(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
"Shadow And Bone" is the latest Netflix fantasy series based on successful series of novels. It takes place in a world inspired by imperial Russia rather than medieval Europe. There's a lot to take in - at least six main characters, lots of exotic locations and no small amount of lore to digest involving people who can wield wind and fire and shadow and light, a chosen one who is prophesied to defeat a great wall of darkness and a bunch of charming rogues who are out for themselves. Now, that all sounds familiar, I know. But there's enough here that's novel, even if you've read the novels, to make this series worth your consideration. I'm Glen Weldon, and today we're talking about "Shadow And Bone" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WELDON: Welcome back. With me from her home in Maryland is NPR Arts Desk editor Petra Mayer. Hey, Petra.
PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: Hey, Glen.
WELDON: Also with me from their home in Washington, D.C., is NPR producer Mallory Yu. Hey, Mallory.
MALLORY YU, BYLINE: Hey, Glen.
WELDON: Great to have you back on this side of the mic. "Shadow And Bone" is an eight-episode season based on a fantasy series by Leigh Bardugo called the Grishaverse novels, Grishas being individuals with the power to summon and/or manipulate various elements, medals, machines, even the human body. It's set largely in the kingdom of Ravka, which is bisected north to south by an impenetrable sea of shadows known as the Fold, which is full of ravenous monsters.
We meet a military cartographer named Alina, played by Jessie Mei Li, who grew up an orphan, alongside her dear friend Mal, played by Archie Renaux. Alina and Mal get separated, and the kingdom's military leader, the dark, handsome and brooding General Kirigan, played by Ben Barnes, takes Alina under his wing because he believes her to be the Sun Summoner, a being who has been long prophesied to defeat the Fold and the monsters within it. Meanwhile, a group of rogues led by Kaz Brekker, played by Freddy Carter, conspires to kidnap Alina for money.
OK, that's a lot. Mallory, what did you make of "Shadow And Bone"?
YU: I really like the show so far. I am a huge sucker for mutual pining, so the mutual pining between Mal and Alina - total catnip. I like the love triangle thing that was going on. I am really into the thieves, Kaz and Jesper and Inej - especially Inej - so into them, in fact, that I always got a little sad when the scenes would cut away from them back to the little palace.
I love the production design. The Russian influences and the costumes are a refreshing change from the British medieval design that we always get. I'm practically nerd-obligated to cosplay Alina or Inej at some point, so adding that to my long list. I think the pacing works well. And, man, everyone in the show is so attractive and fun to watch. It's engaging. It's entertaining. I also love to see a high fantasy property in which non-white people even exist, let alone exist as more than nameless foreigners. But I struggled with the way that racism and discrimination is depicted in the show, which I'm sure we'll get to later.
I also found the world building in the show to be a little clumsy. Glen, in your review online, you said you liked that we don't get the sort of meandering world building and the kind of "Lord Of The Rings" opening monologue, which is interesting because I wasn't familiar with the Grishaverse at all. I found myself kind of lost in the beginning on where I was, which I found kind of ironic since Alina is a cartographer in the beginning of the show. I'd be enjoying myself and then suddenly be completely lost. Like, where exactly are we right now in relation to the Fold? Overall, I'm really into it, and I'm really excited to be talking about it.
WELDON: Great, great. Now, you make - you raise a lot of good points there, and I was thinking about exactly that question. Why do I love that this just drops us in and goes, as opposed to building this world? - 'cause I haven't read the books, and I approached this as a viewer. And I think the answer is the series' priorities line up with my priorities, which is tell me the story, not the wiki.
I've read a lot of reviews that say this is going to turn people off because there's so much lore and world building. But I thought it does a good job prioritizing the characters. We don't learn anything about this world that doesn't directly affect these characters. And so no scenes feel self-indulgent, and I thought the scenes start and stop where they need to. And it also - you spoke of the pacing. It moves to other characters when we are growing impatient to see them again.
I'll be the first to tell you, this is purely my take as a viewer. I think that's the difference. I love the "Lord Of The Rings" books, and because I knew the story, I knew what happened in them, when it came to watch the movies, I wanted all the self-indulgent stuff. I wanted the world building. I wanted the look, the feel. I wanted, I shall go into the West and remain Galadriel. I wanted all that crap because that's what was new. That was novel to me. But this is my segue to one Petra Mayer, who has read and loved these books. How did it work for you?
MAYER: It worked pretty well. It was one of these shows where when I was in the moment and watching it and experiencing the beautiful production design and the beautiful people and the great casting, I was like, oh, God, I love this - especially the Crows, our sexy heist trio who so perfectly matched my headcanon (ph) from the books. And you know that's rare, right? Like, you see something on the screen, and you're like, that's not how he looks in my head. But Kaz and Inej and Jesper are so perfect. They look exactly how I thought they would, and they act exactly how I thought they would.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHADOW AND BONE")
FREDDY CARTER: (As Kaz Brekker) All right. Royal archives heist - here's the game plan. Watchmen are on guard around the clock. We want to get in and get out as quietly as possible. That means the hardware stays in the holster, Jesper.
KIT YOUNG: (As Jesper Fahey) Fine.
CARTER: (As Kaz Brekker) Inej, the dome on the roof is directly above the repository where the blueprints to the Little Palace are kept.
AMITA SUMAN: (As Inej Ghafa) Got it. That's my way in.
MAYER: But kind of as I went along in the series - I didn't finish it until very recently, so I hadn't seen the last two episodes when I formed my original ideas about it. And there are definitely some changes and choices that the producers make that are different from the books that I have some issues with. It's a little hard to talk about without being spoilery (ph), so I will try not to be spoilery.
But specifically, actually in relation to what Mallory was talking about with Alina being half-Shu and the way racism is handled in the books, I think what is not clear and what we are missing a little bit in the translation of the world building, 'cause I'm a world building junkie - right? - and the world building in the books is so rich and so interesting - they may have pared it back too much for the screen because you don't really understand that Ravka is this small, beleaguered country that's caught between multiple enemies on both sides. And one of them is Shu, and they've been at war for years. So it makes some degree of sense in-universe for Ravkan people to be hostile to people who appear to be from Shu Han. And you don't really get that. You don't get as much about how the Grisha do what they do. They're just kind of generic magic users who throw fireballs around. And maybe we'll get to some of that later in the series if there's a second season.
But lest I seem like I'm being too critical, I really kind of loved it. It was close enough to what I imagined the books to be that when I was in the moment, I was just like, yeah, yeah. Summon that sun. Throw those fireballs. Yeah, do it.
WELDON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it looks great. I think basing it in sort of czarist Russia as opposed to medieval Europe, as we discussed - I mean, there's plenty of fantasy novels out there that do something besides medieval Europe as the jumping-off point, but there haven't been that many that have come to the screen yet that do that. So this is one of the first that we've seen do that.
The producers, as you mentioned - as you both mentioned - made a lot of changes. Some of them are woven into the series well. Some of them kind of stick out. And Mallory, this is where we're going to talk about Alina as half-Shu because I thought that did stick out. I like the fact that she is coming up against racism because everybody in this world is human, and you don't get that cop-out fantasy thing, which is like, oh, well, the orcs hate the elves. That's my statement on racism. You get something where she has to deal with this every day, except she doesn't have to deal with it every day in a way that she probably should have to deal with every day. So let's talk about that. What did you make of that change to make this character half-Shu?
YU: I feel some type of way about all of this. It's really exciting to see someone like Jessie Mei Li lead a really sort of epic high fantasy show like this. So my issues with the discrimination in this show stem from the kind of lack of world building of the racism and discrimination. There's a scene early on in the first episode where Alina is in line to get food, and she has a confrontation with the cook from her military regimen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHADOW AND BONE")
GORDON MORRIS: (As line cook) What's a Shu girl doing here?
JESSIE MEI LI: (As Alina Starkov) I'm Ravkan, on the cartography team.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) She's half-Shu, an orphan.
MORRIS: (As line cook) That's not an answer. Back of the line - your friends, too.
LI: (As Alina Starkov) I don't know them.
MORRIS: (As line cook) Then you go.
YU: That scene made my hands shake. I talked about this a little on Twitter, but it reminded me of this moment when I was 8. I was on a road trip, tried to buy a candy bar in a gas station in sort of the middle of nowhere and was called a slur. I didn't buy my candy bar, and I didn't tell anyone. And it sucks. And Jessie Mei Li has talked about how people in her life have said that, you know, anti-Asian racism doesn't exist. And, you know, if you have that kind of mentality, this show will tell you that racism exists, and it sucks. So on the one hand, I really related to Alina and how she would feel in these moments. And I think Jessie Mei Li, by virtue of being someone who's probably had similar experiences, embodies the discomfort and rage and sadness that someone feels in those moments.
But even after eight episodes of this show, I know nothing about the Shu other than they're the enemy. And they're an enemy that looks like Alina, who looks like me. And the show throws that in my face every five minutes with slurs and propaganda posters that look straight out of history books. It doesn't really feel fleshed out. Alina doesn't deal with her Shu identity unless someone is racism-ing (ph) at her, unless someone is calling her a rice-eater or telling her her money isn't good here. I don't have context for Shu Han in relation to Ravka. The show doesn't really offer any context for why Shu Han is so reviled. So at this point, as someone who is not familiar with Grishaverse, the only thing I know about Shu is that they're Asian. Ravkans hate them. So it feels like Shu is just shorthand for other, in the same way that an Asian face in the U.S. is shorthand for foreign.
So I'm starting to get a little weary of simply depicting racism as powerful or illuminating about our world. I don't really need to see a character racially targeted over and over and over for looking different. I kind of want the show to go a little further than that. Show us why Ravkans are wrong for this attitude, despite the historical context of Shu and Ravka relations, not just because we like one half-Shu person. You know, it's really easy for us to like marginalized individuals while still holding onto prejudice and bigotry for the group that they belong to. And right now, the series isn't doing enough to show that part of it.
WELDON: Yeah, I hear that. That seems like a change that was made in a kind of well-intentioned way, but it's exactly what you're saying. We can depict racist attitudes, and that's us depicting race. It's not the same thing. And a sacrifice the show makes to prioritize characters over world building makes the pacing of the show improve, but it does leave these holes, which you can look up online, you know, to the history of the world and all that kind of stuff.
I found it useful to have a map of this realm because we'd be moving around all these different places, and I wouldn't know where exactly we were. And it's kind of important when there's this big wall of shadow bisecting the place. You have to kind of know where you are 'cause the whole thing is how do we get across this shadow? Well, you have to know where you are - first step.
Petra, the making of Alina half-Shu is one change, but apparently, there are a lot more changes as well. When I heard that this thing was going to be about a chosen one who can wield light, I was like, oh, jeez, maybe next time. But that's the first novel, right? That's a pretty faithful depiction of the first novel, yes?
MAYER: It's a pretty faithful depiction of the first trilogy because there is a trilogy and two duologies in this series so far. General Kirigan in particular - they've given him a backstory which I actually read came from a short story that Bardugo wrote, but I think kind of makes him much weaker - kind of Magneto-style origin story that just - eh (ph). On the other hand, Mal is much less of a drip, so (laughter)...
WELDON: Right, right.
MAYER: Having her - having Alina's love interest not be your standard, like, huffy, misunderstands things, can't deal with the fact that his girlfriend is way more powerful than him kind of dude - on screen, he's much more rounded. He's much sweeter. He's more supportive. He's really hot. So that's a positive change.
WELDON: So, Mallory, as you mentioned, the cast is diverse - slightly more diverse than the one we saw in the books. And that's not something we see in high fantasy a lot, as you noted. Does this signal a shift in the way we cast or write high fantasy? Petra, what do you think?
MAYER: I think it doesn't signal a shift, but it's definitely part of one 'cause I'm seeing this happen with other shows that are in development right now. If you look at, for example, the Amazon adaptation of Robert Jordan's "Wheel Of Time" series, they have definitely cast a lot of actors of color in main roles that weren't specifically written that - I mean, that is a very traditional sort of Eurocentric high fantasy. It has a lot of analogues of other countries, but the main action is pretty obviously set in what you're supposed to think of as kind of the Shire of this world.
And in terms of writing fantasy, there's just been this amazing wave in the past - I want to say five years, but it's probably longer than that - of non-Eurocentric books by Black and brown authors. And a lot of those people, like N.K. Jemisin, are getting TV deals now. So I do think this doesn't exactly signal a shift, but it's like the wave beginning to crest. And I'm excited for things that are coming.
WELDON: Well, let's talk about Season 2 as a means to wrap up, because we all like this series. We have certain reservations. Let's start with Mallory. How hopeful are you, Mallory, that some of your reservations are going to get addressed if there is a Season 2, which there hasn't been announced yet, but if my Twitter feed is any indication, it's pretty likely.
YU: Yeah. I mean, I really want a second season. Like, I want to see Mal and Alina on their adventures. Honestly, I'd watch a whole show about Kaz and Inej and Jesper just committing heists. How hopeful am I that sort of my issues, specifically with the kind of discrimination world building, will be addressed? That remains to be seen. I know that the writers room is really diverse, and I'm hoping that more episodes and more time will kind of introduce us to maybe seeing Alina interact with Shu people, connecting with that part of her culture, apart from the sort of discrimination and racism that she is surrounded by. I would like to see that kind of fleshed out a little more, and it feels like the showrunner really cares about those experiences.
WELDON: Petra, same question to you, but I suspect I have my answer because you've mentioned the changes the producers have made, which have kind of weakened the characters or at least changed the characters in a way that will complicate or undercut some of what's coming. And you know what's coming. Are you looking forward to a Season 2 knowing everything you already know?
MAYER: Oh, heck yeah (laughter). And I do want to see where the show goes with their representation of Shu Han, which, in the books, is not a country you learn a whole lot about until the very, very end of the current set of Grishaverse books. The last one just came out. It's called "Rule Of Wolves." And Leigh Bardugo has said it's kind of her farewell for now. And that's the book where you learn a lot about Shu Han. So maybe they'll splice some of that stuff in. Yeah, I mean, I want to see what they do with that beyond just, as Mallory said, sort of people racism-ing at Alina because racism. I want them to do more world building. It's such a cool world. Let's understand more of it.
WELDON: Well, we want to know what you think about "Shadow And Bone." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to you both for being here. It was great.
YU: Yeah, always fun to be on.
MAYER: Thank you. This was super-fun.
WELDON: And we will see you all tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.