When an unsuspecting mapmaker, Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), unveils an extraordinary power, dark forces rise and the fate of the world is put on the line while she learns to control her abilities. Based on the novel of the same name, Shadow and Bone introduces us to a fantasy-based world that has plenty of room to grow.
Being the first season in a new world with new laws, creatures and power dynamics, it’s expected that much of the season would be spent building up the world and introducing us to all of these elements. This is handled quite well to where there’s not so much blatant exposition and much of the important information is sprinkled throughout the various episodes. Sure, there’s a history lesson or two, but everything learnt about this world only make you want to learn more – which is very promising.
The structure of the season is a pretty linear one, following two main groups of characters as they embark on their own respective missions through different parts of the world. It makes it quite easily to follow, but creates a bit of a disconnect in the first half of the season. I’d say the first half is just good because I gravitated more to one set of characters over the other. Alina and Mal’s journey is a lot more compelling through the first 4 episodes. Their chemistry is great, I understood the characters, and their respective journeys were clear in every moment. On the other hand, the content following Kaz (Freddy Carter) and his crew was a little harder to get into. The steampunk atmosphere didn’t do it for me and I couldn’t get behind any of those characters since I didn’t understand what they were all trying to achieve.
However, come the second half of the season, the series goes from good to great. Episode 5 is that turning point – there’s some twists and turns, and certain isolated character arcs finally blend together, serving as payoff for the episodes of buildup. From there, almost everything hits. The pace is faster, the goals of every character are clear, and I had a vested interest in every one of the main characters – including the individual members of Kaz’s crew. It feels like there’s more at stake and the world is greatly expanded in these final episodes. It’s like that 5th episode was a release – as if the series was able to stop building things up and introducing new elements, and just go right into delivering all the thrills back to back.
As far as the performances go, I’d say everyone is great across the board. There are some standouts in Jessie Mei Li and Ben Barnes, but overall, all the performances are pretty great. Speaking of Jessie Mei Li, she carries the bulk of the Season with a powerful performance that really gets you on the side of her character from the moment she first appears. She hammers home the more emotional scenes and brings the goods when it comes to selling the intensity of the action sequences. She also exhibits a great deal of chemistry with the other characters closest to her which makes for some very engaging dialogue scenes throughout the season. As mentioned, Ben Barnes is also a force of acting genius in this show. He plays the intricacies of his character so well that it’s like he was born for the role.
Beyond those leads, a couple of the supporting performances also leave a positive impact on the series. Specifically, Zoë Wanamaker is so great in her limited scenes that I cannot wait for the potential of getting to see more of her. I’ll touch on the visuals of the series here, which certainly exceeded my expectations. The magic effects looked really clean, and the world was detailed to the point of looking quite real. Even the effects of The Fold looked quite grand and cinematic.
One thing I’d like to see the series really hone in on is the exact tone it’s going for. Some of it did feel like that more grand Game of Thrones-like serious tone, but then some sequences felt like it was going for more of a teen fantasy vibe. Both sides of the equation were enjoyable, so I’m not knocking it, I’d just like to see it focus on one and do it incredibly well. I’d prefer it sticks to the more serious tone as that would make it feel more unique, especially with the amount of YA content on Netflix already.
In the end, Shadow and Bone closes out on a strong note, really riding the high introduced from the 5th episode right through to the final seconds. The final episode closes in a way that wraps up the key events of the season and teases even bigger things to come in a potential season 2. The series is elevated by its engaging action, tense thrills and dramatic performances from much of the main cast. The narrative stumbles through introducing one half of its characters through the first 4 episodes, but it becomes a lot more consistent and intriguing when the pace picks up in the latter half. Fans of the book series, and fantasy series’ in general, are sure to get a good kick out of this show.