The deep, dark well of fantasy adaptions is still churning up plenty of offerings for streaming addicts. In the wake of Game of Thrones, Carnival Row and The Witcher comes Shadow and Bone, taken from Leigh Bardugo’s sprawling series of YA books, known as the Grishaverse.
Set in the fictional kingdom of Ravka, the Netlfix epic details a world of magic and war, where powerful conjurers and armies face off – and a criminal underbelly thrives in the cities. Most of Ravka is cut off from its western coast by The Fold, a large swathe of land bathed in black clouds, where some seriously unpleasant monsters reside.
Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) is a young woman who, along with her best friend Mal (Archie Renaux), has grown up in an orphanage to the west of The Fold, and each year the children are visited by the Grisha (the name given to those with magical powers, such as telekinesis or fire-throwing) who test the youngsters to see if they should be trained in the magical arts. Neither Alina nor Mal show any such talents, so when they reach adulthood they join the armed forces, for there is a civil war brewing in Ravka. And when the pair find themselves required to cross The Fold, Alina discovers that, not only is she a Grisha, but she may be one of the most powerful to have ever lived, bringing her to the attention of the suave and powerful General Kirigan (Ben Barnes).
Adapting such a dense world is hugely challenging for an eight-part series, and the opening episodes almost collapse under the weight of it all. A dozen key characters require fleshing out while the lore itself needs even more explanation. For fans of the books – and there are many – this is no problem. But newcomers will be forgiven for wondering what the hell is going on and, more importantly, whether they should bother watching.
On the bright side, for a show that centres on a literal battle between darkness and light, there are shades in between, particularly with the plucky group of criminals on a mission to kidnap our hero. It’s this mob – led by a scene-stealing Freddy Carter as menacing gang leader Kaz Brekker – who provide the most intriguing developments, offering a welcome break from the main story’s largely predictable plot. Carter supplies a level of subtlety that seems out of Barnes’ reach, for as enjoyable as it is to watch the Westworld star chomp through the scenery, there are few surprises to be found in where his character goes.
There’s plenty to like about Shadow and Bone, not least its 19th century Russia-inspired aesthetic, and at eight episodes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Given a bit more time, perhaps the world would be a little easier for non-Grishas to comprehend. But when Netflix serves up fantasy adventures every other week, we need a little more reason to tune in.