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‘Shadow and Bone:’ YA at its most fun

| Monday, May 3, 2021

Maggie Klaers | The Observer

Quick question: can you think of the last time a good adaptation of a Young Adult fantasy series was made? 

Most YA fantasy and dystopia adaptations tend to dive head first into the pit of mediocrity and end up forgotten soon after they’ve been released. Does anyone remember “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones?” Or “Beastly?” I thought not. Because of this common phenomenon, when author Leigh Bardugo announced that two of her Grishaverse novels, “Shadow and Bone” and “Six of Crows,” would be adapted into a TV series, I was skeptical about how it would turn out. 

While “Six of Crows” is one of my favorite YA series of all time, I found the “Shadow & Bone” book to be a shining example of YA mediocrity. Although the two novels that provided the show’s source material are set in the same fictional universe, I didn’t think it made a lot of sense to attempt to combine them due to their stark differences in tone and timeline. I had no idea how the show could adapt the two novels into a cohesive whole.

The show follows Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), an army mapmaker who has maintained a close bond with her childhood friend Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux). Alina discovers that she possesses the mythical power to control sunlight, making her a Grisha — a person with the ability to control the natural world. This power attracts the attention of General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), the Grisha army general who possesses the ability to control darkness and shadow. Kirigan takes Alina from the army to the Grisha training headquarters so that she can learn to fulfill her role as the Sun Summoner and save her country from “The Fold.” However, Alina’s power makes her a target, and a gang of thieves is tasked with kidnapping her in exchange for a large bounty.

While “Shadow and Bone” is not always able to juggle its numerous plotlines gracefully, it never stops being entertaining. In fact, after the exposition dump that takes place in the first episode, the rest of the series is a fast-paced adventure that makes you want to keep watching. 

Alina’s storyline follows the plot of the original “Shadow and Bone” novel and actually manages to improve on aspects of the novel that fell short. My biggest issue with the novel was how bland I found Alina and how awful I found Mal as a love interest. The show rectifies this by giving Alina more agency and building Mal’s character more fully, letting viewers relate to him. Because the book was only told from Alina’s perspective, we missed a lot of internal development with other characters that we get to see in the show. Since this show is a YA adaptation, a love triangle between Alina, Mal and Kirigan is par for the course, but I actually enjoyed watching this love triangle play out due to Mei Li’s excellent chemistry with both Renaux and Barnes.

While Alina’s plotline in the show definitely manages to improve on its middling source material, the thieves’ heist storyline was still the most entertaining. The heist plotline centers on Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman) and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young), three of the six titular Crows from “Six of Crows.” The three actors’ chemistry was obvious from the start, and each managed to embody their character to the fullest. This trio is hilarious and charming, and I loved watching their hijinks as they attempt to pull off the seemingly impossible feat of kidnapping the legendary Sun Summoner.  

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the excellent costume and set design of the show. Everything in the show’s on-screen universe seems to have been meticulously designed to make the world feel fantastic and lived-in to viewers. The keftas that the Grishas wore were a gorgeous riot of color, and as for setting, the most of the show was shot “on location” in Hungary, its cinematography making use of the area’s beautiful landscapes and various historical sites.

Although the show felt like it was trying to do too much at once — taking on too many storylines, to the detriment of its overall clarity and quality — and even though it never seemed to let up from the breakneck pace at which these many plots developed, “Shadow and Bone” is one of the most entertaining pieces of television I’ve seen in a while, and I hope it gets renewed for a second season.

 

Show: “Shadow and Bone” Season 1

Starring: Jessie Mei Li, Archie Renaux, Freddy Carter, Amita Suman, Kit Young, Ben Barnes

Favorite Episodes: “The Making at the Heart of the World,” “Show Me Who You Are”

If you like: The Grishaverse books, Harry Potter

Where to watch: Netflix

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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