Review: Netflix’s ‘Shadow and Bone’ is a good fantasy adaptation that could have been so much better

It’s rare that an adaptation of a book will satisfy readers more than anyone else. 

When popular books are turned into films or TV shows, from “Big Little Lies” to “Gone Girl” to “Game of Thrones,” the readers who made the stories bestsellers are sometimes disappointed in the finished product. Maybe it eliminated a beloved character or scene. Or maybe it just doesn’t live up to the brilliance of the written word. 

Less common are adaptations that lose something in translation from page to screen, so that only those who have read the source material can really appreciate – or worse, understand – what’s going on. That’s unfortunately what’s happened with the majority of Netflix’s “Shadow and Bone” (now streaming, ★★½ out of four) an adaptation of two book series by young adult fantasy author Leigh Bardugo.

General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) and Alina (Jessie Mei Li) in "Shadow and Bone." (Photo: Netflix)

“Shadow” is a less than graceful combination of the book series set in Bardugo’s fantasy world: a chosen-one trilogy and a related but independent heist duology. In trying to bring together disparate characters, “Thrones”-style, creator Eric Heisserer has made a series that’s likely to satisfy book readers (I’m one of them) but a bit too obtuse for a newbie who doesn’t know what the heck a “Grisha” is. And it’s a shame, because as the eight-episode first season gets going, there’s a rollicking fantasy adventure to be had with some stellar performances from the cast of fresh faces.

“Shadow” is set in a magical world where some wizard types, known as Grisha, have powers over air, water, fire or inorganic matter. Some can heal or harm others with a flick of their fingers. The world is geopolitically divided, just like our own. There’s the hulking Ravka, a stand-in for Russia, which has been blighted by a dark “Shadow Fold” the sun can’t penetrate and man-eating creatures.

It’s there we find our heroine, Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a young, low-level soldier hopelessly besotted with her childhood best friend Malyen Oretsev (Archie Renaux). When Alina and Mal’s lives are endangered, Alina reveals her rare Grisha power of “Sun Summoner,” the ability to summon and control sunlight, which might be the key to ridding Ravka of the dreaded Fold forever. She’s whisked away for training by the mysteriously powerful (and obviously handsome) General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), leader of Ravka’s Grisha, leaving behind her beloved Mal.  

Archie Renaux as Malyen Oretsev and Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov in "Shadow and Bone" on Netflix. (Photo: David Appleby/Netflix)

Meanwhile, across the sea on the island nation of Kerch in the city of Ketterdam – which in the books is more established as a version of Amsterdam – a group of young street-gang ruffians including Kaz (Freddy Carter), Jesper (Kit Young) and Inej (Amita Suman) get the offer of a lifetime: For a small fortune, the “Crows” are tasked with kidnapping Alina for a rich merchant who wants to use her power for profit. Ruthless crime boss Kaz, knife-wielding acrobat Inej and sharpshooter Jesper head to Ravka in search of their bounty. 

Adding to the sprawling cast are Grisha Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan) and Grisha-hunter Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman). Matthias is from Fjerda, a Scandinavian stand-in where Grisha are hunted as witches. Matthias captures Nina, but a shipwreck forces them to work as unlikely allies. 

Danielle Galligan as Nina Zenik and Calahan Skogman as Matthias Helvar in "Shadow and Bone." (Photo: Attila Szvacsek/Netflix)

Even for new viewers, it’s pretty easy to see which parts come from which book series, and thus don’t fit together easily. Alina’s story is translated most faithfully, while the Crows, Nina and Matthias are indelicately shoved into her narrative. It’s a shame, because as was true on the page, the young criminals are far more compelling than Alina and her staid chosen-one storyline, with her typical YA romantic triangle. 

As “Shadow” unfolds, it’s frustrating  to see the rushed and haphazard way in which the world is built and the characters are introduced. Every bit of exposition feels incomplete. I can see the holes in the plots and characterization, and my knowledge of the books easily fills them in. But summer reading can’t be required for a TV show. It’s not until midway through the season that things start to fall into place for novice viewers. 

The maddening thing is that when you actually understand what is happening in “Shadow,” there is some really good TV there. The visuals are sumptuous, its setting a welcome reprieve from the sameness of so many fantasy series set in stand-ins for medieval England. The three young actors playing Kaz, Inej and particularly Jesper are sparkling. Young, effortlessly charming as the sharpshooter and gambling addict who tries too hard to charm, is the clear standout. Whenever he’s onscreen the series practically sings with energy, and a brief romantic rendezvous with a stableboy, though unimportant to the plot, has more sexual energy and chemistry than the main love story. 

Freddy Carter as Kaz Brekker, Amita Suman as Inej Ghafa and Kit Young as Jesper Fahey on "Shadow and Bone." (Photo: Netflix)

Li and Renaux’s romantic sparks improve over the the season as the stakes of their adolescent love are established. Similarly, Barnes’ Kirigan becomes a more compelling character after he stops explaining the “small science” of Grisha magic in each of his scenes. And starting with Episode 5, the series finds its groove, improves its pacing and establishes its stakes.

Five episodes is a long time to wait for a series to get good, but it might be worth it, even for non-readers. By the finale, a bombastic, smartly choreographed episode, all the pieces are in place for “Shadow” to go to bigger and better places in a potential second season. 

As a lover of all five books “Shadow” is based on, I may be irrationally optimistic about its chances for improvement. But it’s hard to give up on the stories you love. My hope is that Heisserer and his writers don’t, either. 

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