Television

In Netflix’s impressively realised Shadow and Bone, Leigh Bardugo’s popular fantasy books find a sumptuous apotheosis. By Peter Craven.

Shadow and Bone

Ben Barnes as General Kirigan (left), George Parker as Prince Vasily and David Verrey as King Pyotr (seated) in a scene from Shadow and Bone.
Credit: Courtesy Netflix

After The Sopranos landed in 1999, television viewers learnt to cotton on to long-form boxed-set TV that exploited serial narrative. Now in the age of Netflix, television series are something we might approach like a book, to be devoured in the biggest possible gulp.

This impulse is heightened in Netflix’s newest offering, Shadow and Bone, which derives from Leigh Bardugo’s fantasy novel of the same name, with an admixture of her other work – in particular, the two Six of  Crows novels about a team of crooked young desperados. In any case, the upshot is sumptuous and spectacular. It has a brilliant pace and command of narrative tension that is likely to win over all but the hardest realist hearts.

Fantasy, of course, isn’t everybody’s poison. Leigh Bardugo doesn’t belong with, say, the Shakespeare of the romances, or Philip Pullman – in The Book of Dust as much as His Dark Materials – as a writer who happens to use fantasy but who compels the attention of a general reader. She has a plain, efficient style, and she can effect neat transitions between third-person narration and the first-person narrative of her heroine. The primary function of her style is to enunciate the conjured mythology of her Grishaverse world with maximum lucidity.

The series looks magnificent, and it’s expertly acted by a young, largely British cast that includes Ben Barnes, who came to notice playing Prince Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia films. Barnes is a natural as the mature leading man in a performance of bravura glamour as Kirigan, the Darkling Black Heretic. The veteran Zoë Wanamaker plays Baghra, the sage whose intimate link to Kirigan gives her an inner knowledge of how dark his purposes might be. At the centre of the story is the protagonist Alina (Jessie Mei Li), a young girl who possesses the mysterious power of the Grisha.

The tale is elaborated with considerable grandeur. Alina was the childhood playfellow of Mal (Archie Renaux) and their hearts have belonged to each other ever since. There are recurrent moments of memory when they hear again the call back to the meadow of their love, but even when it is discovered that Alina has the great power of the Grisha – which she concealed as a child – they abide by their love. Alina’s power turns out to be a tremendous advantage to General Kirigan who in Barnes’s incarnation dances about her with the dark and handsome charms of an older man.

Meanwhile, a trio of crooked tricksters led by the mordant Kaz (Freddy Carter) pursue a counterplot of their own that is at variance with the apocalyptic gestures of the various lords, both dark and bright.

This subplot provides a half-ironic counterpoise to the sombre and earth-shattering main action and it was a bright idea to meld it with the Alina/Kirigan story.

Perhaps the most attractive aspect of Shadow and Bone is its coherent and sensuously sweeping embodiment of the various elements that fed into its conception.

The adaptation seems to me richer than the Bardugo novel it derives from while instantiating pretty ideal versions of the characters that its readers will have identified with. If no one in the cast has quite the soaring, savage authority of Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter in the recent TV adaptation of His Dark Materials, this elaboration of Shadow and Bone does have the irresistible authority of a popular novel that has been brought to life with the reverence and absolute faith of a sacred text that has found its consummation.

When Jack Thorne collaborated on the script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child the result – aided admittedly by the epic length of the stage show – was superior to the film scripts of the books and, arguably, to the books themselves. You suspect that something similar might be true of the eight hours of Shadow and Bone, which has a kind of breathtaking panache that doesn’t depend on prior belief.

It shows every sign of doing for the streamer adaptation of this fantasy novel what Peter Jackson did for the film of The Lord of The Rings 20 years ago. It may not have the heavyweight casting of Ian McKellen or Cate Blanchett, but it is swifter and – within the limits of the medium – better directed.

Shadow and Bone is resplendently shot with a dynamic interplay of concentration and epic spaciousness in Hungary, which works as a wholly convincing substitute for the crypto-tsarist Russia of Bardugo’s imagining. Trevor Nunn said once that Romanov Russia was the last moment in modern history when absolutism was conceivable, and this echo works like a dream in Shadow and Bone.

Barked Slavonic voices, stacks of ice and snow and Cossack hats, together with scenes in the Little Palace and elsewhere, capture a sense of Peter the Great’s city of white nights. It helps enormously that the cast are as lithe and convincing as they are. This is a young cast with plenty of diversity on show and they act like angels, speaking the relaxed standard English of youthful contemporary Britain.

Mei Li is perfectly natural as the sun-summoning girl, which makes Ben Barnes’s Darkling seem like a conceivable rival to Archie Renaux’s soulful, tough lover boy. The tricksters doing good in pursuit of wickedness are a delight. Freddy Carter as the ringleader Kaz gives a moody, scathing, brilliantly sustained performance of a hard man who was a boy just yesterday: he has a riveting presence on screen, bitter and scintillating. And then there’s Kit Young as Jesper, the charmer bad boy. This is a lovely exercise in good-humoured self-mockery, and Jesper, who likes the boys, has a riotously engaging snippet of gay sex which is indicated through smiles of desire, wild laughter and the shuffle of discarded garments.

Producer Lee Toland Krieger has created a comprehensive idiom for Shadow and Bone that is effortlessly convincing, both visually and verbally. The voices are British and non-parochial and not a million miles from Skins. The look of the show is Russian, but in a way that is shaped and shattered by the anything-can-happen box of tricks of a comprehensively ambitious fantasy worldbuilder. It seems Bardugo – also listed as a producer – has found her natural translators. This team has transfigured her storyline into drama and dramatic counterpoint while maintaining fealty to her particular epic fierceness, which defies every Aristotelian rule in the book.

The upshot is enchanting and exhilarating, even for the sort of person who might run a mile from this kind of thing. Partly because of the tricksters and their capers, as well as the impassioned human faces of good and bad characters alike, Shadow and Bone has a complexity that the story alone – especially the eponymous first volume – doesn’t quite contain. Shades of Game of Thrones, whose fans say the TV version outsoars the books.

Series creator Eric Heisserer and his German-sounding crews working with British actors have succeeded in building a world that doffs its cap to realism in the mimetic sense, even as the fantasy creates its mind-beguiling effects.

High jinks about the beckoning horror of the Shadow Fold, magical-mystery stuff about light that conquers all and the power of the Great Stag that Kirigan covets and transfers to Alina are all enchanting parts of this light and dark show. They should prove more or less thrilling to all comers – though with varying recourse to suspended disbelief. But for the casual viewer, the biggest hook is most likely the sheer amount of humanity the whole caper manages to capture.

Shadow and Bone doesn’t draw on coherent mythologies such as the Old Gothic and Nordic ring lore of the sagas that inspired Tolkien’s fantasy, or the Christianity that fed C. S. Lewis’ worlds. But this televisual marvel gives plenty of credibility to the imaginings that have sprung from Bardugo’s cauldron. 

Shadow and Bone premiered on April 23 on Netflix.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 24, 2021 as "A triumph of light and shade".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.