‘Shadow and Bone’: Netflix’s take on Leigh Bardugo’s fantasy world

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Leigh Bardugo is undoubtedly a queen of YA fantasy, and Shadow and Bone, the Netflix adaptation of her Grishaverse novels, has been long-anticipated by fans across the world. The eight-part series, set to be released on the 23rd of April, is one of Netflix’s recent influx of fantasy novel adaptations (most recently, Cursed and The Witcher), and promises to be leading a new wave of convention-breaking, nuanced adaptations that are, for once, somewhat faithful to the source material.

Despite the rise in refreshing new voices in YA over the last decade, we still haven’t quite been able to shake the stereotype of great-book-abysmal-adaptation. It’s certain that fans of Bardugo are all crossing their fingers that Netflix’s adaptation lives up to expectations and leaves nothing to be desired.

Bardugo, along with her readers, can’t seem to get enough of the Grishaverse world. The first instalment, the Grisha trilogy, was published between 2012 and 2014, and since then she has also released the phenomenally popular Six of Crows duology and the King of Scars duology, alongside a short story collection set in the world, The Language of Thorns. The upcoming show will feature both the plots and characters of the original trilogy and the Six of Crows duology, which canonically occur a few years apart, so speculation about changes to the novels has been rife on the internet.

Fans are all crossing their fingers that Netflix’s adaptation lives up to expectations

The Grisha trilogy is set in Russia-inspired Ravka, where we follow Alina Starkov, an orphaned girl whose life takes an unexpected turn when she discovers her extraordinary ability to summon light. The Six of Crows duology, which takes place in a different country in the same universe, follows a band of six outcasts on a high-stakes heist and is full of jarring twists and complex antiheroes. 

With the wealth of stories and themes in Bardugo’s repertoire, you’d be hard-pressed not to find something that resonates with you. Under the perhaps generalising label of YA fantasy, the books cover issues from trauma to xenophobia to gambling. In Shadow and Bone the characters face a plague of darkness so intense it swallows people whole, a metaphor that will not be lost on many.

The Grishaverse novels are a cut above the standard format of YA fantasy in many aspects, but mostly in the unconventional way, Bardugo takes inspiration for her world-building. In her novels we see parallels with 1800s Russia, Dutch Republic-era Amsterdam, Scandinavia and Mongolia, among others. It’s a breath of fresh air to see an exploration of cultures other than medieval Britain and western Europe in high fantasy. And not only does Bardugo branch out in cultural diversity, but her later works have both LGBTQ+ and disability representation.

The Netflix cast reflects this diversity, casting actress Jessie Mei Li, who has Chinese ancestry, as Alina Starkov, a character whose ethnicity is not explicitly described on the page. This decision by Bardugo and the show’s producer has been met with both praise and criticism: while many are ecstatic to see a non-white main character, the introduction of a racism subplot surrounding Alina has sparked debate on performative diversity. Hopefully, helped by half-Korean Christina Strain on the writing team, this decision will be handled respectfully.

Everything you could want from a YA fantasy

The Grishaverse books have everything you could want from a YA fantasy—magic, romance, adventure—with complex, believable characters and plots that keep you guessing to the very end. If you read any of the source material before the show comes out, let it be Six of Crows; the books can be read with no prior knowledge of the world, and the character development across the tumultuous Ocean’s Eleven-meets-Game of Thrones duology is second to none.

Barudugo’s novels are part of a turning point in YA literature that has been ongoing for years now; the genre is slowly making its way towards a more inclusive, trope-defying future, and Bardugo’s world has been firmly a part of it. The upcoming show promises to live up to this, and will hopefully help pave the way for a more diverse era of book adaptations.

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