Her Name is Alina Starkov: A Shadow and Bone Review
I’ll preface this review with a simple fact: I’ve never read a single book in the GrishaVerse. I’ve seen Six of Crows and Shadow and Bone at the bookstore enough times to have been familiar with the covers, but I had absolutely no knowledge of what kind of story was within the pages.
And when Netflix dropped the first trailer for Shadow and Bone, I admit that I was intrigued, but I wasn’t exactly sold. I’ve been a little leery of Netflix’s fantasy offerings, as I’ve found they can be very hit (Witcher) or miss (Cursed… ok, I didn’t hate Cursed, but you’ll notice I also didn’t bother to write any reviews of it either). More than anything, my interest was peaked by the casting of Ben Barnes, an actor I hadn’t really seen in anything since Prince Caspian and Voyage of the Dawn Treader (and a handful of Westworld episodes). And once a king or queen of Narnia, always an actor I’m going to want to see again… or however that phrase went.
So if I’m being incredibly honest with you, I was not expecting to love Shadow and Bone nearly as much as I did. But saints, did I love this show.
Regarding Netflix’s fantasy shows, Shadow and Bone feels more Witcher than Cursed. It isn’t R-rated, doesn’t have quite the level of violence, nudity, or language that Witcher has, but in many ways, it feels like a spiritual cousin of that epic series.
The show has a very lived-in feeling to it, meaning that I’m hard-pressed in any episode to find the “Hollywood seams”. I think you probably know what I mean by that. There are fantasy and sci-fi movies/shows out there where you can almost “see” the production of it. Maybe not so far as a Starbucks cup sitting on the table in Winterfell, but there are some shows and movies that don’t feel like a lived-in world, like you can tell that none of what you are seeing on screen existed before the cameras started rolling. The costuming feels produced, the sets feel like sets, the props might be something you recognize from the real world. A good example would be the aforementioned Cursed; while I enjoyed that show, elements like the drawings that transitioned from one scene to another or how clean and pristine the costumes and actors looked at times despite the show being set in the Dark Ages really made the production stand out over the story.
To me, those are things that can easily take me out of a story, but that was probably the very first thing that stood out to me about Shadow and Bone: it felt lived-in. Like Witcher, like Lord of the Rings, like Harry freaking Potter, the world of the GrishaVerse felt entirely real, entirely as though these characters have been living through it for far longer than we’ve been watching it. And because of that, I was instantly drawn in by these characters and this story. And that’s ultimately what you want from a show like this: escapism, the ability to get lost in the story without any reminders- big or subtle- that these are just actors reading scripts on sets.
As much as this is me giving high praise to the production and costuming and props and set design, the highest of this praise has to go to the acting talent on display. Besides Ben Barnes, there aren’t really any recognizable faces in the cast (10 points to Gryffindor if you spot Madam Hooch, though), and that simply allows for us to let them be who they are rather than thinking of the other movies we’ve seen them in.
Jessie Mei Li controls the screen as protagonist Alina Starkov, and she instantly becomes a character that you root for and connect with. Archie Renaux, likewise, brings some great depth to Mal Oretsev (which I’ve heard was much needed from his book counterpart). Even Ben Barnes, despite his face being well-known to my Narnia-loving self, is able to adeptly slip into the character of the Darkling, and I’m pretty sure Netflix was playing on my knowledge of Barnes being the unquestionably good Prince Caspian to help disguise the fact upfront that he was the villain (although the black cloak, shadow-powers, and the name “Darkling” still gave that away).
But by far the most enjoyable characters came in the form of the Crows (who I’m very sad to learn are not in this trilogy, even though their story felt like it fit in perfectly… that just means I’m eagerly looking forward to reading their duology once I get through the trilogy). Kit Young’s Jesper is magnetic, Amita Suman’s Inej is both dangerous and heartwarming, and Freddy Carter’s Kaz Brekker is perhaps the most nuanced and interesting character in the who show. With the three of these characters together, I can definitely understand why Six of Crows and its sequel seem to be some of author Leigh Bardugo’s most popular books in the franchise. For characters who weren’t meant to be a part of Alina’s story, they certainly stole the spotlight at every single turn (which I guess makes sense as they are thieves, after all).
Another aspect of the show that I thoroughly loved was the soundtrack. Composer Joseph Trapanese wrote a beautiful and energetic score for this series, one that only further pulls you into the GrishaVerse and doesn’t let you go. Like the music for The Witcher or Lord of the Rings, the soundtrack feels as much a part of the world as anything else you see on screen. I find myself humming the tracks (especially the theme that follows the Crows) and listening to the songs on repeat. I listen to a lot of soundtracks, but rarely do I get so obsessed with new music as I have with this soundtrack. And to me, that’s all the more special because I’ve never heard anything else by Joseph Trapanese; I’m going to have to keep an ear out for this one.
But set design, characters, and music don’t add up to a good story if the story itself isn’t good. As I said, I’ve not read any of these books, but after watching this show I’ve quickly come to realize that I’ve been missing out. As a lover of fantasy books, I’m now pissed that I completely missed this series, and though I have a massive list of books I want to read, the GrishaVerse just made its way right to the top (just let me finish reading Skulduggery Pleasant book 14 first).
On the surface, the story is simple: a girl finds out she has extraordinary, mythical powers, is taken from her old life, falls for a man who might just be the big bad, and struggles with her feelings for her long-time friend and her role in saving the world. Frankly, it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before in other stories. But the world that these things are set in- with a devastating dark magic known as “the Fold” ripping apart the main kingdom, dealing with elements of racism and mistrust, war and grief- Shadow and Bone takes a lot of the elements that we’ve come to expect in YA books/movies/shows and weaves them together to create something entirely unique and compelling. And that is only made truer by the earnestness in which the cast breathes life into Bardugo’s world. It all comes together to make a story at the level of which I was simply not expecting from this Netflix series. Hell, I loved it enough to write this review before I put pen to paper on my Falcon and Winter Soldier review. That’s some high praise from me, as before the only fantasy story that could have outstepped the Marvel Cinematic Universe in my eyes would have to have come from J.K. Rowling’s mind.
Shadow and Bone is something entirely special. In a world where every YA book gets adapted and most don’t get adapted well, Shadow and Bone weaved some serious magic (or Small Science) to craft what is now one of my absolute favorite fantasy series. It sits right up there with Netflix’s The Witcher, and with BBC’s adaptation of His Dark Materials, and frankly, I haven’t been this smitten with a fantasy world as I am with the GrishaVerse since I was introduced to the Wizarding World.
For fantasy fans out there, I think Shadow and Bone is a must-watch. It is the kind of fantasy adaptation that is rare these days, and while I could easily have envisioned watching this on the big screen, I think it is further proof that epic books like these sometimes need the longer form of television to thrive (I’m still waiting for a Potter TV series… just saying). It took me far too long to get introduced to Alina Starkov and her world, but now that I know her name and her story, I won’t ever forget it. And I can’t wait to see what the Sun Summoner does next.