Shadow and Bone season 2 is out now on Netflix, and while it expands on the show’s debut outing in a number of interesting ways, it also makes a lot of weird choices. The first season of the show was great, and one of those rare examples of a television show that improved on its source material. I was pleasantly surprised by how deftly the series wove together the story of Sun Summoner Alina Starkov, whose story is chronicled in Leigh Bargudo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy, with that of the Crows, who are from her Six of Crows duology. So going into season 2, I expected the show to continue in that same vein.
Imagine my surprise when Shadow and Bone season 2 cut out enormous swathes of the books while simultaneously cramming so many plotlines and characters in that it became a jumbled mess. Despite having plenty of things going for it — beautiful costuming, a fantastic cast, solid visual effects — Shadow and Bone season 2 is not even close to the same level of quality as the first season.
I’d like to discuss how the show went awry, as well as why. There will be SPOILERS for Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books as well as season 2 of the television show.
What makes Shadow and Bone so hard to adapt for television?
The first thing to understand about Shadow and Bone is that it is far more complex than your usual book-to-screen treatment. This is because it isn’t adapting one book series, but three different ones all at once: the Shadow and Bone trilogy, the Six of Crows duology and The King of Scars duology.
Both the Six of Crows and King of Scars duologies take place after the conclusion of Shadow and Bone. And while the show pulls in plenty from Six of Crows especially, others, like a drug that can vastly enhance a Grisha’s power (a Grisha is someone who can wield magical abilities, like creating light or healing people), have the potential to cause major continuity issues since they didn’t exist during the Ravkan Civil War which took place in the Shadow and Bone novels. With all of these elements bouncing around, it makes sense that the writers at Netflix would have to change things for TV. But why did this work so well for the first season and fall so flat in the second?
Why did Shadow and Bone rush through Alina’s storyline?
Shadow and Bone season 1 introduced us to Alina, a young Grisha who can create light. Her story is chronicled in the Shadow and Bone trilogy, and season 1 adapted a long stretch of it fairly faithfully. The next step was to depict the Ravkan civil war, where Alina engages in a battle of wills against a megalomaniacal Grisha called the Darkling.
Meanwhile, the first season invented a whole new story for the misfit gang of thieves known as the Crows: gunslinger Jesper, spy Inej and leader Kaz Brekker. We basically get a prequel to the events of Six of Crows, the first of Bardugo’s novels where they feature. We see how the gang came together and how they navigate the Ketterdam criminal underworld, and eventually their story crosses over with Alina’s in a satisfying way that doesn’t feel forced.
By the time season 1 ends, the show had set the stage for the events of Six of Crows. Kaz, Inej and Jesper are on the same boat back to Ketterdam as Nina Zenik, a Grisha Heartrender who eventually joins the group. Nina’s love interest Matthias is on the way to Hellgate prison, which lays the groundwork for Kaz and company to spring him out of jail just like they do at the beginning of Six of Crows. The only thing we were really missing was Wylan, the sixth Crow who Shadow and Bone showrunner Eric Heisserer confirmed would appear in season 2.
Of course, there was still a question of the timing: how would the show meld the Six of Crows Ice Court Heist, where the Crows try to rescue the scientist who invented the Grisha power-enhancing drug from Ravka’s rival nation Fjerda, with Alina’s war against the Darkling? With the release of season 2, we now know that the show’s answer was to rush through the remainder of the Ravkan Civil War as quickly as possible. The show combined the second and third books of Alina’s trilogy, Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising, allotting a mere four episodes to cover each novel. At the same time, it invented yet another heist for the Crows — this time to steal a magical sword from the nation of Shu Han — in order to give them something to do for the season.
So season 2 doesn’t actually get to the events of Six of Crows, although it ends by setting up a new spinoff that will adapt them. As for Alina, the CliffsNotes version of her tale cuts out basically all of the powerful moments from her story. In the novels, Alina becomes a saint in the eyes of her people, partially because of her actions and partially thanks to the propaganda efforts of a Rasputin-inspired figure called the Apparat. Alina’s wrangling with what it means to be a saint is a major part of her story. The show totally bypasses it. The only nod we get is Alina occasionally correcting people who use the honorific, as if the title is the problem, not what it represents.
The ending of Shadow and Bone season 2 made major changes to the source material
Things get even more baffling when we talk about the ending of the season, which feels like an enormous betrayal of the spirit of the novels.
In both the books and the show, Alina intends to bring down the Shadow Fold, a rift of monster-infested darkness that divides the country. But the way the Shadow Fold falls on the show is entirely different than in the books. On TV, tapping into all three of Morozova’s amplifiers makes Alina an all-powerful being who can tear it down all by herself. In the books, tapping the amplifiers actually makes Alina lose her powers. All the normal people around Alina suddenly gain the abilities of a Sun Summoner, and it is their combined efforts that bring down the Fold. We also never even get a mention of the fact that all those monsters in the fold were, in fact, the people who used to live there that were transformed by the shadowy dimension’s dark energy.
In the books, Alina and her childhood friend and love interest Mal fake their own deaths and live out their lives at the orphanage of Keramzin. They still appear in The King of Scars books, but in more of a supporting role. On the show, it looks like their stories are far from over. Alina decides to go through with her betrothal to Prince Nikolai Lantsov, something she decides not to do in the books. As Nikolai’s coronation ceremony gets under way, a Grisha under the effects of the power-enhancing drug from Six of Crows attacks them, and Alina slices her in half with dark magic. The final shot lingers on her slow smile at her newfound power. They’re setting up a new arc for her. Meanwhile, Mal takes on Nikolai’s pirate moniker of Sturmhond and decides to sail the high seas. At this point in the books, their stories are over, but on the show there’s much more to go.
There’s a lot of thematic dissonance here. The show focuses on Alina’s exceptionalism while the books pointedly empower the Ravkan people so they have a hand in their own salvation. And the show isn’t even consistent with this new direction. It makes Alina all-powerful, but it still calls in the Crows to save her from the Darkling for a second season in a row, undercutting some of her victories.
The Shadow and Bone novels are about various factions trying to use Alina’s powers for their own ends, and how she ultimately overcomes it by sacrificing for the greater good, something the people trying to manipulate her don’t understand. But the show puts much less focus on the Apparat’s manipulations, on Ravkan politics, and the Darkling’s attempts to control Alina. Because of this, the climactic moments of the show don’t land with anywhere near the impact they do in the books.
Season 2 also underserves characters around Alina, especially Nikolai Lantsov, who in the books is actually turned into a monster by the Darkling, which leads to his struggle with his monstrous past in The King of Scars books. And let’s not even get into how much less of a pervasive threat the Darkling is, or David and Genya’s on screen relationship.
We’ve talked enough about the divergences and issues. Now let’s talk about the behind-the-scenes politics which may have contributed to them.