Bone gets a second season, I’d like to see it take a cue from what it actually looked like when the CW tried to do Game of Thrones, which was The 100.

The 100 had its fair share of problems and then some, but in its earliest and strongest seasons, it was able to ground its outré plotlines in specific, detailed character work. It consistently delivered on worst-case scenarios, and those scenarios always came from a place of well-established character conflicts that let the whole enterprise feel small-scale and intimate, even when the problems were things like “should we gas every inhabitant of this mountain to death?”

Shadow and Bone could use some intimacy! Its conflicts as currently written are way too big and too abstract; its characters are too generic and undefined. It needs to be more specific about who these people are and what they want.

That’s something Bardugo learned to do as she went along. I’d love to see Heisserer and company do the same.

Shadow and Bone season one is streaming on Netflix.