By John Ruberry
Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s there was the hope, egged on by the music media, that soon “the next Beatles” would arrive. The Bee Gees, Badfinger, and the Knack were among those acts who failed to match the hype. And no band could match the Beatles’ level because even when they were together they were already legends.
In that same time period there were even more “next Bob Dylans” heralded.
No one can supercede a legend.
Late last month the first season of Shadow and Bone began streaming on Netflix.
And many are wondering if Shadow and Bone is the next Game of Thrones.
Short answer? No. Longer answer? Not even close. And as HBO’s Game of Thrones has entered the world of legend, Shadow and Bone doesn’t have a chance.
Call me sadistic, but I knew in the first episode of GoT, “Winter Is Coming,” that here was a series that broke the mold when Jamie Lannister pushed young Bran Stark from a high window ledge so to hide his sexual relationship with his sister, Cersei.
With Shadow and Bone you are exposed to an eight-episode muddled mess.
The show is based on a trilogy of high fantasy books by Leigh Bardugo, and there are elements from two of her other works thrown in too. To understand what is going on you it seems you have to read all of these books first. And I’ve read none of them.
“Students,” I can see a teacher announcing, “your assigment is to read five books and then, only then, watch Shadow and Bone.” Uh, no.
The alternate world of Shadow and Bone is largely based on Russia of the late 19th century. The costume designers make the most of it and they deserve an Emmy nomination for their efforts. Soldiers wear fur ushankas and papakhas. Women don ornate dresses, the heads of civilian males are often topped with bowlers. While GoT and Lord of the Rings is rooted in the Middle Ages of western Europe, viewers here find themselves in the Russia of the Industrial Revolution. There are guns and a train. But no sword battles.
Ravka (Russia) is in the center of the continent and it’s separated by the Fold, a thick cloud wall inhabited by human-eating volcra, who are a cross between griffins and pterodactyls. Spoiler alert: there are no dragons. The Fold was created years earlier by an evil grisha, that is, a magic maker of Ravka. Maybe I’m a dope but it wasn’t until the third episode that I ascertained that the grisha were magicians. They are particularly adept at fire-starting. The grishas make up one of two armies of Ravka.
The central character of Shadow and Bone is Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a woman in her late teens and a grisha who is half-Shu Han. The Shu Han nation, which we don’t encounter here, is the show’s version of China and they are enemies of Ravka. To the north is Fjerda, a stand-in for Scandinavia. We see the Fjerdans when they fight the Ravkans.
An orphan–just like Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins–Alina encounters racism because of her foreign looks. She has a puppy love relationship with a fellow orphan, military tracker Malyen “Mal” Oretsev (Archie Renaux), they’ve known each other since childhood. Alina is a mapmaker for the First Army, the non-magical one–and man oh man, could viewers use a decent map here to get a grip on the geography of Shadow and Bone. Only one is briefly shown. More time is devoted to Alina burning maps.
We quickly learn that Alina, like Harry Potter, is a Chosen One. The revelation brings her to a grisha leader, General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), and the capital city of Ravka, where she meets the king, who looks a lot like Czar Alexander III. Alina is declared a Sun Summoner, that’s a really big deal you see, and then begins her training to fully utilize her powers.
Word spreads about Alina–all the way to the island nation of Kerch–which is Shadow and Bone’s version of the Netherlands, complete with its largest city, hedonistic Ketterdam, which parallels another city. Do I really need to spell out which one? We meet three underworld characters there, Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young) who leave Ketterdam to kidnap Alina for a one-million kruge reward. The three criminals have an intriguing dynamic and they are more captivating characters than Alina and Mal.
If you like elaborate clothes, eye-catching special effects, and being transporated to an alternative yet familiar civilization, then Shadow and Bone could be for you. But if you expect fully-developed characters and a coherent plot line, then stay away.
If magic and the 19th-century interests you then instead I recommend streaming Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell on Amazon. In this series, among other things, the Duke of Wellington is aided by a magician to fight the French during the Napoleonic Wars.
As for the grisha–if they are so powerful how come they are captured with relative ease?
Shadow and Bone is rated TV-14 for violence, adult situations, and brief nudity.
John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.