‘Shadow and Bone’: Netflix Offers Up Its Most Visually Stunning Fantasy Saga Yet

With fantasy now becoming a dominant TV genre, delivering a new series every month, it becomes a challenge to produce something that is truly immersive. Netflix’s adaptation of “Shadow and Bone” is engaging as a story, but it’s a fantastic experience in terms of its texture. You do not simply watch this series, you enter it. This is essential because not all viewers will be familiar with the original YA novels by Leigh Bardugo, known as the Grishaverse. Bardugo’s books are the kind where you can easily lose track of all the invented peoples and worlds, and the same applies to this show. But while playing catchup we can drink in the sights.

Adapted by Eric Heisserer, an expert in writing tension with credits like “Arrival” and “Bird Box,” “Shadow and Bone” follows a typical YA style of mixing eras to form its terrain. The main hero is Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), who lives in a kingdom named Ravka, which looks like some Southeast Asian Soviet state from the early 20th century. Alina has always felt out of place in her society, particularly for being biracial. This is a narrative defined by divisions. You see there are two Ravkas, East and West, which are divided by “The Fold,” an abysmal zone populated by winged monsters. But it continues getting more complicated. West Ravka wants independence. Loyal to Ravka’s king are the First and Second Armies. The first has regular soldiers and warriors. The second is made-up of people known as the Grisha, who have magical powers. Alina is a cartographer in the First Army serving with Malyen Oretsev (Archie Renaux), who has been her best friend since they were children in the same orphanage. While on a mission crossing the Fold, an incident takes place that reveals Alina has powers of her own. She and Malyen are soon separated amid the chaos. Meanwhile a slick criminal, Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), has accepted an offer to kidnap Alina for a mysterious villain’s unknown purposes.

To look over the plot of “Shadow and Bone” can easily cause some hesitation to jump in. Reportedly there are even some plot shifts and changes to Bardugo’s books, which should come as no surprise considering the density of the material. To truly enjoy this series as an outsider you have to follow its currents without asking too many questions. What works much better is the design of the series. It has the look of a lush steampunk vision, with production values that could easily be compared to shows like “Game of Thrones” (the crown jewel all these fantasy epics are trying to replace). The digital effects are wisely toned down, even when winged, bat-like creatures attack the ship carrying Alina, or when a Grisha summons a dirt whirlpool during a fist fight in a soldiers’ camp. Joseph Trapanese’s music score is pure elegance, bringing real emotion to quiet and subtle moments. Notice how the strings give evocative force to a moment where Malyen sleeps alone in a camp, envisioning Alina next to him.

While the narrative features adventurers, hustlers and nefarious warlords. The real heart of the story is Alina and her journey towards discovering both her powers and inner strengths. Per the dictates of mythology, there are romantic sparks, but very subtle. Malyen obviously feels something for Alina, but she doesn’t necessarily need a savior. Instead she’s taken under the wing of General Kirigan, played with dark charisma by Ben Barnes, who introduces Alina to the world of the Little Fortress, where the Grisha live apart from a world that shuns them. Foes like Fjerdan hunt them as well. Much of this first season is about Alina being trained by Kirigan, and learning about Grisha who has the kind of powers you always expect in these series, like the ability to sniff out lies or control elements. Kirigan himself can control darkness. But there’s plenty of action with stunning choreography, stunt work and old-fashioned sword fights. The storyline involving Kaz, which includes his posse featuring an almost-cowboy, Jesper (Kit Young), and master of espionage, Inej (Amita Suman), also has some dark comedy to it. 

Much of “Shadow and Bone” is one grand journey, made emotionally strong by Alina’s separation from Malyen. It can get tricky following exactly who is engaged in what agenda. For the first few episodes Kaz’s storyline is quite murky. It’s vastly entertaining watching him recruit his posse at bars and shady hangouts, but who is hiring and for what is kept murky for a while. But it’s all so brilliantly filmed, like Jesper walking through fog and shadow, then pulling his as if he’s in an acid western, that the style makes up for the archaic substance. We are so devoid of fresh imagery it’s almost a tonic just to stare at “Shadow and Bone,” at its references to Asian art and European decadence. Characters can summon winds and fire, but it’s about how they are framed doing it. Fans can decide if it’s a worthy take on the book, but as a feast for the eyes this series casts a real spell.

Shadow and Bone” season one begins streaming April 23 on Netflix.