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Shadow and Bone: How Netflix is building a fantasy series that wants to welcome everyone

Shadow and Bone
(Image credit: Netflix)

"When I wrote Shadow and Bone, I was really echoing a lot of the fantasy series that I grew up on," author Leigh Bardugo recalls. "And those series were largely straight and largely white." We're here to discuss Netflix's adaptation of Shadow and Bone, a fantasy series with a difference – though it follows the same "hero's journey" made famous by Star Wars, Shadow and Bone's characters are a diverse bunch, with Alina, a young mixed race woman, at the forefront of the story.

"I wanted to write fantasy worlds that reflected the world around me, which is not very straight, and not very white," Bardugo continues. "And it was important to me to create a world that was inclusive, and I really hate the idea that romance and adventure and magic can only belong to one kind of person. So I have tried very hard to make sure that that is not how my books feel."

That same ethos has been brought to the Netflix adaptation, which will likewise follow Alina, an orphan who discovers she has extraordinary power – she's not only a Grisha, a person with near-magical abilities, but also the fabled Sun Summoner, a legendary figure able to combat the darkness that has invaded her world. However, there's a catch: where in the books, Alina's ancestry stems from the country of Ravka, in the show, Alina has mixed Ravkan and Shu Han heritage – and Shu Han is a hostile nation. When Ravka needs Alina's special powers, she faces prejudice and racism.

Alina Starkov in Shadow and Bone

(Image credit: Netflix)

"It was so refreshing for me to be able to bring my real life experiences to this role," says Jessie Mei Li, who plays Alina. "I grew up in a predominantly white area with mainly white friends or non-Asian friends. It really does shape who you are… You always feel a bit like you don't completely belong, and it was so nice to be able to bring that to this character who, her journey is essentially to find out who she is and where she fits."

Opposite Alina is Ben Barnes' enigmatic General Kirigan, who attempts to fully harness Alina's powers. They are opposites in many ways: he's confident where she struggles, he leads Ravka's army where she is a lower rank, and he's a Shadow Summoner, working with the darkness where Alina brings light. Kirigan also acts as a contrast to Alina's childhood best friend Mal, with that relationship occasionally bordering on romantic.

"I liked that it doesn't seem like this sort of hokey love triangle, 'Do I like this guy or this guy?'" Barnes explains. "It's what they represent, it's representing experience and representing something familiar. Mal represents her home and her heart, and then the General begins to represent this new version of her, this version of what she could potentially become given circumstance and time, and the changing of her own ambitions."

General Kirrigan in Shadow and Bone

(Image credit: Netflix)

Which path Alina will take is a central question for much of the series as she grapples with her powers and her new place in the world – but that's not all there is to Shadow and Bone. Readers will notice other differences between the source material and Netflix's Shadow and Bone, which encompasses elements of both the Grisha trilogy (the first book of which is Shadow and Bone) and the two books in the Six of Crows series, which take place in the same fictional universe. That means characters appear in the timeline sooner than they should, including Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), Jesper Fahey (Kit Young), and Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman).

Kaz runs a gambling den called the Crow Club, but his attention is snagged by a heist with a massive reward. Easy-going Jesper and the inscrutable Inej join the job, and their high-stakes, action-packed story unfolds alongside Alina's, bringing them into contact with characters they never met in the books. However, there's so much more to these characters, with Inej, known as the Wraith for her skills at silently slipping into places, having a haunting past involving sexual violence. 

"I did a lot of research… There was so much empathy and love going into this part for Inej," Suman says. "And I didn't want to dilute that bit at all because it's such a prominent part of who she is and the choices that she makes. And even though she's been broken by those things, that she's found a way to build herself into this new shape, into the Wraith, and be a strength. And still, again, find the beauty in the world."

Shadow and Bone

(Image credit: Netflix)

These characters also demonstrate Bardugo's efforts to create fantasy that represents the real world. Kaz is a disabled person and needs a cane to walk comfortably. "It was slightly daunting," Carter says of Kaz's cane. "It became clear very quickly that [Bardugo] wanted the cane to be something that's made Kaz stronger. It was something he was proud of, not something that he ever tried to hide or, kind of, shy away from... I was determined to make it something that made Kaz stronger and more able to do the things that he wanted to do. Never anything that sort of got in the way or hampered him."

Then there's Jesper, a mixed race bisexual man. "One of the really interesting things about the show, and the books as a whole, is the way that people are oppressed isn't necessarily obvious," Young says. "One of the big, exciting things for me was that as a mixed race, Black and white person, I wasn't going in going, 'Oh, I'm a minority here.' That stereotype doesn't exist in this world. And similar with your sexual orientation, like Jesper's bisexuality – it might be a surprise to the viewer if they didn't see it coming, but it's not something that has to be hidden. It's not something in our world that is frowned upon. These are just facts of life where a large number of people are accepted for who they are, and who is oppressed might be surprising." 

Considering how Marvel has made interconnected universes spanning theatrical releases and spinoff streaming shows the norm, Shadow and Bone seems remarkably restrained considering it combines two novels into one show. "We wanted to provide something different for people who were fans already of the series," Bardugo explains. 

"Shadow and Bone is very much a chosen one story, and Six of Crows is very much about people who aren't chosen, who don't have royal blood or grand destinies, and who the world views as expendable. And through these two, very different series, I think there's a common link of a desire to belong and find your place and your people in the world. So, it felt quite organic for us to take it on, although it was certainly a challenge."

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Showrunner Eric Heisserer adds a practical concern: "You really don't have a chance for a spin off if you don't introduce those characters in the first series, because then no one has a chance to see those people on their feet." But that doesn't mean horizons can't expand in the future. "There's still a possibility that some of these characters can go off on their own later on," Heisserer adds. "But you know, I wanted to make sure that you got a chance to meet them." 

For now, there's something for fans of the novels and newcomers alike in Shadow and Bone, with surprises for even the most passionate of book readers. Whether this is your first time seeing the word "Grisha," or you've already devoured every word of the novels, Netflix's Shadow and Bone is an inclusive, immersive, and fascinating fantasy. "I hope that we can build a fantasy world that welcomes everyone to this story,"  Bardugo says. It certainly seems the author has delivered on that.