This article contains spoilers.
Every child dreams of magic. You look for it in ordinary things, in wind whistling through open windows, sunlight breaking through clouds, or the invisible beat of blood in veins.
Netflix’s Shadow and Bone was so much more than we expected it to be. The show combines characters from the Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows duology, which chronologically takes place after the events of the third book, Ruin and Rising.
The series follows Alina Starkov (played by Jessie Mei Li), an orphan cartographer for the First Army living in the fictional country of Ravka. The Grisha, magical beings who can manipulate the Small Science, elements that make up our world, are simultaneously revered and despised. The Grisha form the Second Army of Ravka, a central line of defence beating back its enemies, but they are also hunted and burned at the stake or sold to slave labour in other countries. Ravka is torn in half by the Shadow Fold, a swath of darkness filled with winged, flesh-eating creatures called the volcra that separates the east and west sides of the country.
When Alina’s childhood friend, Malyen Oretsev (played by Archie Renaux), is charged with crossing the Fold into West Ravka, she finds a way on it herself because she could not stand to let him go without her. Yet, on a sand skiff in the middle of the Fold, Alina discovers that she may be the most powerful Grisha the world has ever known: a Sun Summoner. Before Alina, a Sun Summoner was nothing but a whisper around a campfire. It was widely believed that a ‘Sun Saint’ would come along to destroy the Fold and unite East and West Ravka after five hundred years of separation, though most people resigned it to a bedtime story built on the shoulders of waning faith.
All of that being said, there were a fair few aspects of the show that can be uncomfortable to watch. In the books, Alina and Mal are both white and do not experience any discrimination because of their race. The show deviates from the Anglo-normative depiction of Ravkan characters, depicting Alina as being half-Shu, with Mal also being mixed-race.
Our first problem lies with the vagueness surrounding Shu Han, and Ravka’s geopolitical relations with the other countries of Kerch, Fjerda, the Wandering Isle, and Novyi Zem. While those familiar with the books from which the TV show is adapted have a greater insight into the relationships between these nations, the show gives little indication of tangible conflict or why it exists. Shu Han, a fictional nation that shows Chinese influences, is alienated and shrouded in vague references and mysticism. The only indication given to the audience of what one would assume is a deeply bitter war between Ravka and Shu Han are passing racist comments and targeted racism towards Alina.
The show’s half-hearted dabble in discussions of racism is not limited to Alina. Inej Ghafa (played by Amita Suman), a knife-wielding spy of Suli descent, is subjected to racist commentary at Alina’s official unveiling as the Sun Saint. A white lady ascending the spiral staircase, where Inej is suspended on aerial silks as she masquerades as an acrobat, makes the comment: “I didn’t know the Zemeni had such talent.” Interestingly, Jesper Fahey (played Kit Young), who actually is Zemeni, faces no such racism throughout the season. Why is it only the women who are subjected to bigotry? While one would obviously not wish racist encounters on a character, it is worth criticising the show’s limited engagement with discussions of racial hate. While the show dips into discussions of xenophobia, it never seems to fully crystallise a fuller picture of a world at war. The fact that Alina was specifically made mixed-race for the show in order to project an image of diversity is very surface-level at the best. One can’t help but wonder if this is simply the product of lazy storytelling, but at the same time, the first season of Shadow and Bone is so largely self-contained that one might overlook it for the time being. We wait with bated breath.
However, the one thing we never expected to do was change our opinion of Mal. In the books, Mal is — to put it plainly — awful. He is selfish, and he doesn’t seem to care about Alina until she is ripped from his shadow and enters a different world, becoming the sole hope of Ravka in a new age. The show gave Mal’s character so much depth, exploring the intimate connection between Alina and Mal. While the books are focalised through Alina’s experiences, the show shed light on Mal’s journey back to Alina, as he fought tooth and claw through the Ravkan wilderness and Fjerdan permafrost.
Mal’s journey is starkly juxtaposed by the story arc of General Kirigan (played by Ben Barnes), known to fans of the books as the Darkling, whose relationship with Alina is built on lies and manipulation. Kirigan’s relationship with Alina is textbook abusive from the beginning. Alina is brought to him, terrified and confused, immediately after she emerges from the Fold having just discovered that she is Grisha, and a powerful one at that. While he takes her in and promises that they will change the world, he also alienates her from Mal, the only family she has ever known. The only people who are allowed to get close to Alina are people who answer to him. “There are no others like us,” he tells her at one point. “And there never will be.” It becomes clear that while Kirigan seems to possess complex feelings for Alina, he ultimately views her as nothing more than a weapon to wield.
Shadow and Bone does more to humanise Kirigan than the books attempted to, controversially revealing his true name — Aleksander — merely four episodes in. There is value in analysing the humanity of villains and acknowledging the moral greyness in which they operate. The character of Kirigan is a case study in the way that violence creates violence; we are shown a scene at the height of Grisha hunts, centuries in the past, where Kirigan is forced to watch his lover murdered by witch hunters. We see every step of his descent into darkness, culminating in his unleashing of merzost (the forbidden magic of creation) and creation of the Fold.
Not every relationship depicted in the show is unhealthy. One of the most exciting dynamics to grace the small screen was the juxtaposition of Kaz Brekker’s (played by Freddy Carter) scepticism with Inej’s faith, which is tied deeply to her sense of self. She names her blades after the Saints that she prays to, and is one of Alina’s first followers. Kaz could not be more different — ever the sceptic, he looks for every reason to doubt and believes that nothing but greed motivates men. As Inej prepares to leave the Crows, knowing that she can never go back to the Menagerie that she was sold to as a child, Kaz tells her why he does not believe in the divine: “No saints have ever watched over me, Inej. Not like you have.” Their relationship tells a tale of faith and doubt, the way that they intertwine and exist together like two sides of a coin.
While a second season hasn’t been officially confirmed yet, showrunners have publicly spoken about plans for the future of the series — which doesn’t seem unlikely considering it has been atop Netflix’s chart since its release. Despite our criticisms, Shadow and Bone was a joy to watch the first (and second, third, fourth) time, and we can only hope for the chance to delve deeper into the Grishaverse in coming seasons.