The show, based on Leigh Bardugo’s novel series, has all the ingredients you loved about GoT: sweeping sets, epic world-building, complex characters, and a narrative that keeps you guessing from one episode to the next.
Shadow and Bone centers on Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a young orphan mapmaker who lives in a war-torn world battered and divided by something called The Fold—an ominous, dark force no one knows how to beat. Not even Grishas, essentially witches with magic powers, have the stats to take on The Fold. Only one person can, according to folklore: the Sun Summoner, who has the ability to wield light from the physical sun. That much power, if used properly, could take down The Fold—but is the Sun Summoner actually out there?
The answer is yes. And spoiler alert: It’s Alina.
When Alina realizes this, her whole world changes. She’s whisked away from her home—and best friend, Mal (Archie Renaux)—and taken to the Little Palace, where she’ll hone her skills with the help of the very handsome General Kirigan (Ben Barnes). At least, that’s what we think. Quickly into Shadow and Bone, you realize not everybody is who they seem and that your best friends could actually be your enemies. And vice-versa.
I’m not a fantasy fan, so all the pomp and circumstance around Shadow and Bone didn’t do much for me. But by the fourth episode, I was captivated by its central theme of identity. Alina is a character who’s been mistreated her whole life—strangers shout bigoted things at her, and she’s constantly searching for a home base. Then, out of nowhere, she’s placed on a national stage and forced to not only grapple with herself but this new layer of her identity. While training to be the Sun Summoner, her insecurities are palpable. She has impostor syndrome and is flooded with self-doubt; those concepts transcend worlds and genres. Anyone who’s been forced out of their comfort zone will relate to Alina’s story, even if they don’t bleed literal sunlight.
“Alina has always felt different,” Mei Li tells TV Insider. “That’s in the text. She’s looked different and she’s been different. And more people, I think, experience this feeling than admit it, so I’m just going to say it. I think people often feel like, ‘I’m special and there’s something important about me, and I just don’t know what it is.’ Everyone has that feeling, and they know that there’s something that they have to offer. And Alina hasn’t found out what that is yet. So, when she finds out she’s the Sun Summoner, it’s kind of like she knew the whole time. It’s almost that feeling of vindication. But also terror, because it’s like so much more than she was expecting and she has to come to terms with the responsibilities involved.”