Mild spoilers for Shadow and Bone season 1 below.
Let’s make one thing clear: I don’t love fantasy. I usually find the worlds too packed with details I can’t follow, the names too long and confusing, and the fan bases so intense they’re intimidating. This is not meant as shade to any fantasy stans reading this—I really respect you! I’ve just…never felt like one of you.
Shadow and Bone changed all of that for me. My love affair with this Netflix series and the Grishaverse mostly has to do with the fact that the heroine, Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), is someone you immediately want to champion. She’s a cartographer in the First Army of the kingdom of Ravka who discovers she has magical powers; Alina is actually a Grisha, one of the residents of Ravka who can practice magic. I should pause here to quote Vulture’s Maggie Fremont: “If you’re out here calling Grisha people with ‘magic powers,’ you better check yourself, okay? As the novels explain, Grisha powers aren’t really ‘magic’ but more of a mastery of ‘manipulating matter at its most fundamental levels.’” Fremont is right, but the Netflix series definitely positions Grisha as “magic people,” because “manipulating matter” is a little heavy to get into when you just want to chill with a new series and pizza on a Friday night. “Magic” works.
As any fantasy lover knows, these worlds aren’t usually created solely for the screen; they’re often adapted from series that have a huge following.The same is true for Shadow and Bone: Netflix’s newest fantasy offering is based on the books by Leigh Bardugo, but it’s more complicated than that.
If you only just discovered this series and have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a breakdown of where the plot points and characters from the first season originated.
The series title is taken from the first book in the author’s main Grishaverse trilogy, also titled Shadow and Bone, published in 2011 (the other two books are 2013’s Siege and Storm and 2014’s Ruin and Rising). These books are solely focused on Alina’s story and Ravka.
But the show’s subplot, which opens in Ketterdam, follows characters from Bardugo’s second Grishaverse installment, a duology of books titled Six of Crows (2015) and its sequel, Crooked Kingdom (2016). The two books follow the Dregs, a gang of teenagers including Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter on the show), Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young) as they plot a series of incredible heists in the capital city of Kerch (another country in the Grishaverse).
The Six of Crows books take place in the years following the events of the Shadow and Bone trilogy, but the show really folds (pun intended) the events from both book series into one story, in which the Dregs are tasked with stealing Alina in a heist. If you haven’t read the books, you would have no clue that they don’t take place during the same time frame.
So, to recap: The Netflix series Shadow and Bone entwines two different book series—all of which take place in the same universe (that is, Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse)—into the same time period. Are you following so far?
“It was one of the first things Eric [Heisserer, the showrunner] said, because Eric had entered the Grishaverse through Six of Crows, and he really was passionate about adapting them,” Bardugo told ELLE.com. She explained how she had concerns about that approach, but was sold on Heisserer’s idea.
As Bardugo told fantasy blog of Winter Is Coming, “I wanted the world to feel big from moment one, and we understood that if we were lucky enough to continue the story, we needed to introduce these characters early on to make it possible for that to happen.”
This strategy allows for the world of the TV series to be “big” and it gives the show more dimension. “Shadow and Bone is very much a classic chosen one story, and Six of Crows is not,” Bardugo added. “Six of Crows is a heist story but it’s also a story about people who don’t have grand destinies, royal blood, great magical power. It’s about those that are considered expendable, that are caught in the crossfire. To me, bringing those two perspectives together in that first moment was much more powerful. It throws Alina’s journey and Ravka’s status as this isolated country into much sharper relief.”
I know, I know. This is a bold statement to make. Usually, fans of book series never like the film or TV adaptations better than the books, but Shadow and Bone might be an exception. I familiarized myself with the series via the Netflix vehicle, and I understand it might be easier for some to follow if you’re a person who’s read the Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows books—there are a lot of characters to keep track of. But even if you don’t know which books the characters and plots come from, you might be really entertained by the way the showrunners adapted the stories—without turning to the source material first.
But what do I know? I’m a recent fantasy convert. I just don’t think I’m entirely wrong when I say something about Netflix’s take just…works.