Shadow and Bone is a ripping good yarn with a steampunk Doctor Zhivago vibe

Netflix‘s YA fantasy series doesn’t reinvent the wheel—but it does bring fresh flavour to the flooded young adult market, writes critic Travis Johnson.

It seems every week we have a new historical fantasy series aimed at the teen and tween demographic. Shave off the actual telling details and shows like The Nevers and The Irregulars are easily confused—they’re all about young people with superpowers in the 19th century, right? At first taste Shadow and Bone seems like more of the same ilk, but an intriguing setting, sumptuous production design, and a more mature take on the tropes of the genre elevate the proceedings.

Based on the books by author Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone takes place in Kingdom of Ravka, a fantasy analogue of pre-Soviet Russia. The land is ravaged by war and sundered by a great supernatural region of darkness and horror called the Shadow Fold, which splits the country in two, as though someone dropped Mordor right in the middle of The Shire. Our heroine is orphan Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a cartographer in the Ravka Army who is recruited into the ranks of the Grisha, the nation’s feared and powerful magical corps, after she displays enormous mystical power during a dangerous trip through the Shadow Fold.

Which is all very par for the course for the YA fantasy genre. Alina even gets a standard issue love triangle, dithering between the affections of loyal childhood friend Mal Oretsev (Arche Renaux) and darkly handsome General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), commander of the Grisha, which is not exactly a shocking plot development. However, the TV series, under the aegis of showrunner Eric Heisserer (Arrival), draws from not one but two Bardugo novels: one, centered on Alina, from which it takes its title, and Six of Crows, which sees a ragtag gang of young criminals in the city of Ketterdam (basically Amsterdam) undertaking a daring high-stakes heist.

So while the plot mechanics of Alina’s induction into the Grisha might be too rote, you’re never more than a scene or two way from running the streets with limping criminal mastermind Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), lithe burglar Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), louche gunslinger Jesper Fahey (Kez Young) and the rest of the gang.

It’s a ripping good yarn, markedly more violent and brutal than the usual YA fodder, with well-staged action beats peppering each episode. The overall aesthetic is pleasingly detailed and evocative, evoking a kind of steampunk Doctor Zhivago vibe. The setting allows for fun and imaginative set pieces, such as when sharpshooter Jesper holds off winged monsters attacking a baroque-looking train with his blazing sixgun. Focusing on both the criminal underworld and the military also gives the show a little more grit in its guts than many of its genre mates. Actions have consequences, often fatal ones, and there is a palpable sense of menace not just from the various monsters and magic-users that we encounter, but every character, all of whom have secrets, grievances and agendas.

There’s a lot to enjoy here: a strong cast, an evocative setting, a strong sense of voice, and the occasional monster fight or desperate snowbound skirmish to spice things up. Shadow and Bone doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s a fun fantasy romp that will please genre fans and doubtless a few new recruits as well.