Ben Barnes and Jessie Mei Li in 'Shadow and Bone'

Grisha, gumption and goats: Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, with its phenomenal cast, deeply binge-worthy plot and an overall gorgeous aesthetic, hooks itself onto your heart and won’t let go. In a nation ravaged by war, and terrorised by darkness, orphaned nobody Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) discovers she has the power to summon light — and the potential to save her people. It is a world of comic capers grounded in real emotion and believable relationships. But what makes this show such a comfort watch? What makes the Grishaverse tick? And what’s a goat got to do with all this?

Shadow and Bone meets all the fanfic trope checklists: there’s a chosen one; a mysterious mentor; a dark and brooding Mr Rochester type; and what is essentially Hogwarts (the Little Palace, where Grisha are brought to train). Don’t even get me started on the romance: you’ve got your classic enemies-to-lovers, your childhood-friends-to-lovers, your enemies-to-friends-to-lovers-to-enemies, and your will-they-won’t-they, to the point where the plot becomes a mere backdrop to the relationships. But other than a few sneaky kisses, the romance is reined in in favour of something much more engaging: the characters’ budding friendships.

Friendship is at the centre of the Crows — an unlikely trio of small time crooks with hearts of gold, whose crime-caper is arguably the most interesting storyline. Jesper (Kit Young: NT’s Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) is a gun-toting, goat-hugging, gambling addict; Inej (Amita Suman) is a compelling assassin with a conscience, and Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) is the eternally-stressed fledgling crime boss, desperately scrambling to bring them all together for the heist of a lifetime.

“ the interwoven plot lines finally meet, the viewer is left filled with joy and desperately awaiting more.”

In the other corner we have Alina, facing her new sainthood, searching for somewhere to belong and grappling between her loyalty to her childhood love Mal (Archie Renaux) and her new feelings for the ying to her yang, the shadow summoner General Kirrigan (Ben Barnes). The writers don’t promote their problematic relationship, rather use it to show the manipulative strength of men in power. (Or maybe they just wanted Ben Barnes to play a hot villain, who am I to say.) It’s this humanisation of its characters that allows the show to toe the tightrope without falling into cliché. Everyone is deeply, frighteningly, human. And in the final episode, as the interwoven plot lines finally meet, the viewer is left filled with joy and desperately awaiting more.

Jessie Mei Li in 'Shadow and Bone'.

Every nuance here is thought out; the lighting, sets, costumes (over 250 keftas were handmade!), and artwork, all create a captivating backdrop to a familiar fantasy. The show riffs on a Russian, Dutch and Scandinavian aesthetic influences; the crime capital Ketterdam takes on a distinctly Victorian London-feel, while the monarchy and army feel like they’ve come straight out of Tsarist Russia. Even The Fold itself, a massive, volcra-infested wall of darkness, acts as an iron curtain, splitting Ravka into a totalitarian Eastern Bloc on one side (come on, those outfits and posters are totally USSR inspired) and a Western state in search of independence on the other. Perhaps because of how engaging the characters are, the actual plot gets lost; the West Ravkan insurrection never quite feels real, and the war they are fighting is murky at best (are they fighting the Shu? The Fjerdans? I’m so confused).


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Nevertheless, Shadow and Bone is an unproblematic gem of a show. It brings characters with realistic motivations, flaws, and arcs, all while leaving space for them, and the series, to grow. With a very Stardust meets Peaky Blinders feel, the show manages to create an engaging story, believable characters, and stunning relationships within a well-trodden genre. Instead of taking a slightly unhelpful colour-blind approach (Bridgerton I’m looking at you) the show engages with its representation, giving BAME actors a well needed centre stage. Although the plot is inevitably, and reassuringly, predictable, it is the moments of levity which take you by surprise. The best example is the fan-favourite Milo the goat, who succeeds in elevating every scene his goaty whiskers touch by rendering the tensest moments tenderly comic. What follows is a game of shadows and light in which the political stakes are kept low enough to grow, and the personal stakes are always dialled up to eleven.

With fantastic representation, stellar characters, and a story that leaves you wanting more (Netflix is reportedly already asking for another three seasons!) Shadow and Bone is more than worth the watch; especially after the stresses of exam term, when we could all do with a little ray of light.