Thank the Saints! Shadow and Bone has returned to us.
The first season of Netflix’s adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s fantasy young adult (YA) series was well-received when it premiered only two years ago. The burgeoning franchise promised a fantasy epic that can stand alongside the best live-action YA adaptations like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. In a word, the anticipation for the new season has been overwhelming. With each new character reveal, and as the months passed by, fans of the series have been keeping the flame of interest alive and well. Much like any sequel, the introduction’s promise must be followed. New characters are welcomed, old characters are developed, the world continues to grow, and the many dimensions of our heroes are further unearthed. Shadow and Bone (Season 2), which sadly wasn’t named after its aptly-titled source material, “Siege and Storm,” has much to live up to.
The second season reunites us with heroes, villains, and crows. Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) and Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux) are on the run after Alina’s botched first attempt at taking down The Fold. They attempt to plan Alina’s next try at dismantling it, but the Sun Summoner has to face distrust when she is accused of being The Darkling’s co-conspirator. This leads them to an unexpected ally in the pirate/privateer Sturmhond (Patrick Gibson), a man who is more than he appears. The Darkling (Ben Barnes), Aleksander Morozova, is still on the loose, grasping for the power and influence he once had. He begins to mobilize against Ravka after the nation turns against Grisha.
In Ketterdam, our Crows, Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman) and Jasper (Kit Young), return to find their home under the power of a dangerous foe and they have become his prey. Their efforts to reclaim their home and exact revenge on those who wronged them lead them to recruit new demolitions expert, Wylan (Jack Wolfe), and the elusive heartrender, Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan). Our characters are scattered about, but new players will bridge them to each other as they undergo their adventures leading them to what ultimately connects them, The Sun Summoner.
A series of this size and magnitude requires an ensemble cast that is, for lack of a better word, perfect. The first season’s ensemble set a high bar for the newcomers, but the originals need to be discussed before we get to them. Jessie Mei Li shines as our valiant lead. Alina is a character, like so many heroines of YA fiction, equal parts infuriating and admirable. Li imbues Alina with a tenderness and charisma that radiates off the screen. As the second season concludes, the possibility of seeing Li expand upon her dynamic character is an exciting venture on its own. Ben Barnes is deliciously smarmy as the ego-driven Darkling. Despite being knocked off his pedestal, the Darkling is more than just a hollow villain, and that’s due to Barnes. Mal, the third point of the trope-y warped love triangle, is given a bit more to do, yet, he is shortchanged again. Archie Renaux honourably carries the burden of playing the less interesting character of the whole lot, but in his defence, the series format does him in. Had the series expanded to 10 episodes, there would be more than enough room to explore aspects of his character that become vital in the later half of season 2. However, the season does end on a high note for him, promising a proper start to a compelling character arc in season 3.
This season, the newbies are Patrick Gibson as the sly privateer Sturmhond, Lewis Tan and Anna Leong Brophy as his jovial allies, Tolya and Tamar, the deadly brother-sister duo. Jack Wolfe is delightful and adorkable as, Wylan, the newest recruit of the Crows. Gibson has the most to do as he is tasked with wearing as many hats as Jesper Fahey owns. It is no secret that his character was highly anticipated, but to see what Gibson is working with, you can see why expectations were so high. Gibson nails it; he is charming, endearing, and full of depth and possibility. Wolfe’s Wylan brings warmth and joy to the series; that is all we can ask for. Tan and Brophy also bring light to the show but are ostensibly human bridges as they connect our ensemble. Despite their limited screen time, they are humourous additions that effectively represent the expansion of the Grishaverse, all while being exciting characters in their own right. There is potential for them to be more, but that will have to wait for the third season. I suspect there will be slight frustration with Tamar’s development, as was the case for Mal; Tamar could have done with more screen time as she develops a relationship that seems to manifest out of nowhere when it is revealed in the later episodes.
Storywise, this season simply carries on with what the first started. The story has many threads, all carefully woven to create an intricate and elaborate tapestry. However, this expansive story has its snags. For one, there are simply too many characters, and too many have “their story.” Calahan Skogman’s Matthias is evidence of a character that need not be seen on screen as he takes away valuable time that could be spent elsewhere. Galligan’s Nina Zenik carries that storyline fine on her own. Ideally, season 1 carry-overs Zoya (Sujaya Dasgupta) and Nadia (Joanna McGibbon), who play important roles and develop relationships, would be given that valuable space. Especially Zoya, as she suddenly becomes relevant and essential to Alina later in the season.
The writing of this series is effective, deploying all of the familiar YA tropes with twists and turns that make the Grishaverse such a beloved series. However, bringing this story to this medium requires certain sacrifices and changes, and I question the writers’ choices here when deciding who to develop over others. Again, eight episodes are hardly enough, and Netflix’s obsession with their binge-able model works against Shadow and Bone.
Despite these minor hiccups, the series maintains its stronghold on its ability to tackle mature themes and branch out beyond the typical YA plot beats. The geopolitical dilemma and antics are deftly handled as season 2 explores new places and communities. Those unfamiliar with the books will sometimes feel dreadfully lost, but there is an effort to make it all more streamlined this time. Although the passage of time and the distance travelled by our characters can be confounding, there is an apparent attempt to craft a fantastical world that feels lived in and fleshed out. Shadow and Bone must have good world-building, as many characters are intrinsically linked to their world.
That said, as world-building improves, so does the writing involving characters that deal with darker issues. A fair bit is done to craft conflict that has little to do with the war, The Fold, or even the Grisha versus human issue. Internal conflicts are given as much attention as the more extraordinary battle. There continues to be care and consistency when tackling issues such as abuse, revenge, and human trafficking. Actions have consequences, and they are explored to their natural conclusions. The series doesn’t infantilize its audience; instead, it expects them to mature alongside its characters as they face hardships and triumphs. There is a ton of YA content, but Shadow and Bone is a rare breed that offers entertaining fantasy fun and nuanced character-driven storytelling.
There is so much more that can be said about this latest venture into the Grishaverse. Leigh Bardugo’s novels are in relatively good hands with Eris Heisserer, though some fine-tuning is needed. The story is compelling, transcending the usual trappings of YA fantasy and offering audiences something substantive and entertaining. Visually, the series maintains course with well-choreographed fights, beautiful locations, brilliant costuming and production design, and decent special effects. The series is adequately transportive, and with its intentional character development and ambitious world-building, Shadow and Bone fulfills the promise the first season made. Heisserer and his creative team cannot take their foot off the gas, and they must be hyper-vigilant because as this season concludes, the stakes are raised higher. What comes next must be a grand spectacle, daring to push the viewers to the edge.