‘Shadow and Bone’ review: The books that launched the Netflix show

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Emma Chen, Staff Writer

Netflix’s Shadow and Bone has so far been an instant hit, debuting at number one on Netflix across the world, but a good show requires good source material. For many, the source is a script, and the script’s source, an idea. Yet for others, there exists a slight detour in the journey from abstraction to screen — a book.

To be fair, it is a disservice to imply that the books are merely the middle ground between the idea and the show, a stepping stone. They may lead to something else, yet they also stand on their own, with fully fleshed-out worlds and stories. 

In this case, what led to the show is a collection of stories called the Grishaverse. 

The Grishaverse by Leigh Bardugo incorporates the author’s first and latest books, and its many books have come to reflect the stages of authorship that she has been through, with an introductory period and steep improvement, an exploratory phase, and a trip back to her roots as a writer.

Composed of the Shadow and Bone Trilogy, the Six of Crows Duology, the King of Scars Duology, and two more books of short stories, the Grishaverse is an expansive world full of people with magic powers, aptly named Grisha.

 

Shadow and Bone Trilogy

 

Shadow and Bone: 2.5/5

Siege and Storm: 2/5 

Ruin and Rising: 4.5/5 

 

Being Bardugo’s first book, the Shadow and Bone trilogy, like its protagonist, must stumble along before it finds its stride. 

It follows Alina Starkov, a cartographer. After being raised in the same orphanage, she and her childhood friend, Mal Oretsev, must serve in the Ravkan army. But while most soldiers fight other soldiers, what faces them isn’t an army, but darkness.

Hundreds of years prior, Ravka was split apart by the fold, a span of monster-infested darkness bisecting the country. Alina and Mal, on a supply run, must cross the fold, but when things go wrong, Alina discovers that she is grisha, and not just any grisha, but the fabled sun summoner.

With proper training, Alina may wield the power to finally destroy the darkness plaguing her country, but not everyone wants that, and sometimes people are more treacherous than monsters. 

In the first and second books in the series, Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm, Bardugo’s inexperience with writing is most prominent. The writing style is forgettable, but worse is its pacing, which slows down and speeds up at just the wrong times, although I will again note that this is the author’s first series, and isn’t representative of her ability as a whole.

Furthermore, as Alina is the only POV character, her view of the other characters is the only view the reader can rely on. The main problem in this case is that when her interactions, relationships, or views on other characters are flat, the characters become flat and underdeveloped. While I find the characters to be one of the best parts of the series as a whole, these books don’t serve as a fair introduction.

That’s not to say that these first two books are completely irredeemable. They are a textbook example of a good idea with poor execution, but it provides the setup to a more interesting world and story. Additionally, it effectively employs humor as a way to relieve tension and create endearing characters, such as Nikolai Lantsov, which is going to become a trend in Bardugo’s works.

The third book is where my opinions of this series take a turn. It seems strange that a series that had such a lackluster start could come to such a great conclusion, but it again relates back to the core ideas behind the book and its characters, which are fundamentally sound, so that even when it stumbles along in the beginning, it still has room to grow.

And the third book, Ruin and Rising, shows a lot of growth. For one, the writing style has become much less clunky and even enjoyable, but also, the characters themselves grow. Alina becomes much more interesting, but there is a more fundamental change in how the characters are presented. While the first two books focused primarily on Alina, this installment takes full advantage of its large supporting cast, and manages to flesh out the characters and relationships which had, until this point, been overlooked. It was a last-minute save, but this book lived up to the possibilities that had been set up, and did a lot to redeem the series.

 

Six of Crows Duology

Six of Crows: 5/5

Crooked Kingdom: 5/5

 

While Shadow and Bone follows a pretty standard formula for YA fantasy, Six of Crows is more exploratory in its use of the heist, a much less common plotline in the genre, proving that Bardugo is far from a one-trick pony. 

Taking place after Shadow and Bone, Six of Crows takes the grishaverse in a wildly different, and arguably better direction. Additionally, the lack of overlap means that you can read Six of Crows without having read Shadow and Bone, although there may be some slight spoilers.

If you’ve watched the show, know that, since the Six of Crows book takes place after Shadow and Bone, the first season’s storyline was made up for the show, and wasn’t a pre-existing plot, so don’t expect the book to be the same as the show. 

Six of Crows instead follows a different heist, for a man named Bo Yul Bayur. Bo Yul Bayur invented a drug, known as jurda parem, which can heighten a grisha’s powers. As a result, he has been taken prisoner and is being kept in the Ice Court.

Enter the infamous Kaz Brekker, a criminal prodigy hired to liberate the inventor — for a price, of course. To pull off the world’s greatest heist, he will need a crew. But not everyone in the crew is on the same page. Motives clash and align, and getting in becomes the easy part, while getting out will be much harder.

Six of Crows seamlessly combines action and suspense, past and present, humor and angst. It is confusing exactly as a heist ought to be, with layers and layers of deception.

Learning from past experience, Six of Crows also shows a remarkable improvement in writing style. One of the most significant differences is in the use of shifting perspectives. In this, each of the six main characters narrates a portion of the story. Not only does this work particularly well in a heist story, where the characters must split up, but it also provides unique insight to who each of them is, and how the others see them. 

Kaz and Inej’s characters, in particular, are heavily reliant on this form of narration. Kaz and Inej don’t always express themselves verbally, not always saying what they think and speaking through the unsaid, so their conflicts and motivations are often expressed internally, making the shifting POVs so necessary. As much as I love the show, this is a dynamic that I think translates much better as a book. 

Furthermore, the books start with the POV of a tangentially-related character. Joost doesn’t appear after the first chapter, but he provides the reader a window into the nature of the conflict and the stakes. His perspective works well because he is allowed to be scared and surprised where the main characters wouldn’t be, and it leaves the reader off-kilter, as they expected a story of hardened criminals, but instead find a scared boy in over his head.

Although Six of Crows lures the reader in with the promise of high-stakes adventure, what really makes it stand out is its characters. Not only are they and their interactions complex, but they each have a well-developed backstory that contextualizes their action.

A common frustration I have with tragic backstories is that they are manipulative, often treated as a way to create sympathy for the characters but quickly forgotten once it has been established. Six of Crows, on the other hand, gives their backstories the weight that they deserve and handles them in a way that is refreshingly honest, and is unrelenting in its assertion that they can grow beyond their pasts.

That’s not to say that this book is all serious. In this series, Leigh Bardugo’s affinity for humorous dialogue is on full display, helping to relieve some of the tension. There isn’t one specific character who makes all the jokes, or one who is always the butt of the jokes. Instead, each individual character has their own mannerisms and sense of humor which all work together to create moments of hilarity and absurdity.

Where Six of Crows is exciting, Crooked Kingdom, the second book in the series, is heartbreaking. A major problem I often find with the finale for a series is that the author rushes to wrap up the plot and all the character arcs, all within the last hundred or so pages. However, this book handily avoids that, always being action-packed, but never rushed. While the first book provided the perfect setup for the characters and their arcs, the second executed them perfectly. It didn’t scramble to give them all a satisfying ending, but rather one that emerged naturally from their stories, which is what makes it satisfying. 

Additionally, while the first book focused on the individual characters, this expanded to focus more on their relationships with one another, both platonic and romantic. The interactions display the signature humor, but also the heart-warming tenderness and love that they have grown to feel towards each other. Overall, this book took everything that was amazing about the first book and expanded on it, creating a perfect conclusion to the perfect story.

 

King of Scars Duology

 

King of Scars: 4.25/5

Rule of Wolves: 3.75/5

 

As previously stated, there is a large gap in the subject matter of the Shadow and Bone Trilogy and the Six of Crows Duology, and the King of Scars Duology seeks to bridge the gap and bring the two together. 

After the events of Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows, King of Scars sees Ravka on the verge of war. Nikolai Lantsov, aided by his trusted general, Zoya Nazyalensky, struggles to forge alliances and keep war from breaking out with Shu Han and Fjerda, all while trying to rid himself of the dark magic inside of him.

Meanwhile, Nina Zenik is undercover in Fjerda, serving King Nikolai, in a mission that will determine the outcome of the war, and also bring her close to her most-hated enemies.

This series must be read after both Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows, as it will refer heavily to those series and contain major spoilers. It also isn’t currently a part of the TV adaptation.

The first book, King of Scars, isn’t Nikolai’s first appearance in the grishaverse. He was a fan favorite from Shadow and Bone, despite his somewhat limited screen time, and the decision to make this series about him was perfectly calculated, as the mixture of his humorous attitude and deep feeling of responsibility for the fate of his country mean that there are funny moments, but they don’t distract from the severity of the situation. 

One thing that I loved about Nina in this story is how we see her act in a completely different scenario. In Six of Crows, she was separated from her cause of fighting for Ravka, but she was also free to be herself. In this series, she is back to serving her country, but it means that, as a spy, she had to act in a certain way. On one hand, I do miss who she was in Six of Crows, but it was also enlightening to see a side of her that was more calculating and manipulative, and also had a sense of purpose. 

Something that this series does extremely well is blend these two very different series together. Beyond just using characters and conflicts from both, it also uses the writing style. It uses the same shifting narration and the introduction by a tangentially-related character as Six of Crows, but uses it to explore conflicts from Shadow and Bone

That being said, this series sometimes drew too heavily on what came before it, with some of the plotlines being very similar to conflicts which had already been explored, except that this time with more spectacle or on a bigger scale.

Earlier I mentioned that many final books fall into the trap of rushing to wrap everything up, and unfortunately, this series is one of them. Particularly with the second book, Rule of Wolves, there was sometimes so much action and so little downtime that it became overwhelming, and I think many of these plot points could have been cut out or simplified, such as the conflict with Shu Han.

Overall, however, this installment was still full of interesting character dynamics and cameos from past books, as well as excitement tempered by tragedy and deeply moving scenes and relationships.

 

In the book world, it is relatively uncommon for an author to write multiple series all within the same universe, likely because any new installment will mostly only be read by those who have read the previous series, so in order for it to be profitable, it needs to have a large and dedicated fanbase. 

That’s not to say that they don’t exist, with Rick Riordan’s Riordanverse and Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter Chronicles being popular examples, but the series in those collections often are somewhat repetitive in nature.

Rick Riordan may introduce a new pantheon of gods in each series, but the main characters always become the subject of a prophecy and must defeat a world-ending threat. Cassandra Clare may introduce a new generation of characters in a different time period every series, but they will always follow a young woman and her large group of friends who must tackle a secret scheme while also dealing with her forbidden or otherwise unrequited love.

Therein lies the problem of creating such an expansive, series-spanning story: It relies on people who are already fans of the first series, and so it has to appeal to the same demographic, often by repeating certain story elements. 

But in comparison to all the other collections, the Grishaverse disproves the idea that that is the way things must be. Shadow and Bone may be a “chosen one” story about a girl with magic powers facing a world-ending threat, but Six of Crows is about criminals pulling off a heist, and King of Scars is about a king trying desperately to survive a war from tearing his country apart. They may still have many things in common, but it doesn’t retread the same stories over and over again, and becomes the exception to the rule.