When J. R. R. Tolkien wrote “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future,” he unwittingly spoke of himself. The unassuming Tolkien brought to light an old form of storytelling that never fails to resonate with readers and inarguably changed the course of literature. Every writer who crafts a magical world for their story works in his shadow.
But that doesn’t deter writers from writing, with varying degrees of success. The latest book to earn a Netflix adaptation is Shadow and Bone, named for the first novel in Leigh Bardugo’s popular YA trilogy. The countries of this unnamed quasi-19th century world are divided by racism and politics as much as the Fold, a monster-infested storm that lies like a black scar over the map.
Crossing the Fold is dangerous to the point of being nearly impossible. As is always the case in these stories, the nations are on the edge of war, there are elite groups of soldiers with semi-magical abilities (“Grisha”), and everyone is waiting for a Chosen One (“Sun Summoner”) to restore order (i.e. destroy the Fold).
An orphan of mixed race who is a lowly mapmaker in the Second Army, Alina (Jessica Mei Li) seems like an unlikely savior and is reluctant to accept her destiny. Yet when her magical ability reveals itself she’s rushed off to magic school, where she’s treated as an outcast despite the fact that she’s fantastically important.
What keeps this from feeling like another routine fantasy story is a side plot lifted from the second book in the series. A group of charismatic thieves, the Dregs, led by Kaz (Freddy Carter), are forced into a position where they must attempt to find and kidnap Alina, which will require all their cunning and ingenuity. That each member has their own ulterior motives adds welcome layers of complexity.
Sometimes straying into contemporary allegory (Professor Tolkien would have strongly objected), the series never becomes aggressively preachy. Thankfully, there are enough lavish costumes and stunning landscapes to distract, along with twisting plotlines, romance, violence, and intrigue.
At its core, Shadow and Bone is about bringing light into darkness, even when we feel small and inadequate. Alina is the only one in her world who carries the light, which was buried deep inside her. But Jesus tells us that we “are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Being a light sometimes draws unwanted and overwhelming attention, as Alina’s story demonstrates, and as Tolkien learned firsthand. But even a small light can change the world. (Netflix)