Note: These reviews discuss the episodes in detail and might contain slight spoilers for the books Six Of Crows and Crooked Kingdom.
I have been excited for this tv show adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s books since I first heard about it. I kept hearing how good her Grishaverse books are but never read any of it myself until last year. As people kept recomending the Six Of Crows duology I gave in and.. I had so much fun with the books! I admit I still have not read the Shadow and Bone books – which are chronologically set before the Crow books but that did not stop me from getting hyped about the Netflix adaptation.
I love this new trend of book adaptations sticking to the source material rather closely and even the authors getting involved in the production, we have seen some wonderful examples of these in the recent years – just think the Lemony Snicket books. So I was really excited to learn Leigh is on board as executive producer.
And the Shadow and Bone show’s adaptation is a bit unique in it’s own way, since the writers wanted to tell us the Shadow and Bone story while also bringing in the Six Of Crows characters in season one. While the two series are set in the same universe, the three Shadow and Bone books are set two years prior to Six Of Crows. While there are characters that show up in both series, we only had vague ideas about what the Crows characters were up to when Shadow and Bone’s main story played out. The tv show writers alongside with Leigh had to flesh out more backstory for these characters that we wouldn’t be aware of if we only read the books.
Now with the backgrounds explained, let’s see head into episode one! Please read with caution as I talk about the episode in detail below and it can contain occasional spoilers for the Six Of Crows books. I will attempt to explain some things for people who have not read the books yet, without spoiling too much.
The series starts with our main character, Alina Starkov, introducing Eastern Ravka to us and The Fold. The countries in this universe are fantasy countries with some real life roots to European countries. Other than the city and country names you can see these influenced in the clothing styles, languages and in the variety of the country’s indigenous people.
In Ravka I pick up on Russian influences, their language looks a bit like the cyrillic alphabet and their furry winter hats and coats remind me of the country as well.
As Alina informs us Ravka isn’t a very great place to live currently, not only are they at war with both their Northen neighbours, Fjerda, and their southern neighbours, Shu han, their country is also split in two. No, this is not just a metaphor, a great blackness literally separates East and Western Ravka. This is the so-called Fold. (Marked as the UnSea on the below, official map.)
The Fold is said to have been man-made, well Grisha made. Which is were one of the most important concepts of the stories come in. Grisha are people born with abilities to manipulate certain elements. Think Avatar The Last Airbender benders but on a smaller scale.
In some countries being Grisha is equal to a death sentence. The Fjerdans for example call them witches and abominations and don’t treat them as human. In Ravka however an entire army is made up of Grisha. They test the children at a young age and those who posess the power are sent to the Little Palace to train and become part of the special Grisha unit of the military, the Second Army.
Those who don’t make it, like Alina and her friends end up in the First army as either soldiers or mapmakers. Alina and her best friend, Mal, grew up in an orphanage and they knew that the only way they could make a life for themselves was to join the army. Their childhood was rough, bullies found them in the orphanage and in the military as well. Mal would run away from fights as a kid but he grew up to be a great fighter. Alina would be picked on all her life because of her looks – her mom was from Shu Han, who are considered enemy of Ravka – so she had to grow a thick skin.
While life is though Alina and Mal have each other, at least. That is until Mal is drafted for a mission through The Fold. The Fold is not just a supernaturally dark place; monsters, creatures also live there. The army cannot go around the Fold due to their warring neighbours, so they send missions through it, but only a few ships make it to the other side of Ravka. While The Fold is a sandy terrain, and not water, the Ravkan ships are steared by Grisha so they are able to use ships for transport.
Alina dreamed of finding a way around The Fold as she studied to be a mapmaker, but as she grows older she has no choice but to accept the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any way around. Since The Fold was made by Grisha, people talk about a mythical Grisha who will make it disappear one day, the Sun Sumonner.
When Alina panicks about loosing Mal, she makes a selfish decision. She destroy’s the army’s maps so she can convince them to put her on the ship as well. One thing she doesn’t count with is that they would put her entire cartographer team on the ship. You can tell by Alina’s face that she did not expect this, though she cannot really do anything about it. These are orders and confessing to her crime would just remove her from the mission.
The Second Army’s General, Kirigan also shows up to see the ship off. So far we only heard rumors of him, he supposedly has power over shadows and while he is one of the strongest Grisha, he’s powers aren’t able to make The Fold go away either.
The ship enters The Fold under the Second Army’s command. They reach 2 markers out of the thirty something they have to pass along the way when the creatures get close to them. The ship operates with blue lights, to not bring too much attention to themselves. When these flicker out one scared cartographer lights a lantern and that is when the horror show starts. The creatures start picking the crew off one by one, Grisha and soldier alike. Mal is also attacked and Alina surprising herself manages to shoot the creature and save him. However as she heads to help the injured Mal.. she herself if attacked. As she is helplessly dragged away from Mal she thinks of their promise and suddenly, she is enveloped in searing burst of light.
On the other side of The Fold the army is waiting for them, but no ships shows. As they are ready to give up, someone runs out of The Fold – Alexei, a cartographer who jumped off the ship somehow made it through, alone, on foot.
I really like the casting for the main characters. Alina was easy to relate to from the start. It was interesting to see an orphanage during war times, how the strict headmistress was but still trying to protect Alina in her own way: by saying if she didn’t want to fight she’d better get really good at cartography since there was no other way out.
I like the flashbacks as it helps build up the characters and we get to know them and relate to them. The flashbacks were my favorites from the Crow books so I am glad we get them in the tv show as well. The flashbacks are not random and always build on what is going on around the characters and how they feel. It is a great balance of show and tell – when Alina says she is picked on we immediately see it hapenning; Mal mentions that the Grisha picks on the regular soldiers after we could already see it happen. There are also great transitions used hand in hand with the dialogue, whenever Mal mentions that he would love to see Ketterdam, it gives an opportunity for the story to switch over to the Crows. When the cartography girl mentions that Mal is not afraid of anything, it is a great way to connect it to Alina’s flashbacks about their childhood and to show us how Mal changed in the present time.
I loved the moments between Alina and Mal, the two were genuinly happy just to be able to talk and walk together. There are hints that they might like each other romantically but it is all built on years of trust and memories and I really love that. I love their talk of their shared childhood traumas where Mal chalks up three important life lessons this gave them. First is to hide your emotional breakdown and never cry in public, second is to always carry a weapon. He does not recall what the third one is but I have a feeling this conversation will be continued later on as it feels to foreshadow some future events. Their goodbye before Mal boards the ship was really heartfelt and a great moment between two people who really care about each other.
It was funny to be introduced to characters who will become important later on, such as Zoya. She is absolutely gorgeous and I love her confidence. I was surprised to see her hitting on Mal, but the scene told us a lot about both of their personalities through their reactions.
I have some questions though, about the transport through The Fold. I find it curious that no one is able to cross to the other side but somehow the people knew to expect the ship. This ship was attacked and picked apart so quickly, so how did all the others make it through? Twice no less, since people also had to get back.
While this plays out, we get glimpses into Ketterdam, where our Crows reside. The Crows characters are members of a criminal crew, the Dregs. They reside in Ketterdam which is inspired by Amsterdam. Ketterdam is a place where brothels and casinos thrive on guileless people who are too poor to make a proper life for themselves so they turn to gambling and crime.
The Dregs mainly run their own casino, the Crow Club. We are introduced to Kaz, one of the higher ups in the crew. He is not the big boss but gained a name for himself during the years he has worked for the Dregs, despite being fairly young. I have to admit when I first read about these kids, because they are around 16-17 in the books, I was baffled. How could a teenager threaten a grown ass man even if he is a criminal? But I don’t feel this way watching the show.
The actor for Kaz conveys really well the character’s seriousness and why he is considered ruthless. He is a cold, calculating man who always looks out for himself. He is also introduced as a great thief to us: he is told of a great painting robbery from a rich merchant that sounds almost impossible to pull off, and the next minute you see the painting hanged in his room. There are a lot of things already peppered in episode one that will become important later on. Kaz wears gloves and walks with a cane and he also seems to have some history with other crime crews. It is really great to see a main character who has some disabilities but it is not a defining trait for them and also isn’t something that stops them from doing what they want.
Next we are introduced to Inej. She works for Kaz after he bought her from a brothel. Inej is a great spy who mainly gathers intelligence for the Dregs, she is great at climbing literally every available surface and she is very quick on her feet. She also has a gorgeous collection of knives that are literally covering her entire body. She is of Suli origin, which is a nomadic nation inspired by South Asia. She often wears a cloak that looks a bit like a hijab which I really adore. It is great to see a character who is considered a criminal but has her own values, she immediately shows sympathy for the injured and helpless. She follows a religion that is made up for the universe and there is a cute moment where she hears something unbeliveable and you can tell by her reaction that she is just shaken and immediately praying in her head.
And the third member of our Dreg trio is Jesper the sharpshooter. Just like Inej he is also a poc character, from Novyi Zem. He loves flirting, gambling and has an incredible way with guns. Despite his carefree attitude he surprisingly doesn’t have a huge issue with the criminal life and all it holds.
The trio are trying to get in on a job with a great pay, a rich man wants a crew who can go through The Fold and get something for him from the other side. Since we learned this is a really dangerous thing, that even the Grisha army has trouble completing, the Crows need to make a plan first.
Kaz is famously great on making plans in the books, this doesn’t seem to be any different here. I love the montage we get where they go around town talking to different people and gathering information. While we know Jesper and Inej are mainly interested in getting this job for the money, it is implied Kaz has some other reasons.
While they go around town we learn a lot about Ketterdam and the people here. This is a place where people don’t really care where you came from or who your parents were, which is something Alina would definietely appreciate.
I like that you can tell how a character feels about something by paying attention to their reactions, and that they also pay attention to the people around them. The actors are doing a great job portraying how their characters are feeling, or in Kaz’s case, when they are trying to hide something.
I love the little jokes and the small moments that show the personality of the Crows, like Inej playing with her knives while being bored at the table. Jesper loving to show off his marksmanship but taking it very seriously when Kaz tells him to do something for him is very in character.
I love the little moments where you can immediately tell there is a trust and understanding between Kaz and Inej – Kaz noticing Inej being in his room even though most people wouldn’t. And the fact that Inej showing up uninvited in his room is just being treated as a casual everyday thing where they talk about all the intel she gathered is great. While Kaz calls her an “investment” at one point, and it could seem cold, you can tell he holds her to a high esteem. There is an explanation for everything Kaz does and says even if it doesn’t make sense now.
While Kaz and crew are definitely criminals, they are introduced as people who are in for it for the money and the narrative makes you interested in learning more about them. Jesper seems to be a fun guy with questionable morals, Inej follows a religion and avoids killing people even if people would pay her for it, and Kaz seems more focused on scheming and getting a job that would be too hard to pull off for most people. However, one of the rival gang bosses, Pekka Rollins is immediately introduced as someone who plays as dirty as they get and has no issues with using violence to get what he wants.
As the Crows learn more about the job, the story reveals that the events with Alina on the ship happened two weeks ago. Now the word is getting out that something weird happened on the Ravkan ship and as people start calling Alina the Sun Summoner, a bounty is placed on her head.
The job the Crows win is this: enter the fold, kidnap Alina and bring her to Ketterdam.
Since these books are focused on Alina and her story, the Crows don’t seem to get any flashbacks in this this season. I am okay with this since I honestly didn’t expect them to have such a big role in Shadow and Bone at all. The narrative seems to move the two plotlines almost in paralell which is more than I could have ever asked for.
I would have been happy to only see the Crows in the background as cameos only. The way the multiple plotlines are played out gives me the same kind of rush I had when reading the Crow books. The Crows always get themselves into some crazy fun adventure with lots of scheming and planning and it felt like an adventure/action movie – which is now reality!
I already watched episode two and three and I cannot wait up to write up on those and to continue the show! What a great start!