A Beginner’s Guide to Shadow and Bone


While the coronavirus pandemic might be drastically affecting production schedules across the entertainment industry and leaving many of us stuck inside, it also turns out that it’s a great excuse to brush up on all the upcoming shows that the next few years have on offer. Considering how many series slated to arrive in the near future are based on books, it only makes sense to get up to speed so that we can properly comb every inch of their soon-to-be screen counterparts for easter eggs.

Remember that maniacal amusement you felt as you sneakily watched all your friends who hadn’t read A Song of Ice and Fire experience the Red Wedding for the first time? Just think — you can have that feeling back with any number of new series coming up!

One series that’s been catching my eyes for years, thanks in no small part to its gorgeous cover art, is Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo. As the quarantine kicked off, I decided to make the Grishaverse — the broader term used to encompass all the novels in the series — my first stop on the imagination train.

So what’s this series about, and why should you care? Let me show you a place where creatures dwell in the darkness, mages battle for crown and country, and where the fate of the world rests on an orphan who must become an unwilling saint.

The original Shadow and Bone trilogy is set primarily in the land of Ravka, against the backdrop of a war that has dragged on for generations and totally dominated the country’s way of life. Ravka is strongly inspired by Mother Russia. The setting is one of the things that most sets this series apart from anything else in fantasy at the moment, and Bardugo sneaks in tons of small, tasty details to make the world rich and authentic. There are actual Russian words and culturally specific things used throughout the books, such as a banya (hot springs bath). There’s even a character who’s a strong nod to Rasputin, and whose vivid and oft-described scent of mildew and incense makes him so automatically creepy that you can’t help but feel your skin crawl every time he comes on the page.

If the setting is one of the pillars that makes Shadow and Bone so unique, magic is the other. In this world, some people are born with the natural ability to use magic. These people, known as Grisha, come in a variety of different types, as the magic manifests differently in different people — Squallers can control the winds, Inferni fire, and Heartrenders can use their mastery over a person’s vital functions to crush a person’s heart without touching them (think Bloodbending from Avatar: The Last Airbender). There are seven different main types of Grisha in the original trilogy, as well as some unique other ones as well. The Grishaverse is one of those fulfilling series where the longer you read it, the deeper the magic develops in unexpected ways.

Each country treats their Grisha in different ways: the Shu Han, for example, are known to dissect and study people who display an aptitude for magic. The Norse-inspired Fjerdans despise and hunt them down as witches. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that Ravka has perhaps one of the gentlest societal norms for those who can use magic: children are tested, and if found to possess a magical gift, they are drafted into the Second Army where they live in a lavish palace and are trained to use their abilities for the good of Ravka.

At the story’s outset, a young soldier named Alina Starkov discovers that she is a special kind of Grisha known as a Sun Summoner — that is, she can summon light. It’s a gift that hasn’t been seen in a millennia…and might hold the key to reuniting Ravka, which has been split in half by a vast rift of monster-infested darkness known as the Shadow Fold.

Unlike the weighty tomes of some other fantasy series, the Shadow and Bone trilogy sticks entirely to what we see through Alina’s eyes. That’s not to say that there aren’t a ton of other memorable characters, though. The villain, who I can say nothing about because spoilers, is terrifying and utterly sympathetic by turns. Mal, Alina’s childhood friend and main love interest, is a tracker of unparalleled renown, a fact that the series makes use of to great effect. There are some really cool creatures in the Grishaverse, like a giant sea serpent and harpy-like monsters called volcra that feast on human flesh.

Alina’s rise from anonymous soldier to the hope of all Ravka is fraught with peril and betrayals (so many betrayals). Bardugo is a master of dropping plot twists on unsuspecting readers that take the story in a completely new direction, so much that it’s almost hard to talk about the series in too much depth without spoiling anything.

But when it comes to the upcoming TV adaptation of Shadow and Bone, perhaps the biggest twist comes from Netflix. There are a lot of book-to-screen treatments currently underway, but everyone’s favorite streaming service is doing something a little different with this: it’s combining the Shadow and Bone trilogy with another of Bardugo’s works in the same universe, the Six of Crows duology. According to Tor.com, the first season of the show will be “a 50/50 split” between the two series.

Six of Crows and its sequel Crooked Kingdom are very different animals than the original Shadow and Bone trilogy. To start, they take place two years after its epic finale. The two books follow the exploits of Kaz Brekker, a criminal prodigy who is given the opportunity for the heist of a lifetime: infiltrate the Fjerdan Ice Court in order to rescue a scientist who has discovered a dangerously addictive drug that can enhance a Grisha’s power.

Of course, Kaz can’t pull off such an operation by himself, so he recruits the perfect team of thieves and misfits to help him. Six of Crows has been described as “a blend of Ocean’s 11 and Game of Thrones,” which of course sounds ridiculously awesome. Unlike the main Grisha trilogy, these books have lots of viewpoint characters and a style that will feel more familiar to most epic fantasy readers.

How, you may ask, can these stories be woven together when one is set years after the other? Well, we don’t exactly know. Leigh Bardugo is attached to the show as an executive producer, and showrunner Eric Heisserer has been a fan of the Grishaverse for a long time, so we can at least rest easy knowing that the show is in as good a pair of hands as possible. It also means that there’s likely to be a lot of content here to surprise even book readers.

As for the cast, they look to match their characters very well. Jessie Mei Li plays Alina, Freddie Carter is Kaz, Archie Renaux is Mal, Amita Suman is Inej, Sujaya Dasgupta is Zoya, Calahan Skogman is Matthias, Danielle Galligan is Nina, and Kit Young is Jesper. That’s a mix of characters from Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows, however that will work.

Ben Barnes is also in the mix, but Netflix is keeping his role under wraps. Many fans are speculating that he plays the principle villain, but officially, it remains a mystery…

Thankfully, Shadow and Bone wrapped filming mere days before the outbreak of the coronavirus hit the U.S. While there’s been no word about where the production is at currently, we can hope that means it’s far enough along that the pandemic hasn’t put it on hold like so many of Netflix’s other projects.

A release date has yet to be announced, but it’s been speculated that we’ll see the show in late 2020. So there’s plenty of time to read the books!

Remember, you want to be the one chuckling to yourself as your friends reel from the twists they never saw coming…

Or maybe that’s just my inner Darkling talking.

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