Well, it does have Ben Barnes. You’ve been warned for spoilers now.
When I first heard about the new Netflix series “Shadow and Bone”, it didn’t make much of an impression on me. The name sounded weird, it seemed like another generic YA fantasy fiction outing, and after a year of lockdowns, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to focus on another world-building exercise with its own unique set of rules and unpronounceable words. But I took the dive and watched the first episode and it’s quickly become one of my faves. Here are some things I loved about the series -
I loved the main character’s agency
Alina, the main character is written well. She’s powerful, but no Mary Sue. She incites the plot. She initiates her romance. She constantly adapts to the situations in her life and makes the decisions to believe in herself and her powers when she has every reason to be doubtful. She’s thrust into a role she didn’t expect and struggles with her newfound powers. She makes mistakes and trusts the wrong people. But at the end of the day, she learns from them and trusts herself to do the right thing. It was really refreshing to see her deal with the subtle racism about being a Shu in her society, and the representation that no matter how powerful she is, she looks different so she is judged first by her appearance.
Crucially, she is given the agency to doubt and ultimately reject the dreamboat who turns out to be toxic for her mental health. Too many pieces of fiction glamourize a toxic relationship where it’s clear the man wants the woman only as a prize, ignoring her inner life and romanticizing terrible behavior to a partner. I was so happy that this series showed, a person can be great, and they could love you but still if they are bad for your mental health, walk away. I cannot remember a single fictional example where this theme is reinforced and I love this series for putting aside outdated tropes of ‘forbidden love between broken people’ and focusing on realistic relationships with healthy boundaries and how compelling these can be.
The casting diversity
As a woman of colour, specifically, South Asian, the media depictions I see of people like me is woefully bad. Even within South Asian spaces like Bollywood, often female characters are reduced to one-note love interests and eye candy for the viewers, a blank wall whose inner emotions are never examined where the viewer’s fantasies can be projected onto. So imagine my surprise when this series gave me not one, but TWO gorgeous but completely different South Asian women. The vivacious Zoya and stoic Inej. I love that one of them gets to be a mean girl who gets a redemption arc. They both get to be badasses with their own fighting style. They get to be tough but also vulnerable. They feel like proper people with dimensions, flaws and character. They get to acknowledge each other’s Suli heritage and fight side by side. You cannot imagine what it meant for me to experience this.
I would be remiss to not point out the fantastic diversity of the show, including the ethnicity of the cast and the portrayals of both neurodivergent and LGBTQ+ characters. We have a main character who uses a cane and another who struggles with their ADHD. I love how Kaz is aware of the stregths and weaknesses of each of his team members and gives them tasks suited to their skills.
Complex female characters
“But why just female”, you ask. Because men are overwhelmingly the heroes in stories. Society expects a man to be independant and make his way in the world while women are born into set expectations of how they will live and behave. Did I like all the storylines? No. But does the world and the people in it feel like they are complicated people with inner lives, motives and conflicts? Yes. Alina? Struggles with her new found powers. Inej? Struggles with her beliefs versus the circumtances she is put in. Zoya? Struggles with her innate superiority complex of being a Grisha. Baghra? Faces a tough choice between loving her child and the consequences of his actions. Genya? Struggles with maintaining her identity and desires while serving someone else. Nina? Struggles to stay alive in truly hostile terrain. All of these were nuanced and they never felt boring
A superb antagonist
Ben Barnes’ General Kirigan is the most obvious villain in every way. The man is tall, dark and handsome, always wearing black and brooding over something. It’s clear from the first scene he’s in that he is bad news. Not to be messed with. The story approaches him from a distance, initially creating a myth around him. We learn along with Alina the lengths he goes to protect his fellow Grisha, to train them and secure a future for them and it gives us a false sense of safety around him. He feels special, obviously dangerous to his enemies but he shows a caring side towards the people important to him. He’s clearly a sympathetic antagonist, charismatic and able to convince everyone that his actions are for the good of the land. His motivations well hidden till the last minute and he’s shown to be a formidable strategist and passionate leader. I mean, would I totally betray the world for this guy even though he’s very bad? In a heartbeat.
‘Shadow and Bone’ is not a perfect series. There are obvious problems in the narrative, most glaring of which is Mal’s plot armour and how vague Alina’s powers are. I dislike the editing around Alina’s childhood memories and the weird unspoken awkwardness she has around Mal. But overall, I found it a compelling series with interesting characters and I can’t wait for the next season. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out on Netflix and let me know what you think!