What could have been a fun fantasy heist is mired by unnecessary racism.
I've been excited about Shadow and Bone (showrunner Eric Heisserer) since I heard the announcement as I thoroughly enjoyed some of Leigh Bardugo's other grishaverse novels (which I reviewed here). The visuals looked great in the trailer, Ben Barnes as the shadow-manipulator radiated sexual tension, and worldbuilding looked fun.
In a lot of ways, the series delivers on these aspects. The series starts with Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a cartographer, and her best friend, Malyen Oretsev (Archie Renaux), stationed at the Fold, a wall of shadow that has split the country of Ravka in half. The Fold was made by a grisha over a century ago. While there are a variety of grisha abilities, most of them revolve around the elements, such as Inferni, who can manipulate fire (so a little bit of X-Men, a little bit of Avatar: The Last Airbender). The grisha and many people in Ravka believe a grisha will come to destroy the fold, a sun-summoner. As you have probably guessed, Alina is the sun-summoner, the chosen one, destined to destroy the Fold and unite Ravka once again.
Currently, the First Army of Ravka that Mal and Alina are a part of are at war with the country of Shu Han in the south. Here in lies one of the show's missteps. Throughout the first half of the series, low-key racial slurs are used pretty regularly against Alina, who is Shu but grew up an orphan in Ravka. In the original trilogy, Alina was had no connection to the Shu. While this could have been a thoughtful inclusion that provided a deeper commentary on war, imperialism, etc. it's largely used as a sledge hammer to remind the audience that Alina is different. These insults are also thrown around with very little context other than the idea that "Ravka is at war," thus reproducing a homogenized, Asian evil already prevalent in US media rather than comment on that exact issue. For further perspective on this issue, I encourage you to see threads by Alex Brown (@QueenofRats) and Morgan Al-Moor (@MorganAlMoor).
Alina quickly moves from different to special when she enters the Fold for the first time. Her fellow soldiers are attacked inside the darkness, and in order to save her best friend Mal, her grisha ability comes forward and destroys the shadows. With this ability comes the chance to destroy the Fold, and if not destroy it, create a safe way across, thus making Alina a very valuable commodity.
Enter Kaz (Freddy Carter) and his crew. For a million bucks, they take on the job to find and bring Alina to Ketterdam in the small island country of Kerch. First, though, they must settle their debts in Ketterdam, figure out a way across the Fold, and then sneak into the palace where Alina is being kept and trained.
The heist sections of the series really live up to the fun of Bardugo's other books set in Ketterdam. While the Ravka sections are interesting, the worldbuilding is largely familiar with Russian-influenced landscapes and cityscapes. Ketterdam pulls from a lively AU Victorian era filled with warring clubs, crime bosses, and magic. While we are largely used to the sweeping snowy landscapes à la Game of Thrones, Ketterdam had a fun flare that didn't get too mired in the Victorian muck. The heist sections, even upon leaving Ketterdam, still felt like the sharpest moments of the show because of their heist nature. While the scenes with Alina are very much the traditional "chosen one must learn their powers," the heist sequences had a direct goal, with consequences for failure.
Perhaps this is one of the largest issues with the show--it often felt aimless. Sure, it's a lot of fun and the visuals are pretty great, but it felt like too much story crammed into too few episodes. I was lost for the first half of the show about why the Darkling (Ben Barnes) is obsessed with Alina (though the sexual tension radiating off Ben Barnes was intense). I wasn't sure why Ravka was at war and why the Fold was such a hinderance. Plus, certain storylines feel entirely unneeded until later in the series, such as multiple episodes with the character Nina, which has no impact on the story until the end and feels like filler unless one is familiar with the books.
This same issue of too much world and too few episodes speaks to the problems of racism I mentioned earlier. With so much going on, the nuance gets lost. Same for Kaz's disability, which is largely glossed over, unlike in the books.
There's currently seven books in the grishaverse, and Netflix has already greenlit a second season. Here's to hoping that the show will slow down and provide the necessary nuance and context to get these beloved characters right and not cause frustration and harm to the viewers.
Baseline Score: 4/10
Bonuses: +1 for some fun heist sequences and criminal characters
Nerd Coefficient: 5/10
Posted By: Phoebe Wagner is a PhD candidate at University of Nevada, Reno. When not writing or reading, she can be found kayaking at the nearest lake. Follow her at phoebe-wagner.com or on Twitter @pheebs_w.
Reference: Shadow and Bone, season one, Netflix 2020.