I’ll start this essay on Netflix’s Shadow and Bone TV series with the bold claim that The Six of Crows duology is a work of genius, but that the first book in the Shadow and Bone trilogy is uninspired, generic YA fantasy. It was so bad I barely made it through. Above all else I’m a character-driven reader, and Shadow and Bone featured an insipid, passive heroine, neither of whose love interests I found remotely interesting. So you can see that I had very mixed expectations when I turned on Netflix’s Shadow and Bone adaptation, which features stories about not only the characters from Leigh Bardugo’s earliest series set in the Grishaverse — Shadow and Bone — but also the characters from her later duology, Six of Crows.
Warning: Spoilers for both the books and series ahead!
As I said, I passionately love both Six of Crows and its sequel, Crooked Kingdom. They are an outstanding set of two books, with a nuanced cast of broken and criminal young people who are nevertheless not without hope and redemption. Kaz, Inej, Jesper, Matthias, and Nina — sorry to leave you out here, Wylan, but you’re not in the show! — are fascinating morally grey characters in both the books and the TV series. The characters are complicated, their relationships with each other are complicated, and while reading/watching you want to alternately smack them on the side of the head and give them a hug. Bardugo’s worldbuilding and plotting in Six of Crows are equally impressive. What more could you want than a page-turning story featuring a lovable and flawed squad set in a complex, sophisticated dark fantasy world?
It’s impressive how Netflix’s Shadow and Bone has integrated all that makes the Six of Crows series and their crew great into Alina’s story. At first when I started watching and realized their stories were happening in the same timeline, I thought: Did I make a huge mistake not continuing with the Shadow of Bone trilogy? Do my beloved criminals show up in book two or something? No. They’ve played with the timelines, inserting the “barrel rats” into Alina’s story, which in the Grishaverse happens significantly earlier. This means the entire plot line that brings Jesper, Inej, and Kaz across the fold to the Little Palace to kidnap the Sun Summoner was created for the TV show. I think the plot interweaving is excellently done, but I honestly wouldn’t complain even if it wasn’t because it is so exciting to see the characters I’m so attached to on screen.
As much as I love all my darling criminals, in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone adaptation, it’s Jesper who shines the most. Kit Young’s pitch perfect performance brings a much needed levity to both his own storyline with the Dregs, and more importantly to Alina’s story, which tends toward the melodramatic and takes itself a tad too seriously. He gets his tasks for the mission done — but he does it with style, jokes, and a well-planned two birds with one stone move when he seduces the stable hand from whom he needs to steal a horse. (Shout out to the most explicit sex scene being a queer one!). I’ve seen some reviews of the show labeling him gay, but in the books he is clearly bisexual and there’s no evidence to suggest otherwise so far in the show. I hope they don’t change that, because we always need more bisexual men of color in all media!
And then there’s Inej. I love her quiet strength and expertise. Amita Suman is glorious in the role. She plays Inej’s restrained calm beautifully. In conversations with Kaz and Jesper, Inej is often the one talking the least. But that doesn’t mean Suman isn’t doing anything. Watch Inej’s face, especially her eyes. There is a lot going on there, intelligence just brewing. If you want to see a woman fighting and kicking ass in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone adaptation, you’re not really going to see it with Alina. Pay attention to Inej though. She is graceful, swift, and awe-inspiring. Those knives, what beautiful props! Throughout Inej is also unwavering in her connection to her cultural and spiritual principles, even when she’s forced cross the line of taking a life in order to save Kaz’s.
That leads me to Kaz, who might be the trickiest character to bring to life in visual media, and the most difficult for any viewer new to his character. A lot of what’s going on for him is hidden under the surface, and he’s perfected a constantly stoic look that almost never betrays his emotional interior. He’s learned to do this because he knows that vulnerability gives ammunition to your enemies. The swelling music and the bloated screen time are trying to tell you Mal and Alina are the love story here. But for me the most emotionally resonant, full of love moment is when, after declaring it is stupid to fight the Darkling while they are still in the fold and refusing to do it, Kaz comes out onto the top desk of the ship unexpectedly. Why? To fight the volcra attacking Inej, who has already used all her knives on it. I literally gasped when he appeared out of nowhere, and rewound to watch the scene over and over again. It made me cry. Freddy Carter, wow!
Speaking of making me cry, let’s talk about my OTP Nina and Matthias. I knew from the beginning that Kaz, Inej, and Jesper would be appearing, but I somehow missed that Nina and Matthias would be featured in the Netflix show too. What a wonderful surprise! And their story is different, because it’s one that readers do know from the books. The backstory where they met as enemies in a war who had to learn to trust each other to survive in the frozen wilderness after a shipwreck is told in flashbacks in Six of Crows. Danielle Galligan (Nina) and Calahan Skogman (Matthias) have wonderful chemistry. Nina’s boisterous energy and easy self-confidence are wonderfully contrasted with Matthias’s uptight black-and-white worldview and awkwardness. Like their chemistry, their dialogue is crackling. They manage to establish an emotional bond even in the short amounts of screen time they’re given that makes the betrayal (but is it?) by Nina at the end of the series palpably painful.
But what about Alina and Co.? I was hopeful when I started watching that her story might catch me on screen in a way it didn’t on the page. But I am disappointed to report that it just didn’t. It was hard at times not to feel impatient for the story to return to either Kaz, Inej and Jesper, or Nina and Matthias. I feel like after eight episodes mostly focused on her journey I’m still waiting for her to actively do something. (Other than feel unable to be separated from Mal and getting the rest of the cartography crew killed by trying to worm her way onto that first Fold crossing). And then just as Alina finally claims her own power halfway through the final episode, the action quickly pivots to Mal and the Darkling fighting beside the ship. Do we have to go back to the two boys fighting over her? Boring!! And what exactly is the appeal of either of the interests in her love triangle anyway?
All this to say, long live Kaz, Inej, Jesper, Matthias, and Nina — no mourners, no funerals — but Alina Starkhov, I’m still waiting on season two of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone for you, your story, or your boys to interest me. Here’s hoping.