NOTE: While this article was written before the author watched the Netflix adaptation, we’ve included an update below, post-viewing. Enjoy!
On April 23rd, 2021 the Netflix adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone will be released. I’ve been hyped for this show ever since it was announced in 2019 and the excitement I’m feeling at its release is unparalleled to anything I’ve ever felt for any other media property. My journey with the Grishaverse began back in 2015 when I picked up Six of Crows (not having read any other Bardugo content) and soared through the first half in one sitting. For about a year I ate, slept, and breathed the Grishaverse, convincing many of my friends to read the novels, lovingly worshipping the Six of Crows poster in my school’s library, and reading Crooked Kingdom the day it came out (at TTBF!). I even wrote my first and only fan fiction about the Grishaverse, a concerningly angsty few chapters in which I explored a tragic romance between the beautiful Squaller Zoya and the (SPOILER) dead cat-lover Harshaw.
I remember sitting under the cafeteria table in middle school so I could cherish the final pages of Ruin and Rising in peace (I also have a concrete memory of reading that Kuwei and Jesper scene during a school assembly… the drama of that moment is still unparalleled IMO). When I finished all the Grishaverse books I never imagined there would be any kind of screen adaptation. Six of Crows, being such an action-packed, dialogue-heavy, and well-paced novel, was obviously well suited to a film, but without the context of an accompanying Shadow and Bone adaptation, it could never be. Since then, I kept up with new Bardugo releases and happily talked about the Grishaverse if it came up in conversation, but my hardcore obsession quietly washed away.
Now we come to spring break 2021, where I’m a little high on pain meds after getting my wisdom teeth out and planning on re-reading all of the Grishaverse novels before the show comes out. I was excited to rediscover what made me love these books and this universe so much, as well as to see if any of my opinions had changed (AKA, would I like Mal this time?).
To begin, I want to acknowledge all of the really dumb stuff that is in these novels, especially the Shadow and Bone series, that I took no notice of as a middle-schooler. The biggest issue is with Bardugo’s world-building, entrenched in the iconic map at the beginning of each book. For those not familiar, her unnamed fantasy realm is split into around seven “countries,” each with their own culture inspired by a mishmash of real-world ones. Fjerda, Ravka, Kerch, and the Wandering Isle are all different flavors of white people, while in Shu Han you have all East Asian people and in Novyi Zem you have all Black people. There’s also the Romani and South Asian-inspired nomadic Suli people. I can see how Bardugo probably built her universe this way with good intentions. In the world of 2012 YA fantasy, finding a novel that wasn’t completely white European-based was rare. That said, there are a lot of blatant issues with this system. Each culture is made up of multiple real-world, often racist, stereotypes mashed together. The main thing we know about the Shu is that they’re evil scientists who torture Grisha, the important Zemeni traits are that they treat Grisha as spiritual “zowa” healers and their main trade is growing jurda (the Grishaverse-equivalent of tobacco), and Suli people are best known for being “fortune tellers.” In addition, Bardugo mentions certain characters having thick “Shu accents,” as well as having a scene where the (white) Mal and Alina do “Suli accents.” It’s not explicit what Shu or Suli accents sound like, so it’s assumed they sound like the stereotypical accents of the real-world cultures they’re based on. By doing this, Bardugo lazily included a real-world racist trope in her fantasy world. It’s a hurtful system, with many issues including but not limited to the ones I mentioned, which unfortunately feels baked into the core of the Grishaverse. It’s been revealed that the Netflix show’s Alina will be half-Shu, which I hope is one of many steps they’ll take to lessen the stereotypical and monolithic nature of Bardugo’s fantasy races.
“Bardugo lazily included a real-world racist trope in her fantasy world. It’s a hurtful system, with many issues including but not limited to the ones I mentioned, which unfortunately feels baked into the core of the Grishaverse.”
There’s also some downright silly stuff, mostly Mal-related. Mal. What an enigma. In Alina’s love square he’s the obvious choice between Nikolai and The Darkling by virtue of being her childhood friend, but he’s not very easy to root for. One minute he’s yelling at Alina for having magic and the next he’s making her tea and giving her a hug. He is Peeta Mellark and Gale Hawthorne mashed together into a single man, but neither personality comes out on top so you’re left with a flat dude it’s hard to care about (also there’s a scene where he reveals to Alina he got a giant back tattoo that says “I am become a blade” in Ravkan and then they never mention it again, which is ridiculous but also kind of iconic at this point). Based on what I’ve seen in the Shadow and Bone trailers so far, Archie Renaux’s portrayal of the tracker thankfully seems much more likable than his book counterpart.
I’d be remiss not to mention how Alina, especially in the first novel, is the epitome of the “not like other girls” trope. She hates the beautiful Zoya, but also mocks her “pig-nosed” peer. She herself is skinny and pale, with dull, mouse-brown hair. How could anyone ever look twice at her, Mal will never like her because she’s not pretty, etc. It’s all very 2012 YA and frankly funny to look back on at this point.
“There are a lot of wonderful things still to be found in these novels, the stuff that made me fall in love with the story in the first place. The world-building Bardugo does in regards to the Grisha is phenomenal and unparalleled, and I can confirm I want a kefta just as much now as I did when I was 13.”
There are a lot of wonderful things still to be found in these novels, the stuff that made me fall in love with the story in the first place. The world-building Bardugo does in regards to the Grisha is phenomenal and unparalleled, and I can confirm I want a kefta just as much now as I did when I was 13. Her writing is wonderful, descriptive and unique, packed with foreshadowing and detail. The characters also shine, Genya and Nikolai being particular standouts to me this time around. In general this reading experience was a lot of fun because I allowed myself to be silly and write notes in the margins and freak out about plot twists without holding the novels up to any kind of gold standard. Also (sorry Zoya and Harshaw) Genya/Alina is my new Grishaverse OTP. All those tender tailoring scenes… so much hugging and complimenting each other’s beauty… #genyalina4lyfe.
And now, to the show. Based on the trailers I’ve seen so far, it looks aesthetically great, with awesome elemental magic, fun and atmospheric costumes and set, and appropriately dramatic acting. My endless annoyance at the decision to age up the Darkling stands, but it is what it is and it’ll be fun to have something to laugh at. I am sad that the beautiful, unbutchered Six of Crows movies of my mind will never come to be, but I am glad the characters will get to be there at all. Looking up Shadow and Bone on Netflix and seeing Jesper, Inej, and Kaz’s picture did make me cry just a little bit. It’s them!
Naturally, there are still frustrations, re Jesper’s actor not being dark-skinned, Nina’s actor not being fat, and the one that haunts me specifically: Wylan isn’t there. I’m fine with characters being cut, but the excuse by the showrunners that he isn’t in the Crow gang during the Shadow and Bone plot line amuses me. Anyone familiar with the books could tell you that neither is Matthias, but you bet your boots he’s in the show. Anyone familiar with the books could also tell you that Wylan is the series’ most notable gay character (Jesper and Nina are both bi in the text, but it’s unclear if that’ll be explicit in the show). It’s especially frustrating because many people that read Six of Crows do so because they hear it has queer representation. Therefore many people who are invested in the Grishaverse because of its queer characters will watch the show by default, while Netflix doesn’t have to actually include those characters/indentities at all. At this point, both the absurdity and predictability of it all just makes me laugh. #fiveofcrows, #justiceforwylan, #flyhighmyking.
All of that said, after reading the books again I can say with my mostly whole chest that I am excited about this show. There will always be flaws, both in the original work and in the show, but I have allowed myself to hope that the magic I felt reading these books for the first time will be transferred to the show. On Friday I’ll be sitting down with my best friend (who had a Grishaverse obsession right alongside me) to watch (and heckle) the show, good or bad. Whatever happens, the joy, drama, and escapism of the novels will always be there to dip into whenever I need it.
Author’s note now having watched the show: It is incredible, better than I could’ve dreamed, hell yes.