Shadow & Bone, Season 1 (2021)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

Based on a popular book series, this Netflix drama blends three separate storylines to create a thrilling adventure set in another world, where those of magical powers are both hated and feared. The people live in a land divided by the Shadow Fold, a swath of darkness infested by flesh-eating creatures, and await the arrival of a foretold Sun Summoner who can dispel the Fold forever. On a regular basis, the military sends people through the Fold to gather Intel about their enemies on the other side.

When her best friend, Mal (Archie Renaux), is chosen to go on this mission, one that could possibly end in his death, the orphaned mapmaker Alina (Jessie Mei Lie) burns some non-essential but important maps so that she can go with him. But as the depths of the Fold close in on them, and the winged creatures attack their ship, almost tearing it to pieces, Alina unleashes a powerful burst of light so fierce, it incinerates the creatures in her path. When she wakes, others are hailing her as a miracle... and hasten her away from her beloved Mal to meet General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), the head of the Greisha (magical) army. Though doubtful of her powers, he tests her and realizes she is indeed the mystical Sun Summoner. Alina would rather return to her old life, but gets whisked away to live in the Little Palace and train as an apprentice. She fears she cannot use or wield her magical abilities without Mal or the general's help, and doubts that she can tear down the Fold.

Meanwhile, word of her has spread into the outer reaches of the kingdoms and reached Kaz (Freddy Carter), an unscrupulous tavern owner who becomes interested in the million dollar payout awaiting him and his two likable minions, Jesper (Kit Young) and Inej (Amita Suman), if they can kidnap back the Sun Summoner. They make a daring, secret trip across the Fold for that purpose, but soon find themselves thwarted by unexpected perils. Meanwhile, Mal becomes desperate to find out what became of his friend, and undertakes a dangerous and unlikely mission that could lead him closer to her... even as the threat of war looms over them all, and Alina becomes ever-closer to her mentor, the mysterious and secretive general.

Shadow and Bone has a lot going for it, but also a few problems -- the latter being some pacing issues. The book series keeps Alina and Mal's plot centered around their interactions with the general, and the sequel series, featuring Kaz and his friends, gives them their own plot line. The books do not connect the two, but the series attempts to combine them, and also flesh out a third subplot, with the result that there are a lot of characters spread out over the eight-hour saga and not all of their plot lines have momentum. I lost interest in the slave trader subplot between two future lovers and feel it would have been better used as flashbacks next season. Kaz's group get a plot made up entirely for the series, which does showcase some of their skills and personalities, but also somewhat takes away from Alina and the main thrust of the story. That being said, the display of fresh talent is wonderful. Ben Barnes is the only true "veteran" here and shines in the role of a tortured man who is more than he appears to be, but Jessie Mei Lie brings a freshness to Alina that is appreciated. She's a likable heroine to head up an adventure set in a unique world, with lots of potential for later series expansion.

The story does take a little while to get going, but then barrels through events (both comical and series) with charm, twists, turns, and reveals about back stories. The last three episodes in particular are memorably strong. The costumes and set design are fabulous, though I would not have minded spending more time "learning magic." It's a big budget production and looks it, with the last episode being a powerhouse of special effects as they build toward an inevitable showdown between good and evil. I suspect it will get renewed for another season and when it does, I'll be there to watch it and see how the characters' adventures unfold from here... especially since the last few minutes contain a game-changing reveal that will bring the threat to new levels next season.

Sexual Content:
References to brothels and women being sold as sex slaves; a passionate kissing scene where one character asks another if they are "sure" about going further, and receives a yes (but then they are interrupted); two men kiss each other and have sex off-screen, we cut away to them "afterward" where they kiss and embrace some more; two characters wind up naked in the same hut and must lay together under fur rugs for warmth (the woman teases the man about being modest, but we see no nudity); some cleavage; references to the king raping one of his female servants (she says she got tired of fighting him off).
 
Language:
Occasional uses of "sh*t."
 
Violence:
Lots of people get killed--shot with arrows, stabbed, impaled, a few even get sliced in half with magic and/or lose their heads; characters stalk a stag and ultimately kill it, though it suffers from a mortal wound first (and is then cut apart with magic); main characters get shot and almost die; a woman has a stag's antlers magically fused into her skin in a painful-looking way (against her will); a man uses his cane to bash people over the head with and/or kill them with; winged creatures in the Fold grab people and carry them off to eat them.

Other:
References to religions and Saints (those with magical abilities); lost of magical powers and persecution of those with gifts.