As a longtime fantasy reader, the thing that always determines if a story will grab me and never let go, just entertain me, or worse, pass by without making a mark, is the characters. World-building is all fine and good, good fantasy needs it, feeds off it. But I have never fallen in love with a book, a show or movie, because of the world, but because of the people that inhabit that world.
If Shadow and Bone season 1, an adaptation of the Leigh Bardugo book of the same name, with some Six of Crows characters thrown in (well, most Six of Crows characters, only Wylan is missing from the main 6), does anything right, it’s this. The show has heart, it has gravitas, and it absolutely makes you care – about everyone.
This feels like a tall order for a universe where most people have already made a choice to like some and dislike others. As someone who came into this with six (eight) books of background – and re-watched again after reading Rule of Wolves, to see if any of my initial opinions shifted – I will say that, as the credits rolled on the last episode, my general feeling was of satisfaction.
Shadow and Bone is not just a good adaptation – though it is. If you enjoyed Shadow and Bone book one, I have no doubt you’ll enjoy the show. Shadow and Bone, however, is not just a faithful adaptation of that book, it couldn’t be. Not if you wanted to bring Kaz, Inej and Jesper into it, and as soon as you see them, as soon as their stories start to connect with that of Alina, you realize how important it was for them to be there.
I didn’t enjoy Shadow and Bone book 1 as much as every other book in the Grishaverse. I didn’t hate it – or I wouldn’t have continued reading, and missed out on so much – but I found it to be too much setup in general, and despite Alina’s constant Mal-centric inner monologue, I found the lack of Mal’s POV made it hard for me to care about him, which in turn made it impossible for me to truly invest in the OTP the book was trying to sell me on.
The same thing happened to me with the Darkling, a character that was way less interesting to me before Ben Barnes stepped into the role. At first, he seemed like a straight up villain, and his relationship with Alina nothing other than pure manipulation. What was there to root for? Of course, Rule of Wolves finally allowed him some much-needed depth, and made me re-examine my previous ideas about the character, but I didn’t really expect the show to change my mind so early on in the story, or make me care, even a little bit.
Still, the question I approached this show with was: What could be done to improve the book without changing the characters? Well, I’m not going to spoil what they did – but I will say the show absolutely managed to present the Shadow and Bone characters in a way that made me invest in all of them as characters, as well as invest in their relationships.
Alina, the brave. Alina, the lost. Alina, the strong. She was my favorite character in Shadow and Bone, but Jessie Mei Li turned her from a very stereotypical YA fantasy heroine, into the kind of character you feel like you would run into battle for. But Alina wasn’t my biggest surprise, no. I already liked her, so the gap between what they had to work with and what they could do wasn’t as wide. The men around her, however? That’s where the magic of Shadow and Bone really is.
Starting with Ben Barnes, and the way his performance and the Shadow and Bone writers made me pause and consider, for a moment, that the best heroes and the best villains are the ones that are allowed nuance. You might not root for the Darkling after watching the show, but I do believe a part of you might at least feel for him, something that took much longer for me in the books.
And then there’s Mal, who I probably hadn’t given two thoughts to before Archie Renaux became him. Mal’s issue in the books is a little bit the same as Alina’s, too much the stereotype, not enough to set him apart from other characters like him, and not enough time spent in his head, so we can’t truly understand his feelings. Shadow and Bone season 1 fixes all of those issues, without fundamentally changing who Mal is, just by virtue of …letting him be around, have feelings, and express them. It was a super easy fix, and I’m glad the show recognized what needed to be done.
The rest of the characters that inhabit Alina’s world are also very well developed. There isn’t enough Genya or Zoya for someone who loves them as much as me, but there’s enough to make you care, and enough to hope not just for one more season, but three or five more. David is barely around, but when he and Genya are in a room together, sparks fly.
I also have to take a moment to mention Baghra, because what Zoë Wanamaker brings to the character is nothing short of extraordinary. Did I know I would care this much? No. Did I expect to care this much? Also no. Would I fight an army for Baghra? Yes, I would.
For me, however, the stars of the show are the Crows. This is a little to be expected in that I loved Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom much more than the Shadow and Bone trilogy, and the first season of Shadow and Bone doesn’t relegate them to secondary characters, and instead balances a completely new story featuring these people with the events of Shadow and Bone book 1.
Matthias’ and Nina’s journey, while shorter than what we see of Kaz, Inej and Jesper, might seem more familiar to book readers, but there’s so much emotion in seeing it all brought to the big screen, and in seeing not just Helnik together, but Nina being Nina and Matthias struggling against what he’s been taught to believe in.
Then there’s Kaz, Inej and Jesper, who get not just enough time to shine for themselves, but much more focus put on their dynamics as a group that I could have dreamed of. Yes, their issues are only superficially explored, left for another season, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t emotional moments, and that the way they relate to each other and especially, care for each other, isn’t touched upon.
For me this was particularly important as some of the other stuff that I really want to see works well within the context of what was already presented in the books, and I wouldn’t really want them to change it. I’d bet good money this show is getting enough seasons for them to explore those properly. Which means that the extra time spent cementing Jesper and Inej’s dynamics away from Kaz, or Kaz’s and Jesper’s charged friendship, is more than welcome.
And then there’s Kaz and Inej. It’d be easy to say they are the highlight of the show because Freddy and Amita’s chemistry is off-the-charts, and it is. But there’s also tension and tenderness, affection and wariness in every one of their interactions, and at times it’s hard to try to pick a prevailing emotion, because so much is said with a whispered word, a charged look. You want to know how these two are really feeling? Look at Freddy and Amita’s body language as the scene is going on, even when the focus is shifted away from them.
Kaz and Inej are always, always in tune with each other.
In the end, this relationship elevates the show for me from typical enjoyable fantasy into an outstanding genre adaptation. There are many love stories in this show, many people to root for, and for all these characters, this is about surviving, nay, thriving, in a world that wouldn’t have given them a chance. But for Kaz and Inej, it’s also about a struggle that feels very familiar, the struggle of finding the right words, or at least the right actions, to maybe, perhaps, get another shot at, one day, saying what you need to say.
Their story isn’t over. This story isn’t over. But that’s absolutely fine. We can wait for more.
Are you excited for Shadow and Bone? Share with us in the comments below!
Shadow and Bone will premiere on Netflix April 23rd.