Netflix series turns fantasy and young-adult tropes on their heads
We all know the well worn “chosen one” fantasy trope. A young man unaware of his worth discovers his special purpose and saves the whole world. It’s a reliable standard in need of periodic freshening up, an endeavor that the new Netflix series Shadow & Bone undertakes with a pleasantly satisfying level of success.
Set within author Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, Shadow & Bone tells the story of Alina Starkov, a feisty young woman with a ripe case of orphan protagonist syndrome. The vaguely Russia-ish country, Ravka, is war-torn for hazy reasons involving a giant curtain of blackness that divides the land, and the fear neighboring countries harbor toward the Grisha, an elite force able to manipulate matter in superhuman ways. It’s reminiscent of Avatar, the Last Airbender, with ample indistinct accents thrown in so we knows it’s serious. Turns out, lifelong misfit Alina is not only an undiscovered Grisha, but also the most uniquely powered of her kind in hundreds of years. She can summon the sun, and become the literal light for her people.
While Alina’s story gets rolling and the proper young-adult situational love triangle practically self-assembles, the show folds in a synchronous storyline for extra depth and razzle dazzle. This one involves characters from Bardugo’s Six of Crows series, a motley cohort of street rats who hang tough on the harbor side of Ravka’s dark curtain. As a crew, they always hanker for a sweet heist, and the opportunity to kidnap the Sun Summoner and bank a generous bounty proves too delicious for them to resist.
Because Game of Thrones taught us storylines need no limits, Shadow & Bone weaves in a third thread, following the struggles of a comely Grisha captured by a burly witchhunter, allowing us to witness their obvious hate-to-love character arc blossom.
The way the show intermingles the events of a written trilogy with previously untold adventures from a complementary duology feels fresh. Sometimes the wibbly wobbly timelines flounder around artlessly, but the ambitious undertaking plows onward, and eventually, finds solid ground.
The show further upends the stock tropisms of both the young adult and fantasy genres by featuring females who deliberately choose their own paths. Too often, teen girls on the page rely on internalized, feelings-heavy monologues to carry their journeys forward. Onscreen, this translates into heroines with oatmeal-level charisma, passively watching as life happens to them. Shadow & Bone mindfully adjusts this by deepening its source material, correcting its weaknesses, and ensuring its heroine comes into her power by her own agency.
Sure, Alina’s trainer resorts to mental and emotional abuse to push her towards action, and the opposite-powered Shadow Summoner seduces her for his own dark purposes with his meaningful stares and sad eyes, but the events unfurl around her because of her choices. And Alina isn’t alone in owning her actions, as the other storylines unfold similarly. Inej, a stealthy tightrope walker, may be indebted to her traveling companions, but she relentlessly forges her own path. Nina, the kidnapped Grisha, never succumbs to the damsel-in-distress role dealt her way by the story gods, as she constantly remembers her innate power. The story offers no tokens marauding as characters, but rather, serves up a diverse array of personalities the audience can enjoy and in turn, root for.
The politically warmongering reality of Shadow & Bone never serves the story as more than a backdrop, which works in its favor, as attempts at heavy lifting would absolutely collapse this unusual universe. It fuels itself with feels, and achieves a certain level of magic, or, as the Grisha would call it, small science. And when it’s done this well, the audience will be there to watch it unfold for as long as Netflix will allow.