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Netflix’s Shadow and Bone is a muddled, joyless checklist of fantasy tropes

The new Netflix series Shadow and Bone, which lumbers into the world on April 23, draws instant comparisons to the giant upon whose shoulders it stands.

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One of the streaming network’s more anticipated recent releases, it’s an adaptation of the Grishaverse, a bestselling young adult fantasy series of novels by Leigh Bardugo based loosely on Tsarist Russia. But inevitably, what most viewers will be reminded of as they watch the eight-episode first season is Game of Thrones.

It’s unsurprising that the end of Game of Thrones left a void in the fantasy landscape that many networks, including Netflix, have been vying to fill.

Out of all of these titles, Shadow and Bone feels the most like a would-be Game of Thrones successor. A typical Chosen One narrative, the story centers on a teenage orphan named Alina, who works as a mapmaker on the front lines for a perpetually war-torn country called Ravka. In the heat of battle, she discovers unexpectedly that she belongs to the Grisha — a group of humans with supernatural powers.

Alina’s long-dormant ability allows her to transmit powerful rays of sunlight, making her a vital and unique weapon. In fact, her emergent power reveals her to be a fabled saint known as the “Sun Summoner,” the only person capable of offering safe passage through the Fold, a pitch-black, monster-filled sea of fog that has split Ravka into two halves. Suddenly, Alina is the key to bringing peace to the nation — so naturally, it puts a giant target on her head.

A frenetic, demanding action score accompanies nearly every minute of every episode, as if allowing us a moment’s silence might reveal that most of what’s happening onscreen is actually uneventful. Shadow and Bone’s opulent settings and production design work against it, because the story isn’t rich enough to fill it. And Alina herself is glaringly one-note, with actor Jessie Mei Li delivering constant wide-eyed shock but little else.

There’s a good reason the bond between Alina (Jessie Mei Li) and the Darkling (Ben Barnes) — er, General Kirigan — is a favorite among fans of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone source material, who were undoubtedly excited to see them meet for the first time in “We’re All Someone’s Monster.” There’s something rich about their interactions and the unique understanding they share… and they’ll become incredibly influential figures in each other’s lives throughout the rest of the season and the series, should the Netflix fantasy drama get a second season. (Also, they’re literally opposite sides of the same coin: the power of light, the power of darkness. It’s darn poetic.)

After the incident in the Fold in the first episode, it’s clear Alina is not just an orphan trained to be a cartographer. Her “sun summoner” powers make her valuable to some and a target for others, and they set her on a course that leads her away from her best friend Mal (Archie Renaux) and toward the mysterious Gen. Kirigan and the lavish lives led by the powerful Grisha. Meanwhile, across the Fold, Kaz (Freddy Carter) and his team of criminals are figuring out how to cross the void of death (aka the Shadow Fold) without, you know, dying.

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On the other hand, showrunner Eric Heisserer has gone out of his way to deepen the Netflix adaptation by incorporating elements from other books in the Grishaverse that gave the world more depth and introduced more interesting characters. Instead of actually giving the first season more complexity and scope, however, these additional elements are mostly logistically and tonally confusing.

After she wakes up, Alina is separated from Mal and taken into Kirigan’s tent. With an audience of Second Army soldiers, he performs a test with a claw-shaped ring to tell if Alina is, indeed, Grisha — and when he drags the ring across her skin, a beam of light erupts from her. So yeah, she’s definitely Grisha… and she’s very important. From there, she’s quickly whisked away into a carriage. She begs to be able to say goodbye to Mal or at least to tell him she didn’t know she was Grisha (in a flashback we see they avoided the test to determine whether they were Grisha as children, not wanting to be separated if one of them had powers and the other didn’t). Mal tries to catch her as she leaves, but he’s injured from the ordeal in the Fold and can only watch her go.

Predictably, the journey through the forest does not go smoothly. Two Second Army soldiers gawk at Alina as they ride, asking her how she never knew she was Grisha and marveling at her power. They’re interrupted by a swarm of Druskelle soldiers; the Druskelle come from Fjerda, and their mission, overall, is to kill all the Grisha. That specific group, however, is after Alina — they, like the rest of the world, saw the eruption of light from the Fold and figured out the connection between it and the company of Second Army soldiers.

Never Alone

They almost succeed. One Druskelle is poised to kill Alina, weapon ready to strike — but she’s saved by Kirigan, who creates a blade out of shadows and cuts the man in two. He tells Alina she’ll be traveling with him now, and they head for the hills, making their way toward the Little Palace. Seemingly unaccustomed to horseback riding, Alina begs Kirigan to stop (“My tailbone hurts!”). They take a quick break, where she asks him about his powers (he’s not inclined to share), learns he’s tried to take down the Fold (but he can’t avoid the monsters) and that if she can get rid of the Fold once and for all, they’re hopeful that Grisha might be able to live in peace. Currently, everyone thinks the fear of Grisha is because they created the murderous void in the middle of the country. Alina reprimands him when he expresses amazement that she’d shirk the test that could’ve shown her she had powers. She snaps that she didn’t want to be alone, to which he responds, “You are Grisha. You are never alone.”

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They make it to the palace, where Alina is set up in a luxurious suite but clearly feels more like a prisoner. She cries until she hears footsteps in the hall, then she finds the only thing passable as a weapon in the room — a letter opener — and shoves it under her pillow.

Back at the camp, Mal tries to convince his commanding officer to go after Alina, but he’s not having luck; the guy just says that with Kirigan is the safest place for her to be. Mal then starts to take matters into his own hands and saddles up a horse to ride off to the palace, but his friends stop him and talk him out of it. His new plan seems to be doing something heroic to earn an invitation to the palace, rather than having to sneak into a place where someone could, quite literally, kill him with a glance. So, as the episode ends, the two remain separated. But as they lie down to sleep miles from each other, they each reach out to the opposite end of their beds, each thinking about holding the other’s hand. Aw!

Inej’s New Job

In Ketterdam, Kaz and his Crows have six hours to figure out how to cross the Fold, or the job is going to rival leader of the Dime Lions, Pekka Rollins (Dean Lennox Kelly). Kaz won’t allow that, and it turns out that part of the answer to his problem is sitting in his club, cheating at cards. He has the card-counting woman brought to his study, where he interrogates her and learns she’s from Ravka and crossed the fold with the help of a man who calls himself “The Conductor.” But to get to The Conductor, he needs to speak with someone named Poppy (Micah Holmes) first, and apparently, there isn’t great history between the two.

Shadow and Bone
Netflix

Meanwhile, Inej (Amita Suman) gets a summons to the Menagerie, Ketterdam’s premiere brothel — and her former hellacious workplace, until Kaz recognized her talent for sneaking in the shadows and paid to get her out of there. The problem is, Kaz is paying in installments, and technically, the Madam, Tante Heleen (Deirdre Mullins), still owns her. That means, that even if the Crows figure out a way to cross the Fold, Inej won’t be able to go. But that could change, Heleen says, if Inej does one more job for her: she wants Inej to kill a supposed human trafficker.

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A Guide Through the Fold

Inej isn’t thrilled at the idea of killing anyone, so she asks the kind-hearted sharpshooter Jesper (Kit Young) for help. Jesper asks his friend how getting him to kill someone is any different than her doing it herself. He can’t do it, anyway: as it turns out, Kaz needs him to cause a distraction so he can sneak in and talk to Poppy. Jesper performs admirably, shooting the place’s signs down chain by chain, while Kaz creeps in and chats with Poppy. Turns out, Heleen was actively working against them — she lied about the identity of Inej’s mark. The Conductor (Howard Charles), who is really a smuggler named Arken, is the man she has been sent to kill. He’s not providing for the Menagerie; he’s moving and reuniting families across the Fold.

But of course, Inej doesn’t know that. She’s mere moments away from killing the guy when Kaz bursts in and tells her to stop. He explains the situation and tells The Conductor that they have a job for him. Aghast, Inej asks Kaz if he’s really choosing this job over her freedom. He’s not; he then, unbeknownst to his friends, goes to Heleen and makes a new deal with her; he’ll pay off the rest of what he owes for Inej when he returns from the job, but in the meantime, he’s giving Heleen his beloved Crow Club as collateral.

vox.com, crowrivermedia.com

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