Netflix’s new YA fantasy series, Shadow and Bone, based on the best-selling novel trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, has an intriguing setting. Its fictional land, Ravka, is obviously inspired by late-Tsarist Russia. It’s excitingly unfamiliar. Our two heroes, Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) and Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux), have been best friends since they were children, having grown up together in an orphanage. Now they are soldiers in an army, dressed in smart forest green uniforms. Like so many Russian armies, their cohort is short of both food and bullets, and embroiled in several conflicts at once.
The army’s encampment borders the Fold, a strip of land clad in perpetual darkness and patrolled by hench winged monsters called volcra. Trips across the Fold are perilous, so when Mal is selected for a dangerous mission across it, Alina fears the worst. The blue-clad officer class, known as the Grisha, are magicians, able to summon wind and fire, but not light. Legends have told of a “sun-summoner,” who would be able to cast light and put paid to the volcra. If you think you can tell where this is all going, on the evidence of the first episode, you are right.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Fold in Ketterdam, a gloomy and lawless town of gambling and prostitution, the casino-owner and general rogue Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) hears that someone is prepared to offer a lot of money to a crew prepared to cross into the darkness, and starts recruiting his squad.
The first episode necessarily has to build a lot of world and establish a lot of relationships. Within those strictures, however, it keeps the incongruous exposition to acceptable levels. It errs on the side of letting the audience work out what’s going on, which shows refreshing self-confidence in what it has created.
Overall, Shadow and Bone leaves you with the unusual impression that the weaknesses in the TV version might be more to do with the source material than the treatment. Between the silly names and mythology, this is a thorough, detailed production, with crisp special effects and likeable lead performances from a diverse bunch. We get glimpses of several interesting characters, but on the whole, they are relegated in favour of the main tale.
Hopefully, this is rectified as the series goes on. This world at war is rich in subtext: poverty, race, class, sexual politics, crime, the relationship between the state and the individual. It would be a shame not to see it from as many angles as possible. Families are notably absent. Every institution that touches the lives of these young people, be it the army, a gang or a class, wants something from them in exchange for the scanty protections they offer. Ravka seems to be populated solely of kids who do all the work, and old people, who give orders, with no one in between. In this way, historical Russia becomes a surprisingly fertile ground for a riff on contemporary generational politics. It’s just a pity the messiah narrative is so heavily signposted, when you’d rather hear more about the naughty boys.
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