This Friday, Netflix will bring Leigh Bardugo’s much beloved Grishaverse books series to life with Shadow and Bone, an ambitious series that combines characters from two Bardugo books: Shadow and Bone, and Six of Crows. This first few episodes of this 8-episode season are, frankly, a lot to digest for those unfamiliar with the books. (The number of characters introduced alone!) But once you get over that steep learning curve, you are in for a real treat.
Want a primer before you hit “play”? Here’s a quick, helpful (and non-spoilery) guide to help the uninitiated navigate this buzzy new show.
When Are We?: We’re in an alternate world entirely. Bardugo’s Grishaverse is, however, a bit closer to our world than, say, Westeros. Given that there are tsars and tsarinas in this show, and very little by way of modern technology, I suppose it’s safe to say we are somewhere around the turn of the 19th century.
Where Are We?: Yeah, I said tsars and tsarinas. The main location for this series is a place called Ravka, which is a fictional and fantastical version of Russia. Ravka is at war with its neighbor to the north, Fjerda—a nation based on the Nordic countries. It is also at war with its neighbor to the south: Shu Han, a stand-in for China. There’s also some trouble brewing in West Ravka. But for the purposes of understanding the first few episodes of this show, it’s helpful to know that if you see soldiers and something that looks like a battlefield, you’re in Ravka. Same goes for the palace. That’s Ravka.
There is also a portion of the show that takes place in a densely populated city called Ketterdam. That, as you might guess, is a stand-in for Dutch Republic-era Amsterdam. It’s not really involved in the war; it’s set in the island nation of Kerch, and its main interest is in profit.
What Is The War About? What is it ever about? Land. But also, there’s the matter of the Grisha. Grisha are powerful magic-users (more on that in a bit) who are feared and persecuted elsewhere in the globe, but revered and protected in Ravka. There is also something called the Shadow Fold, a territory of mysterious darkness where monsters live. Dominion over the Shadow Fold, which rips right down the center of the map, would give anyone who had it the upper hand in the ongoing wars.
Tell Me More About These Magic Users: It’s probably easiest to think of the Grisha as beings similar to the mutants from X-Men, or the elemental benders from the animated Avatar series. Certain people in this world are born with innate powers that they need to learn to master. Some are gifted with fire; some with air; some with “darkness.” Some, called Heartrenders, can slow your pulse or stop your heart entirely.
There are many more types of Grisha, but you don’t need to worry too much about them. The various magic users wear different colored coats (called keftas) with different embroideries on them to help you keep track. There are blue keftas for the elements, red for those that control the human body, and purple for those that have control of material objects. It’s all very Hogwarts. As for white and black, well, you’ll just have to stay tuned.
Okay, And What About All These Characters?: Don’t worry. There are only about six main characters you really need to keep track of at the beginning, and they’re all in this photo. You can do six characters, right? Let’s start with the basics. Mal (Archie Renaux) and Alina (Jessie Mei Li) are two orphans in the Ravkan army. They have known each other all their lives, and share an inseparable bond.
Over in Ketterdam, we’ll meet Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter)—a.k.a. Dirtyhands—and two of his crew: Inej, a.k.a. the Wraith (Amita Suman), and Jesper (Kit Young). They’re all very young and very skilled at what they do…which is crime. Kaz, who walks with a cane, is something of a minor crimelord who runs a criminal organization called The Crow Club. Inej, kidnapped as a kid and forced to work in a brothel, now works for Kaz and can silently break into anywhere at anytime. She carries a number of deadly knives hidden on her person. Jesper is astonishingly gifted with his pistols and has a gambling problem. And that’s really all you need to know for now. They can be referred to, collectively, as the Crows.
Last but never least is the Darkling, a.k.a. General Kirigan (Ben Barnes). He is the most powerful living Grisha, and has command over the dark. His signature move is something called the Cut, which turns the shadows he commands into a deadly slicing weapon. If the Grisha are X-Men, then Kirigan is something of a Magneto figure: he’s determined to build a world where all magic users are safe. He takes a very special interest in Alina.
And that’s it, really. It’s not that bad when you break it down. For bonus points, I’ll introduce you to just two more characters. These are Nina (Danielle Galligan) and Matthias (Calahan Skogman). You’ll meet them eventually. She’s a powerful Heartrender; he’s not.
If you’re getting strong Jon Snow and Ygritte vibes then, well, you’re on the right track.
Why Should I Bother? If you can get through some of the usual genre fiction trappings, then you’ll be rewarded with a YA fantasy world that manages to burrow in a bit deeper with its character work than your average film trilogy. The Grishaverse, as it exists on both page and screen, is an inclusive and intricate world brimming with exciting heists, human drama. And oh, those coats!
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