Shadow and Bone Season 1 Surpassed My Expectations

Shadow and Bone Season 1
SHADOW AND BONE (L to R) JESSIE MEI LI as ALINA STARKOV of SHADOW AND BONE Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

Shadow and Bone Season 1 does an unbelievably fantastic job at combining two series that are related but kept a bit separate. With phenomenal costumes, a gorgeous musical score, stellar special effects, and some sublime acting, this series managed to meet and even surpass my expectations.

Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for all of Shadow and Bone Season 1. I will do my best to not reveal spoilers for future books. Proceed with caution.

I’m not going to lie. I have been anxiously awaiting Shadow and Bone Season 1 since I first learned that Netflix intended to adapt Leigh Bardugo’s best-selling novels into a series. I actually took the day off work so that I could binge without guilt. I recently reread the series (the first five books – Shadow and Bone, Seige and Storm, Ruin and Rising, Six of Crowsand Crooked Kingdom) in anticipation. So the books are fresh in my mind.

There will be some comparisons between the books and the show throughout this review. Now, I loved the show, and I have no intention of sitting here being petty and picking apart every minor change as though things are ruined now. I understand that for an adaptation such as this – especially since it combined two series that don’t even take place at the same time – there are going to be alterations. My goal, aside from just giving a general review of the show’s first season, is to discuss where I think the changes were for the better, and where I think the show may suffer for it.

But, oh, where to start? When I’m reviewing a streaming series like this, I take notes as I watch. My handwriting tends to get less legible as I go on, and earlier thoughts and theories I have may change as more information gets revealed. I have several lines scratched out because things hadn’t happened at that point that did happen in a later episode, so my reviews can be a bit hodgepodge and all over the place. I’ll do my best to keep it coherent, but come on. Y’all know me. When am I ever coherent?

Well, we’ll start with the biggest change, and that is the fact that, despite the first season adapting the events in Shadow and Bone, the first book in the original Grisha trilogy, we are introduced to five characters who don’t make their first appearance until Six of Crows, which is the first book in the sequel duology. Kaz, Inej, Jesper, Nina, and Matthias have a very interesting story that happens more than two years after the events we witness in Shadow and Bone Season 1. Aside from Nina, who is a Grisha from Ravka, those characters never even meet most of the characters from the original series. Therefore showrunner Eric Heisserer had a challenge in trying to interweave these stories.

Shadow and Bone Season 1
SHADOW AND BONE (L to R) KIT YOUNG as JESPER FAHEY, AMITA SUMAN as INEJ GHAFA and FREDDY CARTER as KAZ BREKKER of SHADOW AND BONE Cr. DAVID APPLEBY/NETFLIX © 2021

For the most part, I think they did this brilliantly. I’m not sure how much the events in Shadow and Bone Season 1 will affect things when we get to the Six of Crows plotline (and hopefully we do get there, and Netflix doesn’t cancel this prematurely), but it was hard not to get excited during moments like Inej getting to witness Alina’s demonstration at the Little Palace or Mal being discovered on the skiff. (Mal and Alina meet a character called Jes in the second book, and after Six of Crows was published, many fans thought they might be the same. This has never been confirmed.)

However, Nina and Matthias’s storyline is almost totally separate from the rest of the plot, and despite the fact that I love their relationship, it felt really jarring every time we switched to them. Also, this isn’t supposed to happen yet in the timeline of the books. I understand that using Nina as Arken’s contact gave a convenient excuse to introduce her, but it was probably the weakest part of the show. I love the chemistry between Danielle Galligan and Calahan Skogman, but this could have waited until a later season. It felt like they were just trying too hard to bring in all of the Crows when it wasn’t necessary. (Anyway, we haven’t met all of them yet anyway, even though crumbs have been dropped.)

One thing about introducing the Crows this early is that it explains so much about their dynamics later. We are already getting hints about things that will be important later – Kaz’s vendetta against Pekka Rollins, Inej’s faith, Jesper’s talent as a sharpshooter – but I am also confused about some things. However, I’m not sure how much I can reveal without spoiling future plotlines, and for anyone who hasn’t read the books, I don’t want to give too much away. Let’s just say that I really like that we’re already getting to see how clever Kaz is. Having this as part of their backstory makes it more believable that he accepts such an impossible job later.

Another thing about bringing in the Crows this early is the queer representation we get from it. Jesper isn’t the only queer character in the series, but having him show up during season 1 sends the LGBTQ+ rep through the roof. Nadia, one of Alina’s friends at the Little Palace, is queer, which in the books we don’t find out immediately but do in the show. But Jesper is full-on bisexual right out the gate and even gets a romantic rendezvous (at a relatively inopportune moment). An interesting decision was to make Ivan and Fedyor in a relationship; we know very little about either of those characters in the books, so I liked this choice. It was never specified, so why not make them queer?

That brings up a good thought that I know other people have had about the series – we learn so much more about many of the characters. It really helps to flesh them out. The first three books are told almost entirely in first person from Alina’s perspective. We only see what she sees; we only know what she knows. That led to some people having very specific opinions about characters because we are operating from Alina’s limited perspective.

Shadow and Bone Season 1
Alina (Jessie Mei Li) and Mal (Archie Renaux). Image: screengrab

The character who benefits the most from this POV change is Mal. I loved Mal in the books, but a lot of people hated him, and I never understood why. It’s because Alina is telling the story, and she is very insecure about him and their relationship. In Shadow and Bone Season 1, however, we get to spend time with him. I love how we get proof that she was just as important to him as he was to her; they both have flashbacks to their time as children, we get Mal’s voiceover as he pens letters the same way we get Alina’s, and we get to personally witness what he went through to get back to her after she was taken. Archie Renaux was spectacular. I am so excited to see more of Mal.

Another character who benefits greatly from this is, ironically, the Darkling, aka General Kirigan. Now, giving him a name and a title is a departure from the books, where he is repeatedly referred to as simply “the Darkling” by absolutely everyone. He doesn’t reveal his name – Aleksander – to Alina until much later. I believe this was an attempt both to misdirect viewers as well as humanize him a bit more. I never read The Demon in the Woodthe prequel novella told from the Darkling’s perspective, so I appreciated getting his backstory. Ben Barnes is another actor who completely nailed his character. He is someone who manages to be charming yet quietly menacing at the same time.

Have I talked enough about the differences? OK, let me move on to things I liked about Shadow and Bone Season 1.

While we’re on the subject of characters being more fleshed out, I really love that we get to see so much of Zoya and David, and I am really liking that Fedyor has gotten a bigger part. Fedyor in the books is kind of a bit character and doesn’t get much of a story, so I thought it was very clever that they used the whole Nina thing to give him more to do. I like that we already see Zoya turn on the Darkling (this is information we don’t yet know at the end of the first book) and why; it’s a nice way of showing that not every Grisha supports him, which will be important later.

And I love David so much but I was honestly surprised to find that they cast someone so attractive? I got the sense from the books that he was supposed to look as awkward and nerdy as his personality is, but damn, Luke Pasqualino looked damn fine and that took me aback for a moment.

Shadow and Bone
David (Luke Pasqualino). Image: screengrab

loved Jesper. In the books, he kind of got on my nerves a bit, and I could never really explain why. Seeing him in action though, with Kit Young being all smooth and charming, went a long way towards making me like him better.

Oh, and one more thing – I must reiterate how much I appreciate that we spent so much time with Mal, because it makes it mean something when Mikhail and Dubrov are killed. That entire sequence was extremely upsetting, more so because we’d gotten to know them a bit.

I loved the subtle ways they showed us about the differences in Grisha power. There isn’t a real explanation of their power structure, but there are specific Grisha orders and honestly not that many of them. So it’s nice to see that even though there are limited categories, there is still room for variation in their talents. For example, we met multiple Heartrenders in this season and have seen all the different things that they can do – speed up or slow down a heartbeat, alter someone’s mood, act as a human lie detector, identify the number of people nearby. You can understand why people may hate or fear their abilities.

I liked how right away they were able to show us the status differences in Ravka. It isn’t just about Alina’s status as half-Shu (which was a brilliant way to introduce more diversity into the series), it’s in the way Grisha and “normal” people see each other. Grisha think they’re better than everyone else because of their abilities; others resent them because they think they’re special. Mal admits to being afraid of Grisha power (well, Grisha women, but he did meet Zoya and she’s scary). But every country treats Grisha differently and only in Ravka are they not hunted or dissected or enslaved. (Well…)

The entire final episode of Shadow and Bone Season 1, “No Mourners”, was just fantastic. Yes, please, to a Mal/Crows team-up. Yes to Zoya defecting early and helping them out. Yes to the sheer look and feel of a battle on the Fold. Yes to everyone, even Kaz, coming to someone else’s rescue. Yes to it all.

Shadow and Bone
Kaz (Freddy Carter) and Milo the goat. Image: screengrab

I love the image of Kaz walking around carrying a goat. I love how attached Jesper became to that goat. I love that him gifting that goat a bullet is what ended up saving Mal in the end.

I like the overall look of the show. I love the costuming. (I’ll admit that I originally thought the keftas would be more like wizard robes from Harry Potter, but there were all gorgeous, and I loved the variety of them.) The sets were also amazing; I love how you could tell the difference between Ketterdam and the Ravkan cities. The opulence of the Little Palace was amazing.

I also loved the feel of the show. I have in my notes that I really liked how the sound went muted during the first Volcra attack in “A Searing Burst of Light”. It gives you an even greater sense of terror. I thought that was a great choice. Whenever Mal and Alina are confronted with the Stag (separately or together), I love the overwhelming sense of stillness that the scenes manage to exude.

The musical score is fantastic. I remember hearing the first preview of it during the NYCC panel and falling in love with it already. I am a sucker for a great score.

I’m a big fan of that trope where the voiceover is saying one thing, and we’re seeing another happen. Alina’s opening voiceover in “The Making at the Heart of the World”, completely contradicting what was going on, was hysterical.

Now, there are some things that I didn’t like, changes to the plot that I think took away from characterization. For example, I dislike how it’s Alina’s actions that put her entire unit on the skiff in the first episode. In the books, they were all going there anyway, but in the show, having her set the maps on fire as an excuse to go with Mal means that she is unintentionally responsible for the death of her unit. By the end of the series, there will be enough blood on Alina’s conscience that I feel like giving her these few extra ones was just mean.

West Ravka’s bid for independence offered some convenient plot points – Arken’s eventual betrayal, for example – but I think that whole subplot only served to justify the Darkling’s attack on Novokribirsk at the end. In the books, the Darkling destroying the city is viewed as the abomination that it is. In the show, it’s not only a show of power, it’s retribution for them plotting against him.

Shadow and Bone
Alina (Jessie Mei Li) and Baghra (Zoë Wanamaker). Image: screengrab

I don’t like how little time we spent with Botkin and Baghra. They breezed past Alina’s Grisha training in the books, and I was rather hoping that the show would expand on it more. I especially think that the amplifier subplot was mismanaged a bit. In the books, the Darkling very much wants Alina to have the amplifier to the point where she begins to obsess about it, while Baghra keeps trying to talk her out of it. Alina being obsessed with the amplifiers is kind of a big deal during the rest of the series, so I’m a little surprised they didn’t go that route. 

Speaking of amplifiers, that is not at all how I thought the antler collar would look (I was expecting something that looked more like a necklace). That was disturbing. Well done on that.

Basically, I really loved Shadow and Bone Season 1. I was OK with most of the changes and occasionally even prefer them. I think the crew did a great job of getting down the general atmosphere and appearance – particularly of the Fold – and I think the cast did a stellar job of embodying their characters. Mal was the epitome of a fantasy hero love interest. The Apparat was sufficiently creepy. Jesper was charming and playful. Kaz was incredibly intense. Zoya was the best kind of jerk. Everyone was amazing.

If you’re a fan of the books, I think you’ll appreciate what the show has done. It isn’t a perfect adaptation, but I think it gets the essence of the story, and it does a great service to its under-served characters.

If you haven’t read the books, I think you’ll like the story, which is half fantasy with magic soldiers and mythical beasts and half clever heists. (I am continually amazed by how clever Kaz is, and I shouldn’t be at this point!)

Make sure you check out Farid’s reaction videos! He hasn’t read any of the books, so he’s reacting as a casual viewer. Here is his video for the first episode:

And here’s Farid reacting to the finale!

Author: Jamie Sugah

Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.


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