(Note: Shadow and Bone/Grishaverse books and show spoilers)
As a fan of Leigh Bardugo’s fantasy novels since 2016, I admit that I started the Shadow and Bone Netflix series with high, specific expectations. Viewers who haven’t read the books might have been more immersed in the show than I was. Adaptations often need to condense characters or alter plot details. However, the first season eliminates some of my favorite aspects of the books.
The pilot episode opens with significant changes: combining Shadow and Bone, Bardugo’s 2012 debut novel, with Six of Crows, published three years later. Both take place in the same world, but in different countries and with characters who only meet near the end of the book series, if at all. All of this jumping around between countries might be confusing, especially if you haven’t read the books. Countries with distinct cultures in the books are barely introduced in the show.
This requires changing the story too drastically. While some viewers found the Crows’ plot to kidnap the Sun Summoner, Alina Starkov, thrilling, I found it out of character. As I tweeted when watching: “Why would my lovable band of bantering misfits kidnap Alina instead of stealing from rich merchants?”
The Grishaverse, especially Six of Crows, is an underdog story. It’s about a diverse group of marginalized, traumatized people fighting their oppressors: enslavers, rapists, capitalists, and corrupt rulers. The show makes it clear that Inej is a sex trafficking survivor, but elsewhere, the Crows’ ethos gets lost. In the book, they punch up at powerful people and would never agree to abduct a fellow, marginalized teen for money. They’re morally ambiguous, yes, but this is a line they’d never cross.
I hope future seasons include Wylan van Eck, an integral member of the Crows in the books, who was omitted from the show. Ideally, the title Six of Crows could be incorporated in some way. It refers to the group’s six members: Kaz, Inej, Jesper, Nina, Matthias, and Wylan. The Crows literally wouldn’t exist without Wylan.
I love Wylan as a character, partly for his nuanced disability representation. Wylan is a musician with a learning disability. He plays by ear. His abusive father Jan, a wealthy merchant, expects Wylan to take over his businesses. Jan van Eck mocks his son’s struggles to read, write, and do math. The skills Wylan contributes to the Crows include spatial awareness and brainstorming plans.
Kaz, like the author herself, walks with a cane. Kaz is loyal, often intimidating, and a total badass. In the show, Kaz fights ableist bullies who insult him. Several characters, including Kaz and Inej, have PTSD. Without Wylan, I still like the show’s disability representation, but it’s less diverse in terms of types of disabilities.
Many viewers have commented that race is awkwardly handled in the show. Another major change: Alina is Shu and Ravkan (in our world, Asian and white) in the show. Her race or ethnicity is not specified in the book. In one infamous line about 30 seconds in, Alina explains: ”I look like my mom, who looked like the enemy.”
I can’t speak to the racism from personal experience. So, when I hear such a jarring line, it takes my mind out of the story and into author and critical theorist mode. To quote Roland Barthes: “Qui parle? Who is speaking thus?” I know it’s literally Alina speaking, but whom is she quoting? Who told her she looked like the enemy? Everyone? This tacked-on racism was not in the books’ worldbuilding.
Over at The Daily Dot, Angeline Rodriguez brilliantly describes the show’s incoherent approach to racism. Shadow and Bone piles one microaggression over another without ever contextualizing why these characters are racist. “Having fantasy racism and actual-race racism coexist in the same fictional world is a historically fraught needle to thread, however, and certainly not a pitfall Netflix manages to avoid here,” Rodriguez writes.
Frequent demonstrations of Alina’s Sun Summoner powers make for dramatic special effects but also gloss over the world-building once again. The books’ geography, history, magic system, and types of Grisha are all complicated. The cults that grow up around Saints require politics, religion, secrecy, and ambiguity. Books are less flashy and more subtle than TV. Still, the show tries to fit Alina into a “Chosen One” narrative common in fantasy. That’s not wrong per se; it’s just necessarily way more collaborative and complex in the books.
I love the entire cast, especially Ben Barnes as the Darkling and Jessie Mei Li as Alina. I hope future seasons include more information about the Darkling’s family history and other fascinating lore from the books. I hope Nikolai (the charming King of Scars himself), Wylan, and other beloved characters appear in any future seasons. But as a book fan, I may not be watching.