There’s something so delightful about the fantasy genre when it’s done right. Maybe it’s the inner child in all of us that appreciates the mysticism and imagination that fuels every fantasy story, or perhaps it’s the adult in us that needs to fully escape our responsibilities for an hour or two. Regardless of the reason, the fantasy genre has cemented itself as a mainstay of popular culture over the years, which should come as no surprise. Fantasy excites our imaginations like no other genre through its characteristic immersive worldbuilding and vibrant characters.
A feature of this immersion is fantasy’s ability to make us question the conflicts and norms of our own world. Because media within the fantasy genre must build a reality from the ground up, oftentimes designing an entirely different social paradigm as well, thoughtfully created fantasy stories serve as the perfect stage for social commentary. Enter “Shadow and Bone,” Netflix’s latest fantasy series based on the Grishaverse, the universe developed by author Leigh Bardugo in her “Shadow and Bone” trilogy and “Six of Crows” duology.
“Shadow and Bone” combines the narratives from the two-book series, resulting in a thoroughly varied set of plots that culminates into a single, compelling story set in a fascinating universe. The Grishaverse includes a variety of ethnic and tribal divisions based upon regional distinctions, but the primary division in the universe is the one between Grisha, or individuals born with magical abilities, and non-Grisha in the country of Ravka. Non-Grisha view Grisha as witches and sorcerers meant to spread evil and abuse their power, while Grisha view non-Grisha as an oppressive enemy that seeks to exterminate them. Ravka is divided by the Fold, a mass of darkness and monsters which makes it nearly impossible to travel between the separated regions.
This setup does a number of things. First, it establishes a division between distinct groups of people who have no control over how they are born. In addition, the existence of The Fold provides a concrete obstacle to overcome, as a literal embodiment of division. The story’s primary protagonist is Alina (Jessie Mei Li, “All About Eve”), who was orphaned at a young age when her parents were killed attempting to cross The Fold. Alina is a nobody, orphaned and ostracized for her Shu ancestry, which is seen as a national enemy to Ravka. Alina’s predicament sets the tone for the series, wherein seemingly powerless individuals are required to tackle systemic structures and obstacles in order to preserve their world’s wellbeing. During this process, Alina transforms from a somewhat naive, self-doubting character to one capable of recognizing manipulation and abuse. Eventually, Alina learns to stand up for herself, driven by her increasing confidence in her abilities and moral discernment.
On top of its character development, one of the best parts of the series is how it plays around with the concept of love, going against our understanding of the divisions between familial, romantic and platonic love, opting instead for an ambiguous depiction. The heart of the show is the relationship between Alina and Mal (Archie Renaux, “Morbius”), who share a bond from their beginnings in the same orphanage. Through the letters they write to each other when they are separated for the first time, we come to understand everything the two have left unspoken during their relationship. It becomes clear that they are devoted to each other in a way that goes beyond traditional relationship definitions.
Similarly, the relationship between characters Kaz (Freddy Carter, “Pennyworth”) and Inej (Amita Suman, “Doctor Who”) is also profoundly supportive in a way that goes beyond a defined relationship, as they protect each other unconditionally. Kaz is a hustler of sorts who owns a gambling club, while Inej is a woman talented in combat who was sold into servitude as a child. Not quite a romance, but not quite friendship either, their relationship begins with an alliance meant to benefit both of them. This develops into Kaz helping Inej fight for her freedom from slavery, no matter the cost. Ultimately, the motivation behind their support of one another isn’t for any personal profit, but simply because it seems inherently right. It’s powerful, it’s human and it’s love in the rawest form.
It should also be noted that the relationship between Kaz and Inej is from the “Six of Crows” duology, while the relationship between Alina and Mal is from the “Shadow and Bone” trilogy. The combination of sources creates a strong narrative parallel we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten from the books alone.
Much in the same way the show benefits from its multitude of compelling relationships, the series also benefits from its diverse casting and welcome inclusion of people of color. Many series destroy nuance by featuring a single character of a given race because, consciously or not, the series asserts that character as a representative of their race, preventing them from fully acting as an individual. “Shadow and Bone” isn’t perfect by any means, but in casting a multitude of racial backgrounds and lending its diverse characters genuine personality and strengths, the show achieves true realism and nuance.
Given all of this, why is “Shadow and Bone” a series that we need as opposed to just another series we might enjoy? It boils down to the complexity of characters and storytelling the series manages to fit within a followable framework. Season one has eight 1-hour episodes — a totally manageable amount of content to consume — and yet it tackles so many interesting concepts and side plots and emotions. The major prerogative of dismantling division and quelling conflict is clear, and yet the series makes sure to highlight how complicated and unwieldy asserting widespread change really is. Currently, we’re in a world that is more tuned into injustice, inequity and political strife than ever, and it’s tough to find oneself as an individual amid so many daunting problems. But does that mean we shouldn’t try? If we are anything like Alina or the other characters in this show, the answer is a resounding no, which is ultimately why “Shadow and Bone” is absolutely worth the watch.
Daily Arts Writer Sarah Rahman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.