Before embarking in the review for the first season of the series inspired by Leigh Bardugo’s trilogy I need to state that I have not read her books, so I came to this story in total ignorance of its background and characters, which makes me unable to compare the two mediums – although, from what I was able to gather on various comments online, it would seem that the translation from books to screen was reasonably faithful to the source material. I also learned that the script is a mix between the Shadow and Bone trilogy proper and the story portrayed in the Six of Crows duology, which for me added a nice counterpoint to the core narrative (and compelled me to finally add Six of Crows to my reading queue, after leaving it to languish on my TBR for far too long).
The story, in a nutshell: the kingdom of Ravka (which bears an uncanny resemblance to Tsarist Russia from the 19th Century) is split in two by a phenomenon called the Fold, an area of turbulent darkness inhabited by the Volcra, ravenous and nightmarish creatures. The kingdom is further divided by the separation between its mundane inhabitants and the Grisha, people with the ability to manipulate elemental forces, and for this reason both feared and despised. Young Alina Starkov, an orphan serving in the military, discovers that she holds a unique power, that of summoning light – a power that might vanquish the Fold and its terrible creatures forever: for this reason Alina finds herself at the center of a power struggle whose main strings are connected to General Kirigan, also a powerful Grisha, whose goals might not be completely straightforward…
As I said, I came to this series with no previous background, and at first I was a little lost in trying to connect all the dots, particularly because there are three main narrative lines in the story: the one focused on Alina, the one following the Crows (a band of thieves looking for the heist that will make their fortune) and the one about a Grisha who’s been kidnapped by enemies of Ravka. Once I got my bearings however, I was able to enjoy the story and get invested in it, although I have to admit that sometimes it felt as if the viewers were forced to bite off more than they could chew: my lack of knowledge of the books series played a part in this, of course, but I had the impression that a couple more episodes, besides the eight slated for this first season, might have given the narrative more room to breathe. The crowded storylines, while offering the possibility of moving across Ravka with the change of POW and therefore exploring the setting in its different locations, left little room to truly grow attached to the characters who seemed to me more like archetypes than living and breathing creations with which to establish the necessary emotional connection.
And indeed the archetypes abound in this first segment of the story: Alina is the classic orphan, shunned and underrated, who is later discovered as the holder of a vital power that will turn her into the proverbial Chosen One. She moves through all the required stages of… chosenhood (is that a word? 😀 ), from denial to wonder to acceptance and for most of the time she lets herself go with the flow, sometimes making ill-advised choices or trusting the wrong people, in what are the established canons of YA literature. There is also the hint of a love triangle that – to my enormous relief – did not last long, momentarily shifting Alina’s affections from her childhood friend Mal to the enigmatic General Kirigan, the Shadow Summoner. This latter represents another YA firm staple, that of the darkly brooding character who serves as the antithesis to the shining wholesomeness of Mal, who in turn is not exempt from the expected mix of courage and willing sacrifice.
The three Crows, while following some of the genre’s criteria, appear more intriguing, mostly because we are shown only the surface of their personality and perceive that there is much more in their backgrounds worth exploring: Kaz, their leader, clearly suffered some tragedy in his past, which forced him to don a cynical protective armor; Inej is a former slave with the skills of a ninja and a powerful drive for freedom; and Jesper (my absolute favorite) is a sharp-shooter and a lovable maverick. I liked very much how their narrative threads intersected with Alina’s and even more the fact that they might feature more prominently in the seasons to come: nothing like a good crew ready to launch into a daring heist to keep my attention focused, even more than the main events did, at times.
If the characters still need more room to grow and expand, the series’ settings are its best feature so far: from the hints about the social and racial divides at the roots of Ravkan society to the gorgeous costumes to the amazing visuals, all contribute to paint this world quite vividly and turn it into a believable reality. The scenes alternate between the bright light of some interior settings to the outside panoramas of chilly, snowbound vistas that give way to the fearsome darkness of the Fold, in my opinion one of the best CGI creations of the series: when the characters travel through this area where thunder rumbles constantly, you are instantly assailed by the ominous sensation that something terrible is about to happen, and the choice of not fully showing the predatory Volcra, but rather offering only swift, almost subliminal glimpses of their appearance, makes them even more terrifying than a full manifestation and intensifies the sense of fear they must inspire.
This first season of Shadow and Bone might not have been perfect, and was certainly too brief for the huge amount of information it had to deliver, but when all is said and done it shows great promise that I hope to see fulfilled in the seasons yet to come, and I’m looking forward to them with great interest.