Ever since Game Of Thrones set the high-water mark for televisual fantasy, the search for the successor to its Iron Throne has been on. Shadow And Bone, based on Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, isn’t as bold or shocking as George R.R. Martin’s uncompromising epic, but the impact of Westeros is keenly felt all over Netflix’s lavish series. For one, it dispenses fantasy jargon without deigning to explain what any of it means, and its sprawling, complex world feels similarly lived-in and well-formed. And though it doesn’t have a Stark, it does have a Starkov — our hero Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), providing a welcome narrative through-line against a wider backdrop of politicking and power-plays.
She’s an orphan girl living in the fictional kingdom of Ravka and the show’s greatest strength is how distinct that world feels — drawn not from the usual Medieval Britain or Victoriana influences, but from Tsarist Russia. Think Cossack hats and double-breasted military jackets galore, grubby battlegrounds, and a lavish palace where the seat of power lies. The fantastical twist is that Ravka is a divided nation – East and West separated by the Shadow Fold, a rift of swirling, manmade darkness that plays host to giant, airborne, man-munching monsters. Crossing the Fold isn’t impossible, but it is inadvisable — the merest spark of light attracting vicious winged attacks. Ravka also plays host to Grisha — humans with magic elemental abilities (controlling fire, water, wind and more), largely co-opted into the country’s military.
Shadow And Bone has plenty of familiar echoes. But it’s very watchable
It’s a lot to take in, and though initially confusing, Shadow And Bone remains compelling while tasking viewers with grasping the Grisha terminology for themselves, showing rather than telling. Its central thread is, thankfully, its easiest to follow: Alina is a cartographer (ironically enough, since the show could do with a map to follow — it’s worth looking one up online), clearly in love with her best friend and fellow orphan Mal (Archie Renaux). When he’s dispatched into the Fold, she ensures she’s sent on the same doomed expedition — upon which she reveals herself as the mythical Grisha ‘Sun Summoner’, able to bring the rift down.
If the world of Ravka reads as dense fantasy, Alina and Mal’s will-they-won’t-they chemistry (complicated further by Ben Barnes’ dashing General Kirigan) reads more YA, but they’re engaging company — especially thanks to a spirited, stubborn performance from Li (soon to be seen in Edgar Wright’sLast Night In Soho). A subplot set in Ravka’s shadowy underworld is visually and narratively murky, initially removed from the central story, but eventually evolves into a romp-y storyline, following a ragtag crew of criminal antiheroes hot on Alina’s trail.
With its magical, orphaned, chosen-one hero (hello, Harry Potter), its story of a young woman destined to cause revolution while caught between her childhood bestie and a dashing, untrustworthy incomer (hey there, Hunger Games) and its dangerous kingdom of backstabbers (Game Of Thrones, we meet again), Shadow And Bone has plenty of familiar echoes. But it’s very watchable, with a compelling world and characters that could help it become a fantasy favourite in its own right.