I thought I would give myself some time before writing this so that I could put together some coherent thoughts instead of just endlessly screaming like the fangirl I am, but I’ll probably just end up screaming anyway, because I absolutely loved this. It’s just. The gold standard of adaptations, to be honest. It exceeded all my expectations. From the talented cast to the gorgeous music to the special effects to the costumes to the unexpected humor, I just!!! I binged the whole eight episodes in a day, something I haven’t done in ages, and by the end I just wanted more. It wasn’t flawless — the questionable depiction of anti-Asian racism Alina faces is glaring, and I’ll talk about that — but overall my serotonin levels definitely shot up.
I read the original trilogy way back in 2013. It’s a series that has stuck with me and left a strong impression, and I was surprised when I went back to look at my review to find that I only rated the books 4 and 3 stars. I think even then I was kind of frustrated with some of the that era’s YA tropes, most of which the series thankfully excised! I do want to talk about my thoughts in more detail, so spoilers will follow below, in messy bullet point format, because I don’t have the brain cells for a well-organized essay right now.
→ First, Jessie Mei Li is…so amazing. I would die for her. I love the depth she gives Alina, whom I was always lukewarm about in the books. Similarly with Archie Renaux, who plays Mal — I was never a Mal hater, but I definitely Did Not Care about him at all, whereas in the show I really love his bond with Alina and I can see myself shipping them and rooting for them to end up together. I think the show also does a great job of showing how much Mal cares for Alina, just as she does for him — in the books, of course, Alina’s limited first-person POV is full of doubts about how Mal feels for her, but the show benefits from showing us Mal’s perspective, which clearly demonstrates that he’s just as in love with her as she is with him, and makes him far more likable and sympathetic!
→ JESPER. JESPER. JESPER. I…honestly did not see Jesper becoming the breakout character of the show, but like??? Kit Young is absolutely fucking BRILLIANT??? Jesper brings so much needed humor and his debonair suave and the GOAT and his sharpshooting skills (the way he twirls those pistols MY GOD). He’s just. Excellent. And loved the little hints about his abilities. And that whole sequence with crossing the fold in the train with The Conductor was just. Hilarious. Amazing. One of the best parts of the entire show. (Also, sidenote, it was such a pleasant surprise to see Howard Charles, of The Musketeers fame, as The Conductor!)
→ So when Danielle Galligan was cast as Nina I, like many people, was not super enthusiastic about it because I thought the actress seemed kind of generic (I’d been hoping for Barbie Ferrerra) and she was really only Hollywood plus-sized, but! I was so pleasantly surprised! She’s got such a fantastic charisma and playfulness and I think she brings Nina to life wonderfully, and her Irish accent fits the character so well! She’s so delightfully expressive! I loved her with Matthias, whose actor plays him in a very understated way; he has very Soft Boi vibes which is an odd choice considering Matthias is supposed to be this fanatic witch hunter but oddly, with Nina, it just works? They are adorable together, the epitome of the Sunshine/Grump trope, and whenever Matthias smiles it’s adorable.
→ Genya Safin! God, Daisy Head does her such justice! She plays her with such gravitas, such inner strength. She also gives off strong maternal vibes, which I don’t recall from the book — Genya felt a lot younger/frivolous/playful in the books but I like this change to a more mature Genya more. Absolutely loved her dynamic with Alina and really, really loved that final scene between them when Genya admits to spying for the Darkling and getting her vengeance on the king. I can’t wait to see more of her.
→ Ben Barnes. Oh my god. What a spectacular casting choice. Back in the days of Tumblr fan castings people would always cast these super young, preternaturally beautiful teen boys as the Darkling, and I was never fond of that, because I felt like the Darkling needed to look more mature and…grounded, I guess? Ben Barnes is just…incredible. He’s such a fab actor, the way he conveys so much with just his eyes (pools of black INDEED) or subtle shifts to his expression is just. God. When he said that ICONIC line I died. And all his scenes with Alina? I was literally screaming. He brings such an intensity to the Darkling. I just. I already want to go back and rewatch every scene with him in it. I really enjoyed the nuance given to his character; in the show we get to see how and why he created the Fold, which was as a result of persecution of Grisha by the king. It definitely makes him a lot more sympathetic.
→ The way that stag collar was threaded into Alina’s skin was utterly horrifying, and definitely a change from the books, where I think it’s just a collar that hangs around her neck. The way the show did it served to underscore the horror of what the Darkling was doing to her, and it really, really worked. I felt Alina’s pain every minute and I couldn’t look away from the damn thing and Alina’s raw skin whenever they showed it.
→ KAZ. KAZ AND INEJ. Freddy is, as predicted, WONDERFUL as Kaz. I was a bit lukewarm on Amita as Inej at first, but after the first episode I warmed up to her a lot, and now I adore her. I also really, really love the scenes in Ketterdam; it’s such a vibrant city and I can’t wait to see more of it!
→ Speaking of the Crows, I was really impressed with how the show managed to bring together the storylines of Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows relatively seamlessly! It’s certainly a gigantic change from the books, where the Crows never actually meet Alina, or to to Ravka at all if I recall correctly, but…it works? I don’t think it changes anything about future dynamics too much, and it’s fun to see beloved characters actually meeting. I’m wondering if perhaps Inej is going to function as a replacement for Tamar in future seasons, though that would be messy and disappointing, given the way Alina’s Shu heritage is handled (more on that later). Also really enjoyed getting to see and hear more of Nina’s backstory, which we are told of in Six of Crows but we never actually get to see it.
→ IVAN AND FEDYA.
→ Alina jumping into the Crows’ carriage and Jesper dying laughing about it. Same, Jesper, same.
→ The soundtrack! I’ve been listening to the soundtrack on Spotify all day and it is spectacular.
And now for some…questionable things!
I want to address the anti-Asian racism Alina faces, because it sits a bit awkwardly for me, and I think that’s because it’s so…decontextualized? So, I don’t remember too much from the books, and I don’t think the show puts too fine a point on this, but Ravka is at war with the Shu the same way they’re at war with Fjerda, yes? So in that sense, I would understand the antipathy towards Alina if it was coming from the angle of xenophobia. Fear of Alina being a spy, having tangled loyalties, etc. It was just the very specific, overt racism that felt weirdly out of place — the rice eater thing, the servant telling Genya to change Alina’s eyes.
It just doesn’t quite seem to fit given that we don’t know very much about the Shu or their relationship with Ravka outside of the fact that they’re at war, and we don’t even know why — with Fjerda, it’s clear, the Fjerdans hunt down Grisha, but how do the Shu feel about Grisha? (In the books, I think it’s established that they use them for scientific experiments and treat them inhumanely, but the show never mentions this.) Also, with Fjerda, the sort of racism targeted at Alina is absent — Ravkans fear and hate the Fjerdans who hunt Grisha, but there’s no undercurrent of racism there like there is with the Shu, which is just…weird, honestly! It just feels so awkward, like the show wants to have its cake and eat it too — it wants to be this high fantasy world with its own countries but then also takes on real-world anti-Asian racism and shoehorns it in without context or justification in order to alienate the lead character. It’s…lazy.
I mean, I love this casting, and I love that Alina is half-Shu, but I wish more had been done with that? Like, if you’re going to make her half-Shu, then I want to know more about her parentage, I want to know more about the Shu and how Alina feels about Ravka being at war with them, I want to know if Alina has any sort of relationship to her heritage. I want to give the show the benefit of the doubt and hope that in later seasons they will better incorporate this, especially as Alina and Mal travel and meet more non-Ravkans (like Tolya and Tamar, who are Shu, if I remember right), but at this point, it feels like a bit of worldbuilding that is incomplete.
I want to touch a bit on Zoya too, because her character left me feeling extremely confused about the way race works in Ravka, and this world in general. There are several instances where Zoya is indicated to be non-white within the context of Ravka — like that other Grisha on the skiff being surprised she has family in Ravka. It’s not very clear where she’s from, or why she doesn’t endure any of the same sort of racism Alina does (similarly with Nadia, who is black, and Mal, who I think is meant to be mixed race?), and it makes it even more baffling of a choice to have Zoya, one of the few non-white Grisha, call Alina a half-breed. I really, really hated that moment, because it’s just…first of all it’s a solid way to make your character irredeemable, and also, it was just so…pointless?
Why couldn’t Zoya just be a jealous Mean Girl? She could have just said “you stink of the orphanage” and that would have sufficed to establish that she Does Not Like Alina; why the cruel racism? It was unnecessary and it makes no sense given that we have no context for where Zoya sits racially — like, I could buy that Zoya has some internalized self-hatred or something, but we have very little understanding of how she is perceived by other Ravkans, so this moment just comes across as utterly bizarre. And then, in the final episode, when she “redeems” herself by going against the Darkling, yes, it was great, but it was soured by that initial note of racism, and just! Why! What are you trying to establish here!
Crossing all my appendages for a second season that addresses these concerns!