Leigh Bardugo’s novels are so full of descriptive detail amid the bubbling romance and Grisha magic, with painstakingly detailed world-mapping and well-woven geopolitics, that the Netflix show Shadow and Bone has plenty to work with.
But as the book came out in 2012, there’s also plenty of room for the show to make its own improvements.
The eight-episode series draws from two books from Bardugo’s “Grishaverse”: Shadow and Bone (the start of the “Grisha trilogy”) and 2015’s Six of Crows (the first of a duology). Each follows the storylines of Alina Starkov, Mal Oretsev, and the Darkling (referred to in the show as General Kirigan), and Kaz Brekker and his gang, respectively.
The plots for these characters start on on either side of the Shadow Fold, one (the Shadow and Bone storyline) at a military camp near the ramshackle port city of Kribirsk, and the other (the Six of Crows storyline) in the dark alleys of the city of Ketterdam on the island of Kerch.
But as the show progresses, these storylines combine, and Brekker’s gang (called the Dregs in the books, Crows in the show) end up in key scenes involving Alina, Mal, and Kirigan. It’s an absolute treat for fans of the books to see them collide; Jesper versus Ivan, in particular, is cool.
Sometimes, the show’s script goes down to the word from the books, but what are some of the notable differences? Let’s break it down, and if you’re not into spoilers, MAJOR spoiler alert.
Alina Starkov’s heritage
One of the biggest changes to the show was specifying Alina’s heritage, which isn’t mentioned in the book — showrunner Eric Heisserer announced that Alina is half Shu before casting the role. As Mashable’s Alexis Nedd wrote in her review, “Casting half-Chinese Jessie Mei Li to play Alina, who was white or ‘Ravkan’ in the original story, gives the show opportunities to explore the social dynamics of its multicultural fantasy world.” The show foregrounds the prejudice of predominantly white Ravka (inspired by Imperial Russia) against people from Shu Han (inspired by East Asia), and this added tension intensifies Bardugo’s geopolitical stakes and makes their impact much more personal to Alina.
Racism lurks in every corner for Alina in the show — from her and Mal’s time at the orphanage in Keramzin to Alina’s fellow cartographers to the Second Army cook refusing her service to the servants in the Little Palace and even the damn Queen. None of this is in the book, as neither Mal or Alina’s heritage is mentioned in Shadow and Bone. Even existing lines have been adapted — in the show, Zoya whispers in Alina’s ear, saying, “You stink of the orphanage, half-breed,” while in the book, the quote is simply, “You stink of Keramzin.”
The many names of General “Darkling” Kirigan
You’ll hear the name “Darkling” only a few times in the Netflix show, but he’s not known by any other name to Ravkans in the book Shadow and Bone. Instead, this manipulative character, played by Ben Barnes, is referred to mostly as General Kirigan, a title taken from the book that purposely disguises his true character for the show’s earlier episodes, aligning him more with his role running the Second Army and less with the fact that he is The Black Heretic who created the Fold. The true name and identity of the Darkling, somewhat unpacked in the first book, is revealed in full only in a later book, Ruin and Rising. But we only actually get half of it in the show — in episode 4, Kirigan asks Alina to call him Aleksander ahead of their ride to the fountain. Oooo. Aleksander.
Kirigan’s origin story is also revealed at the end of the show and involves a Healer called Luda who is killed in front of Aleksander during a Grisha hunt. Luda is not in the book Shadow and Bone.
The whole “kidnap the Sun Summoner” mission
Arguably, the more fun, show-stealing storyline of the Shadow and Bone TV series, Kaz Brekker’s million-kruge mission to kidnap Alina Starkov with his gang, is one created purely for the show. This storyline in the series forms a kind of prequel for three key characters from Six of Crows (Kaz, Inej, and Jesper, played by Freddy Carter, Amita Suman, and Kit Young). The whole heist seems inspired by one that forms the core of the Six of Crows novel, however, that one focuses around breaking into another high security building — and we might possibly see it in Season 2 (if it happens).
The heist storyline uses elements of the Shadow and Bone book to rationalise decisions made by Kaz and friends in order to get into the Little Palace — the book mentions “tableaus of actors and little troupes of acrobats performing for wandering guests,” at the winter fete. In the show, the Crows use this as a perfect break-in opportunity. No, Alina and Genya don’t sneak out and enjoy the theatrical festivities in the book, but it’s a good moment in the show to connect the Crows with their target’s appearance — Jesper spies the pair in the crowd, and it becomes clear that not everyone knows that Alina is part Shu.
As far as the people involved in the plot at the beginning, we’ll get to Alexei and Arken below.
The plight of Alexei
Alexei Stepanov plays a much more significant role in the series than in the book as the key to connecting the two storylines early on. He and Alina are both junior assistant cartographers in the Royal Corps of Surveyors. In the book, Alexei is snatched by a Volcra from the skiff crossing the Fold and carried off into the dark where his plight remains unknown. In the show, he launches himself off the side of the skiff as its crew members are picked off by the monsters. He then somehow walks all the way through the Fold to Novokribirsk in West Ravka, where General Zlatan of the First Army awaits. He’s brought to Dressen (and the Crows) as a witness to the emergence of the Sun Summoner, where he’s interrogated and killed. Vale Alexei, how you connected the stories valiantly.
The character of Arken Visser is unique to the show
Played by Howard Charles, the character of Arken Visser, known as “The Conductor,” is one created just for the show. A smuggler recruited by Kaz Brekker due to his Grisha contacts and ability to cross the Fold unscathed, he plays a pretty pivotal role in the heist. Arken’s special Fold vehicle, his meeting with General Zlatan in Novokribirsk that Kaz spies, his assassination of Marie disguised as Alina, his interrogation with Kirigan — none of it happens in the books. At the least, Arken connects us with one of the best characters in the show, the goat Milo, who is show-only.
A tiny tweak for Nina and Matthias
Look, it’s my least favourite storyline, but there’s one tweak, so we have to talk about it. The storyline between Nina and Matthias is toxic as hell, and sticks extremely close to the book that they’re featured in, Six of Crows. A Heartrender, Nina Zenik is introduced in episode 3 as a contact of Arken who may be able to help Kaz and the crew break into the Little Palace. In the show, Nina is kidnapped from her lodgings by the Drüskelle (Fjerdan Grisha-hunters) in Novokribirsk while waiting for a meeting with Arken. The book is slightly different. In Six of Crows, Nina recounts the time when she was kidnapped by Drüskelle near a camp on the Wandering Isle (west of Ravka), so the location and time is somewhat warped for the show. Matthias Helvar is one of her captors, though.
Zoya’s character is given more significance earlier
Zoya Nazyalensky has a lot happening ahead, but you wouldn’t know it in the first book. In the Shadow and Bone book, we just get snarky snippets about Zoya, the Darkling’s other right-hand Grisha who isn’t Ivan. Alina’s friend Marie talks about her Regina George-like qualities: “She was a year ahead of us at school and she’s horrible.” Instead of just being talked about, Zoya is given nuance and not-to-be-messed-with power from her first moments in the show, from her presence on the skiff that goes into the Fold, the scene indicating her past relationship with General Kirigan adding extra reasoning to her dislike of Alina, all the way to the final battle and team-up with the Crows. There’s plenty more to come for Zoya, and the show’s writers clearly want you to know it.
Fedyor gets a bigger role, good for him
The character of Fedyor Kaminsky is pretty fleeting in the book Shadow and Bone — he just doesn’t get that much to do. One of the Heartrenders who escorts Alina from the military camp at Kribirsk to the Little Palace, he’s the Nice One of the pair in contrast with Ivan. But in the show, he gets a larger role, most importantly being sent by General Kirigan on a mission to retrieve Nina Zenik, which leads to Matthias’ capture. The book doesn’t actually tell you who the Grisha who wants to snatch Matthias is, so it’s a good opp to use terrifyingly friendly Fedyor in the show
Alina rejects the gloves. Yeah she does!
It’s a tiny moment in the show, but it’s cool for readers of the books, a fleeting embodiment of the show letting Alina embrace her power onscreen. In the book, Fabrikator David Kostyk assists Alina’s light demonstration with mirrors positioned throughout the room. Later, the Fabrikators give Alina a pair of leather gloves lined with mirrors that allow her to bounce flashes of light into enemy eyes. In episode 5, David brings her gloves commissioned by General Kirigan that will “help enhance your performance” and make it easier to split one beam of light into two during the demo. “I think I’ll be all right on my own,” Alina says in the show, easily managing, thank you very much.
Alina’s relationships have been tweaked slightly (but importantly)
It’s one of the core means of tension in the book, whether Alina’s unrequited love for her best friend Mal will be returned, or whether she’ll follow simmering tensions between herself and the Darkling. However, her relationships with both have been updated for the show, in a way that puts slightly more power in Alina’s court.
At first at least, Ben Barnes plays General Kirigan with more warmth and genuine affection for Alina than we see in the book. The first big kissing scene sees Alina make the first move on Aleksander in the map room before the fete, and there’s even a line of dialogue during the later spicier scene in which he asks for Alina’s consent, which is absolutely not in the book. Instead, in the book, this literally furious makeout scene seems somewhat sinister to Alina and the reader: “Behind that desire, I could feel something else, something that felt like anger,” she thinks.
Meanwhile, on Team Mal, played by Archie Renaux: His treatment of Alina has also been adjusted for the show. Mal is straight-up rude in the book in key scenes, shaming Alina following her demonstration, accusing her of dating the Darkling, and saying, “The clothes, the jewels, even the way you look. He’s all over you.” In the show, when Alina tries to tell Mal about her “stupid choices” with Aleksander, he stops her, saying, “You don’t owe me an explanation, I just want to keep you safe.” Much. Better. Guy.
Mal gets his own moments in the sun
As the book Shadow and Bone is written entirely from Alina’s perspective, we don’t really get a sense of Malyen Oretsev outside Alina’s penned feelings. In the show, Mal’s off-page adventures get their own scenes, like his saucy encounter with Zoya, and the death of his friend hunting for the stag (these scenes are only alluded to in the books). There’s one scene in particular that we don’t get to see in the books — the first frosty meeting between Kirigan and Mal during the winter fete. In the book, Mal isn’t sent to a dungeon or attacked by Baghra’s minion, and he doesn’t use a goat to escape captivity, but these are all fun scenes.
And Mal gets his own matching scar! Not a feature of the books, Mal’s injury through pushing a quartermaster Alina had trouble with makes them match. It’s not as big a sacrifice as Alina made (y’know suppressing her power through a painful cut), but it’s a sweet scene. (Note, Alina doesn’t have her scar removed by Genya in the book, unlike the show, wanting to keep the memory.)
But even better, we get to hear the letters that never reach Alina through Mal’s voiceover. Cute.
General Zlatan. Who is this Zlatan?
Who is General Zlatan and what does he want? Independence, that’s what, and the Sun Summoner on his side — by force. A leader of the First Army who resides in West Ravka has big plans to create his own sovereign nation it seems, breaking away from the King in East Ravka. But he’s not in the book Shadow and Bone, serving instead as a narrative connector to the plot to assassinate Alina, and a face for the civil war brewing in Ravka.
The chaos of the final Fold crossing
There’s a few things about this sequence in episode 8 that aren’t in the book, but to be honest, the scene is so all over the place in the book that it’s nice to get some clarity. Neither the Crows or Zoya are on the skiff during the final Fold crossing, but it’s such a treat to watch. The moment in which Inej throws one of her blades into the heart of the General is a huge addition. I cheered. As for Jesper shooting Ivan, you wish this happened in the book.
Before the crossing, the show removes a scene from the book in which Alina and Mal are allowed by the Darkling to spend the night together on either side of his jail bars, as it wouldn’t fit with Mal escaping via goat and stowing away on the skiff for the crossing — which lets him team up with Kaz, Jesper, and Inej in the hold. Teeeeam!
In the book, General Zlatan is not waiting for the skiff, ready for an ambush in Novokribirsk. And finally, Alina absorbs the stag amplifier into herself in the show, which is a powerful update — in the book Shadow and Bone and into Siege and Storm, the amplifier serves as a symbol of ownership and shame, and one she must hide.
We’re denied one big moment
For some reason, and I really don’t know why, the show denies us one of the biggest moments in the book: the kiss between Alina and Mal. In the Shadow and Bone book, it’s a truly lovely scene that happens just before they encounter the stag, after the line, “I’m sorry it took me so long to see you, Alina. But I see you now.” This big-time-swoon of a line is included in the show, but it’s at an earlier point during Alina and Mal’s travels, and it ends with a smile. All I’m saying is, after eight episodes of love letters, little jokes, and longing looks, kiiiiiiiss.