When I decided to participate in this year’s Wyrd and Wonder, I had a lot of plans and underestimated just how strongly nostalgia would end up kicking me in the face, and honestly, that’s my fault for underestimating my 15-year-old self. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be as present as I thought I would be, even though I had low expectations; aside from Real Life issues, I also had a terrible case of Shadow and Bone brain. After watching the Netflix show (and watching. and rewatching. and then rewatching with a friend who is also now obsessed.) it took me several weeks to get out of my own head enough to actually write something like a review.
Shadow and Bone is the book that got me into blogging, and while it isn’t the book that made me discover the English book community, it’s the one that got me to stay. I loved it more than I could explain and it’s the kind of story I thought about daily for years on end, in a way I’ve only ever done with another series later on (fun fact: I found that series because of someone in the old S&B fandom!). It’s also a flawed novel that in some aspects feels was clearly written ten years ago, and that in other aspects only got worse as the series continued (worldbuilding, esp. re: Shu Han); and, to be honest, it’s a straightforward straight YA fantasy, the kind of book I today refuse to even try because none of them do anything for me anymore.
I thought I was over it. I was a fool.
When I first heard that there was going to be a Grishaverse adaptation, I was worried not only because of my attachment to it but also because it set out to adapt both the Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows series. My worries rapidly evaporated as I read the first reviews, and I now can confirm that somehow they made it work – and, I think, Alina’s storyline was actually strengthened by that choice. I don’t necessarily think the show did Six of Crows‘ story justice (more on that later), but as that’s both the best and the least important to me of the two series, I can deal with that.
this review spoils who the villain is, of course.
If you know me and know why I love the Shadow and Bone trilogy, you can probably imagine what was my main worry: I thought that the show wouldn’t be able to make the Darkling feel convincing. As he’s the character that made Shadow and Bone stand out from a sea of similar chosen-one-love-triangle series from around 2012 and the character that made me realize I loved villains, actually, this was probably the most important part to me.
I’m happy to say that the show didn’t disappoint at all, and while his characterization is somewhat different – as is Alina’s – it works, and comparing show!Darkling and book!Darkling was actually one of the things I had the most fun with. Book!Darkling leans more into the ~mysterious, look at the ~power side of things for his manipulation, while Show!Darkling leans more into showing “vulnerability” in a oh, Ravka is (I’m) such a wounded creature… Alina, only you can save Ravka (me, I’m Ravka and Ravka is me actually) way. Both Darklings of course have elements of both, but the… balance of them is different.
Show!Darkling strikes me as more slimy, and that for me comes across especially in the way he treats Mal. In the books, he kind of doesn’t want to acknowledge his existence and calls him “tracker”; in the show, he deliberately calls him “Mal” with a disdainful overfamiliarity that was almost painful to watch.
I loved how the show made explicit that a cardinal plot point of the story is the villain reading the two protagonists’ love letters and keeping them! I just find that so funny
Another thing I loved was what they did with the Darkling’s clothes, which are beautiful with an eldritch twist – those metal things look as if they’re staring at you! The show’s take on everyone’s Keftas and clothes in general was everything I hoped for. Even when it wanted “ugly”, it truly went for it: Alina’s veiled outfit is the closest a human has ever been to looking like a lamp, and I mean, it’s appropriate. That’s how the king sees her, after all.
Shows have the chance to truly make something come to life, and this one succeeded. It’s easy to make a story following the Six of Crows characters compelling because they already are, but I didn’t think anything could manage to make me care about Marie or make scenes with Ivan of all characters both interesting and enjoyable. The Jesper/Ivan fight is one of my favorite scenes in the whole show and my favorite of the ones that aren’t in the book at all. (The second one is the carriage theft and its aftermath, I’ve wanted something like that since I read Shadow and Bone and love how it went down.)
Another thing I didn’t know I needed was seeing Alina and Inej meet, and what that means for Inej! Alina is important to her in the books already and this is just taking it to another level.
I also really appreciated the general Zlatan storyline. It made the Darkling’s decision in Novokribirsk make much more practical sense instead of that scene being just the most horrifying example of showing off that Ravka has ever seen.
Miscellaneous things I loved:
- the goat, of course
- Leigh Bardugo and Shadow and Bone (book) cameos
- Jesper is the only one who gets a (implied) sex scene. I call that LGBT justice
- Mal’s friends are actually developed
- the true-north-erase-the-scar montage was art and so painful at that
- Ketterdam looks amazing & exactly as I imagined it & I can’t wait for more
I didn’t necessarily love what the show did with Alina. While I really liked the casting, I didn’t love some choices that were made – like making the cartographers’ death her fault at the beginning, which… never comes up again and makes her feel weirdly cold, and given that Jessie Mei Li’s interpretation of Alina is more “literal sunshine” than the (comparably grumpier) book version, it felt very dissonant to me. I’m also sad that Alina’s inner monologue can’t come across in this format; what could have been avoided instead is the flattening. In the books she’s also very insecure (and sickly and tired) and they got rid of most of that, which… I don’t know, it’s this trend of editing out flaws from female characters in the name of “here’s a woman who knows what she wants!” and I hate that, actually. But when I stopped comparing show and book version, I did really like following Alina’s character. There’s no version of her I won’t love; she means so much to me.
Making Alina biracial was also a chance to make something better with the worldbuilding of Shu Han and its relationship to Ravka, a chance to develop the country past a (frankly racist) stereotype. That opportunity was not taken and there was a lot of intentionally-but-clumsily included anti-Asian racism.
Many people have said the show made them like Mal, but I firmly remain in a Mal-indifferent zone. He’s just not my type of character. I wonder how much of the recent Mal love comes from the fact that in the books he’s an unlikable character and here he isn’t as much. My friend – who hasn’t read the books and therefore didn’t have the “he’s going to be insufferable, isn’t he” kind of worry – didn’t feel drawn to him at all either, and she’s usually easier on male characters than I am.
And while the inclusion of the Crows’ plotline made the show more interesting – the first half of Shadow and Bone would feel kind of empty on screen without that! – they objectively steal the scene, which saddens me, because on a subjective level I prefer the other plotline (so much that I sometimes skipped the Crows while rewatching) and I don’t want Shadow and Bone to be… overshadowed in its own show. Also, fusing two different stories – one of which is a cautionary fairytale and the other a fast-paced heist story – just makes you feel like half of the characters are way too smart for the story they’re stuck in.
Other things I have mixed feelings about:
- I find show!Alina way prettier than show!Genya, which just feels weird
- the train scenes are very cool. the rest of the world seems not to have invented trains yet
- Alina’s power being portrayed not like sun rays but like literal little suns looks kind of goofy
- I’m fine with Kaz having plot armor of course, but wow did they weaken the Cut!
- Nina Zenik was great but her storyline felt cut off from everything else
- There isn’t even a mention of Nikolai’s name. He’d be so mad
The Little Palace should look like something out of a fairytale. Half of the buildings in my city have more character than that. It sounds minor but atmosphere is very important to me and this might be my main dislike.
I get that it’s difficult to do establish worldbuilding in a show, but I feel like the magic system wasn’t… I don’t want to say “explained” because I don’t like magic to be explained, but grounded well. There are rules in the book that the show applies but never actually mentions, and I don’t get why it didn’t even mention like calls to like. Some of those “rules” are also plot-relevant: my friend who didn’t read the book didn’t understand what happened with the stag’s power while in the fold.
Also, no “wanting makes us weak”? The Darkling’s name being revealed so casually? I get why, but still!
Hopes for the Future
My main hope? That we get season two!
Apart from that, there are some things I’d very much like to see, like the show actually taking a chance to develop Shu Han and Alina’s relationship with her Shu heritage when Tamar and Tolya will be introduced; the Crows going on an actual heist like the one in the Ice Court instead of the lackluster halfway thing it had to be at the Little Palace (too smart for this story, I said) because otherwise this show doesn’t do justice to Six of Crows at all; also I think seeing Zoya and Inej having an actual conversation would be very cool.
I’m going to end this post with links to the two reviews that convinced me that the show was worth watching (that you should also read!) and that went more in-depth in several of the issues with the worldbuilding: Hadeer’s and Silvia’s.
Have you seen Shadow and Bone? What are your hopes for its future? Is there anything I should watch now that I’ve resurrected my Netflix account? [Will I be able to keep myself from rewatching this again? No]