A lot of fantasy literature, film, and television is, at its core, about light versus darkness. Shadow and Bone could scarcely be more literal with that trope, as the central conflict is between the "sun summoner" and the darkness manipulator called The Darkling. But it's the rich cast of characters and excellent world-building that make Shadow and Bone worth sticking with after a bit of a slow start that's admittedly due to the ambition of the project.
Shadow and Bone, based on a pair of popular fantasy book series by author Leigh Bardugo but mostly focused on the Shadow and Bone trilogy, follows a seemingly unremarkable girl named Alina Starkov (talented newcomer Jessie Mei Li), a cartographer in an army populated by normal citizens of Ravka -- as opposed to Grisha, the race of people who demonstrate at a young age that they possess various magical abilities. The Grisha powers range from healers and elemental manipulators (fire, water) to something as powerful as someone who can summon light or darkness.
The darkness summoner, known as the Darkling, is tasked with destroying the Shadow Fold, a dark rift dividing Ravka in two that is teeming with horrific flesh-eating monsters called volcra. There are skiffs that can travel through the Fold from one side of Ravka to the other, but the journeys are fraught with danger and it is on one of these journeys that Alina discovers that she has powers. When her skiff is set upon by volcra, her best friend Malyen Oretsev (Archie Renaux) is gravely injured and she is nearly torn apart. To save herself and those with her, Alina unleashes her light summoning power and blasts the monsters with blinding light.
Alina had never been known as Grisha, having purposely failed the test as a child so as not to be separated from Mal. Now that everyone knows there is a potential "sun summoner," one who could permanently heal the Fold, Alina is taken to a small palace and begins training in order to realize the full strength of her power and save the kingdom.
She is watched over by General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), the head of the Grisha army, and the sparks fly almost from the moment they lay eyes on one another. So not only is young Alina struggling with the power within herself, but she also struggles with her feelings for this powerful older man and her childhood best friend back at home.
While all this is happening, a rogue band of thieves is traveling covertly through the Fold in an attempt to kidnap Alina -- fans of the books will know that this is an attempt to integrate Bardugo's book series the "Six of Crows," into the show. At first, this side storyline feels out of place and disconnected from the thrust of the main story, and because the main storyline takes time to get off the ground, the first two episodes can be a little bit of a slog as it introduces viewers to its universe through building its massive world. Eventually, however, the thieves come into play in a really fun way, culminating in an exciting final few episodes and setting up what is hopefully going to be a second season.
The cast is strong, particularly Li and Barnes in the two main roles. They have an undeniable chemistry together and it'll be interesting to see how the show addresses that in future seasons, should it be renewed. And the production value is excellent -- even when the plot could be clearer and faster moving, the sets, costumes, and special effects are very well done.
Overall, Shadow and Bone is a story about finding the power within oneself -- accepting that it is there and learning how to use it. Several characters, not just Alina, deal with that issue and some are more successful and make better choices than others. It's a theme that is relatable even for those who don't have magical powers.
The series also leaves off with a wonderful cliffhanger that sets up an exciting second season, so hopefully, Shadow and Bone will have a long life on Netflix.
TV Guide rating: 4.5/5
Shadow and Bone premieres Friday, April 23 on Netflix.