Shadow and Bone premieres April 23 on Netflix.
By Chris Flanagan
“Who Are You?”
It’s a question that is repeatedly asked of the protagonist, Alina, throughout Shadow and Bone and one she struggles to answer early on but eventually discovers as the series progresses. Personally, I had no such question for the series because it contained almost nothing I haven’t already seen attempted before. Furthermore, the only question I was left with after watching this was, “When will Netflix stop making these mediocre YA adaptations?” and similar to Alina finding her answer, I too have mine – Never.
Shadow and Bone, adapted from Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy, is a young adult fantasy that follows the life of Alina Starkov, a teenager who discovers she has fabled magical abilities above and beyond that of others who also have magical gifts, also known as Grisha. Alina lives in Ravka, a Russian-inspired land, that is divided by The Fold, a centuries-old dark mystical wall which is populated by the Volcra, monsters intent to kill any who pass through to the other side. The Fold’s natural separation of the land into two separate countries allows for the series to explore plots of war, murder, and various twists and turns of trust and secrecy surrounding Alina and her life-long friend, Mal as they attempt to choose their own paths despite the entire world’s expectations for who they should be. As the show moves forward, the plot attempts to become more interesting when more characters, such as The Crows, and worlds are introduced. As these layers are added, it becomes apparent that Alina is not the most interesting character of the series which is problematic considering she is the story’s central character.
While Shadow and Bone attempts to romanticize the adapted material, it easily succumbs to the many traps and tropes of transferring a young adult novel from page to screen. Few parts stand out or help develop characters that are truly interesting as most plotlines and paths result in a predictable buildup across 8 episodes leading to a finale that is expected and wished for a lot sooner while also leaving the possibility open for additional seasons. This is a sad statement because Jesse Mei Li (Alina), Freddy Carter (Kaz Brekker), and Ben Barnes (Gen. Kirigan) all turn in solid performances for the respective roles and do their best to shine beyond a meandering story but are often contained by their characters. It can be seen as a wasted opportunity but my hope is that their performances will hopefully lead to better and more challenging roles.
But maybe I’m criticizing too harshly.
After all, when was the last time that we were shown a story featuring an oppressed teenager protagonist from the wrong lineage who discovers that they are the “chosen one” after discovering something within themselves when faced with losing their life-long friend and potential love interest to a cataclysmic event and who is then thrust into a journey of self-discovery and growth that forces them to learn life lessons after placing her trust in the wrong people only to realize before it’s too late that the best decision is to trust their heart, leading to good triumphing over evil and winning the day…at least until the evil returns in another form.
A series like Shadow and Bone can be highly frustrating because while it was greenlit from a successful novel with a semi-intriguing premise it seldom does anything to elevate itself from the pack of already crowded series adapted from source materials or a similar DNA. It’s because of this that Shadow and Bone should be best experienced as background noise while conducting other activities around the house. it is a series that demands little to no emotional investment in its characters or plot and is never in any danger of expanding or exploring beyond the very defined narrative confines it establishes in its earlier episodes only to milk that for runtime until its finale. Simply put, Shadow and Bone is a show that has contains magical elements throughout but is easily devoid of anything magical about it.