Editor’s Note: This SHADOW AND BONE review is spoiler-free
This reviewer is not proud to admit that they had not heard of Leigh Bardugo‘s Grisha trilogy until after catching the announcement trailer for the series. However, upon seeing the announcement, it was difficult not to be intrigued. Much like Game of Thrones, here we have a pre-established rich world in the Grishaverse ripe for exploration. But, on the flip side, there is additional pressure placed on all of those involved to bring this world, and the characters that fans adore to get everything pitch-perfect. Let’s be real, though. Perfection is impossible to attain. However, this reviewer would argue that what writer/executive producer Eric Heisserer has created in SHADOW AND BONE, with the help of his team and author Leigh Bardugo, is close to perfection. And, for newcomers to the universe Bardugo has created, they’ll become immediate converts to the Grishaverse fandom.
With the fantasy world viewers are about to enter and the wide array of characters featured in this adaptation of the Grishaverse, the first episode has to set the stage and set it, it does. The writers’ team Heisserer has brought together to adapt the series has to be commended. The team utilizes the vivid detail Bardugo has infused in her novels and merges both the Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows timelines together without things feeling clunky. It also aids in keeping the viewers from being overwhelmed, which is a major benefit to a fantasy series of this magnitude. By the end of episode one, there is a clear understanding of who the major players are. And, with the performances delivered by the cast, it is difficult not to get attached to any of the characters straight away. This reviewer can guarantee, though, that you’ll get attached awfully quickly.
One of the benefits of having Bardugo’s work to rely on is that the creative team of SHADOW AND BONE is not creating the world featured in the series from scratch. However, because of the scope of the universe, the logistical challenges placed on the team were immense. Don’t worry, though, because the efforts all paid off. Much like Amazon’s Carnival Row, there is a clearly defined culture that makes itself known from the very start, and it transitions seamlessly between different regions featured in this series. The differences between each setting are reflected well in the production design established by Jonathan McKinstry and Quamauri Turnbolt and the set decoration. Of note, none of these places feel out of place or detached, which was an issue this reviewer sometimes had with the Game of Thrones series. And, as the series progress, even though the audience is introduced to more areas of this world, the pacing is done in such a way that prevents the viewer from being overwhelmed in this reviewer’s opinion. From the battlefront to the Little Palace to Ketterdam, the audience is easily immersed in this world that has been created for us.
Part of what aids the immersion for the audience is the time and care taken in the costuming featured onscreen. Given the Russian inspiration featured in the Grisha trilogy, more specifically Russia of the early 1800s, there was a lot for costume designer Wendy Partridge to pull from for inspiration. As mentioned above with establishing different settings within the world of SHADOW AND BONE, Patridge and her team had their work cut out for them in capturing the visual differences between the Grisha, the Ravka soldiers, the Fjerdan, and more. However, each group of people is easy to differentiate through their clothing without being blatantly obvious. Even with the Grisha, who wear different colored kefta to indicate rank and their special abilities, don’t stand out unless necessary for the scenes required. And, in this reviewer’s opinion, that indicates a clear visual direction from on high as well as highlights Partridge’s ace execution and skill.
While quality writing is one thing and full-world immersion is another, a fantasy series is difficult to sell if the performances aren’t on point. Fortunately, this is not a problem in SHADOW AND BONE. As a fantasy series that focuses on the journey of self-discovery for Alina Starkov, a lot of pressure was placed on Jessie Mei Li’s shoulders to capture the spirit and essence of the character. While this reviewer is not familiar with how Starkov is in the books, Li completely captures you with her portrayal of Alina. As she navigates the rocky terrain that comes with being ‘other’ in a society that both hates her and loves her for what she can provide, Li hits all the emotional beats that will hook the viewer in. When Alina succeeds, you can’t help but smile. When she is overwhelmed, you are right there with her, wanting her to push past it. This emotional journey is a testament to Li’s portrayal and, honestly, this reviewer can’t imagine anyone else in the role.
While Li’s Alina Starkov is the main focus of SHADOW AND BONE, she is not the only one that deserves praise. Suzanne Smith did a phenomenal job casting this production and kudos have to be given. Li’s chemistry with Archie Renaux’s Malyen Oretsev is natural; their ease onscreen with one another easily sells the longstanding friendship their two characters have. Ben Barnes’s General Kirigan is as mysterious as the character is meant to be. As the series moves along, it’s fascinating to watch the layers of his performance shift the more the audience learns about him. For those who have been waiting to see Kaz, Inej, and Jasper come to life onscreen, the chemistry and delivery between Freddy Carter, Amita Suman, and Kit Young light up the screen. At times, it was difficult not to want the series to shift over to the Six of Crows characters a little bit more because the trio was absolutely magnetic. Honestly, there’s not a bad performance delivered in this series.
Remarking back on the casting, one of the many highlights of SHADOW AND BONE is how diverse the cast is. Remembering a time when casting in fantasy projects (really, most film projects if I’m being honest) was notoriously white, it’s so heartwarming to see the broad diversity featured here. From the extras to the core cast, it’s a lot easier for audiences to see themselves reflected in this world. The decision by Heisserer and Bardugo to emphasize the diversity in the world of the Grishaverse carries multitudes, especially in the casting of Jessie Mei Li as the lead. Growing up on YA female leads primarily being predominantly white and brunette, it limited the scope in terms of the possibilities of who can be considered the lead in their own story. However, in this era of adaptations, the casting in this series should set the tone and precedent for future projects.
Overall, SHADOW AND BONE is an easy watch. Because of how the series is written, if there was a learning curve, it was very slight for this reviewer’s introduction to the Grishaverse. There’s so much rich lore and character infused in every aspect of this series that it could have been easily overwhelming. However, it’s a testament to Heisserer and his team that they were able to logistically tackle immersing the audience into this world in such a way that it didn’t make one’s brain explode. The production, set, and costume design aided in immersing the audience. The way that the scripts for each episode were structured, the viewer is able to meet all of the characters without confusion. And, the glue that held all of this hard work together was truly the performances. As a newcomer to the world of SHADOW AND BONE, this reviewer is definitely converted and is eager to acquire the Grisha trilogy and Six of Crows duology, stat!