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'Shadow And Bone': Netflix's Latest Fantasy Series Is Tsar-tlingly Bingeable

Cartographer Alina (Jessie Mei Li) maps her own fate in Netflix's fantasy series, <em>Shadow and Bone</em>.
Cartographer Alina (Jessie Mei Li) maps her own fate in Netflix's fantasy series, Shadow and Bone.

Let's get the cheap joke out of the way right at the top, just so we don't have it hanging over our heads for the entire review:

Do not be misled by its title. Shadow and Bone does not, in this instance, refer to the two things James Bond does in every movie.

Ok, good, that's out of our systems, lets move on.

Shadow and Bone is a new 8-episode fantasy series based on a successful book trilogy by Leigh Bardugo. It's stuffed with characters, locations, plot twists and — it must be said — very, very familiar fantasy elements including, but not limited to: characters who possess the ability to control various elements (wind, water, fire, sure, but also: machines, and even bodies); a Big Dark Thing (in this case, a monster-haunted wall of shadow known as The Fold) that is Prophesied to be Be Defeated by A Chosen One (a Sun-Summoner, who controls light); the fact that the aforementioned Chosen One is not noble-born, but a Reluctant Commoner Who Must Be Trained by Stern Teachers Until She Accepts And Masters Her Gift, etc., etc., etc.

There are surface differences that set Shadow and Bone apart: Instead of serving up still yet another vaguely medieval alt-Britain, the series takes Tsarist Russia as its jumping-off point, which lends every aspect of its setting — names, costumes, architecture, vehicles and weaponry — a certain singular appeal; think Dr. Zhivago, if Omar Sharif went around Yuriatin shooting flames from his hands.

Another novelty: The realm in which Shadow and Bone is set is peopled entirely by humans. This means that when the series chooses to address the subject of racial tension, it's not couched in the usual high-fantasy coding (elves hate dwarves, humans hate orcs, etc.). Instead, citizens of the alt-Russia kingdom of Ravka resent and distrust our main character Alina (Jessie Mei Li) because her features reflect her "half-Shu" status. (The Shu, in the series, are the people of Shu Han, an alt-China realm far to the south.) It doesn't matter to them that Alina was born in Ravka, and is indeed serving as a cartographer in its army as the series begins. Their ignorant, reflexive disdain is just another obstacle in her path — one that is all too familiarly real, and devoid of any mystical high-fantasy provenance.

But what really distinguishes the series is its smart storytelling choices, which prioritize a crisp, propulsive narrative over the kind of stately, ruminative world-building for world-building's sake that bogs down so many would-be epic fantasy series. The series opens not with an endless scroll of grandiloquent expository text that dumps millennia of this world's history in our laps. Instead, we open on Alina, drawing a map.

Making Alina a military cartographer gives Shadow and Bone a chance to orient ourselves in this world simply by looking over her shoulder as she works — we see the Fold, the great roiling sea of shadow that bisects the kingdom of Ravka, and many of the cities we will visit over the course of the series. (You may still want to look up the books' map of this realm online as you watch, as the series neglects to inform us whether a location we're visiting is situated east of the Fold or west of it; knowing this would be useful.)

Yes, there are a few occasions when two or more characters exchange information about this world's history in exactly the way no one ever does in real life, but they pass quickly and efficiently, without bogging things down. This sense of alacrity is aided, weirdly enough, by the need to service the show's many main characters, which include Mal (Archie Renaux), Alina's childhood friend; Kaz (Freddy Carter), a roguish criminal chasing a bounty; Inej (Amita Suman), a knife-wielding spy in Kaz's employ; Jesper (Kit Young) a charming sharpshooter; and General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), a dark, brooding figure who takes Alina under his dark, brooding wing.

That's a lot of folks to track, and when you throw into the mix Nina (Danielle Galligan), a courtesan with something extra, Matthias (Calahan Skogman), a stoic soldier and Baghra (the great Zoë Wanamaker), Alina's stern magical taskmaster, you might be tempted to keep a cheat sheet handy.

But you likely won't need to, because Shadow and Bone has been painstakingly constructed to suit its medium, which is binge-viewing. Scenes start and stop precisely when they need to, the moment they have accomplished their narrative task. We weave from one character to the next at the exact moment we find ourselves growing curious what they've been up to since we last saw them. And most importantly, episodes end on cliff-hangers that impel you to start the next episode. (This tendency extends to the series finale, which ends by finally bringing many of its disparate main characters together, sort of, and setting them off a new adventure that will await a Season 2 pickup.)

If Shadow and Bone doesn't provide quite the level of characterizing nuance and challenging chronological complexity of The Witcher — and it does not — it does go down easier, and seems expressly intended to make long weekend afternoons pass more quickly.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.