It is a prophecy. It is 2015, and Leigh Bardugo is sitting in the Writer’s Bar in Raffles Makati, exuding creativity and standing out with her long blonde hair, an extremely bright personality in every way. She might as well be thinking up something magical.
By that time, she already had. She was in Manila to promote her Young Adult fantasy Grisha trilogy, composed on 2012’s “Shadow and Bone,” 2013’s “Siege and Storm” and 2014’s “Ruin and Rising.”
The books are set in what her fandom called the Grishaverse, an alternate 18th-century Tsarist Russia called Ravka, divided by a mysterious deadly wall of darkness called the Shadow Fold that you cross at your own risk. The aforementioned Grisha are gifted people with magical powers (called the “small science”), led by the Darkling, General Kirigan, who can summon darkness. The Grisha trilogy follow the adventures of a rather ill-equipped army cartographer named Alina Starkov and her best friend, Mal Oretsev, the best tracker in the unit; they have been friends all their lives. But those lives are turned upside down when Alina draws the interest of the Darkling—the Shadow Summoner—who believes Alina to be the legendary Sun Summoner, his polar opposite, a Grisha who can control light and, together, they are destined to banish the Shadow Fold.
There’s more. Bardugo is talking about her coming book, “Six of Crows,” which is set in the same universe but about a totally different set of characters, the Dregs, a trio of savvy criminals. Those characters would wind up attracting their own following.
In any case. the mothership Grisha trilogy has attracted enough buzz that Bardugo signed a deal with DreamWorks to bring “Shadow and Bone” as movie to the big screen with “Harry Potter” executive producer David Heyman attached. Super is pressing her for casting choices. For the crucial role of the Darkling, she prefers “a young Richard Armitage.” For the series’ main protagonist, Alina, she sets her bar high. “I wouldn’t mind seeing more diversity in the casting, like I think the Darkling and Alina could be played by Asian actors.”
Cast a time travel spell six years forward, and all kinds of small science has, indeed, happened. Somehow, the two book series have been combined into an eight-episode Netflix series, which, like that other bestselling fantasy series, goes under the name of its first and most famous title, “Shadow and Bone.”
Bardugo is executive producer on the series and the showrunner is Eric Heisserer, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for “Arrival” and also wrote “Bird Box” as well as “Lights Out.”).
“Yes, the rights to Shadow and Bone were originally with DreamWorks in 2012, then something happens, which often happens in Hollywood, which is the executive who was excited about the project left, and so the story languished there for a while,” Bardugo says to Super via Zoom. “And then when the rights became free again, we had a lot of interest in the ‘Shadow and Bone’ trilogy and the ‘Six of Crows’ duology but I wasn’t anxious to make a deal with someone I didn’t feel really good partnering with. At that point I had written five novels, it was a big part of my life I wanted to make sure whosever hands I put these stories into, I could trust. It wasn’t until we sat down with Netflix and with Eric when I felt we had found the right partners for this work. Anytime you’re going into an adaptation situation, there’s a lot of risk and emotion involved, but you roll the dice you make a good deal and this case we did got the right people.”
Bringing the characters from the two book series together was something that Heisserer and Bardugo had agreed on during their first meeting. “That was a challenge on my part because I was very excited bringing those characters in and that side of the world in because it showcased just how big the scope was of the world Leigh had built,” he says. “It also gave us the promise of bringing in other characters because we could not tell the story of ‘Six of Crows’ next to ‘Shadow and Bone’ because, I believe the terms was, you can’t make the magic rules and then break them, in the same breath. You have to level up to that. But that gave us the freedom to introduce those characters were doing because they were around and living in the world and tell us something about their origin, their behavior or beliefs and you get to see happen, sort of organically. My thought then, the fun was just sort of the, the high jinks in trouble that they get into early on, and how that rubs up against some of the story points in ‘Shadow and Bone.’”
So what Bardugo and Heisserer have done with “Shadow and Bone” is to tell the story of the first book of the Grisha trilogy while turning it into a kind of prequel to the “Six of Crows” duology.
As with any series of books with a dedicated fandom, part of the formula was getting the casting right. For the majority of the young cast, “Shadow and Bone” is their first big break—and none bigger than the half-English, half-Chinese Jessie Mei Li, who plays Alina. Bardugo even wrote her biracial nature into the character, making Alina part Shu (the world’s equivalent of Chinese). Bardugo certainly fulfills her promises.
“It’s so exciting, and I’m really proud to be a part of it I think that the decision to make Alina mixed-race,” Li says. “It was just such a, such a smart choice I think it adds to the world-building I think it really adds to her character. Alina is so well written in the book. She’s so funny and she has all these relationships with all these different characters and you meet so many people. And then on top of that, you know, they’ve taken this beautiful character and made some changes to her that I felt meant that she was like a real person, you know, your sister, your mate. She has flaws. She starts off weak, and then we watch her grow and I loved the way that they brought her to life on the page. So yeah, really excited to be able to dive into that.”
Never far from Alina is Mal, and Renaux (last seen in the BBC mini-
series “Gold Digger”) plays that part with grit. If you have read the books (you must), then you know that Alina and Mal—thus, by extension, Li and Renaux—are the potentially the faces of a new franchise. “I’m very proud to have been a part of it I think it couldn’t have been a better experience, as far as the filming, I’ve made some absolute lifelong friends and had such a good time. I mean it’s quite scary to be the kind of face of something in lots of ways you know, I’m just me, so it seems a bit weird. I’m still getting my head around it.”
And if there’s anyone who’s going to leave an impression it’s the ones who weren’t even supposed to be there: The Dregs. This dashing, loyal group of rogues become integral parts of “Shadow and Bone,” adding an unexpected heist element. There is the man with the plan Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) who is amazed at how their Kaz and company wound up on the show. “We weren’t entirely sure how everything was going to thread together, and I think a lot of fans of the books have similar questions of how on earth we’re going to smash these two storylines that exist in the same world but it’s so different, there’s a world of heists and a sort of criminal underworld and under this big, epic warring nations scale,” he said. “The genius of Eric’s writing has been threading those two storylines together, And I think that fans will be very pleased with how the writers have managed to do them.”
Stylish gunslinger Jesper Fahey (Kit Young) who does a lot of, uh, unusual things on the show, also does his first ever action scenes and they are whoppers. “There was a fantastic stunt team and they just finished doing ‘Avengers’ and ‘John Wick,’ and all of these really cool amazing action films,” Young says. “And so, when we met them, they immediately started joining us and thinking through our paces. And that was kind of brilliant.”
But the scene-stealer (in every scene) is Amita Suman’s Inej Ghafa—nicknamed “The Wraith.” Not only does she have breath-taking acrobatic stunts but kinetic knife fights, though she has not emerged unscathed. Prior to the role, Suman had a scar from a knife wound from peeling an apple—she got her second one during a fight scene. She had to do a lot of training on her own and with her stunt double to pull off The Wraith’s moves. “I remember coming to the very beginning of filming, and I just didn’t have the strength, and I didn’t have the flexibility, but I just wanted to work and work and work so I went to the gym a lot, and by the time they came to building the thing I was able to do a basic routine but all the intricate and the really cool stuff with it. It is fun, but I know there’s one scene on the train, but surprisingly, when I saw the show, I think I think that was me. So hopefully I’ve managed to kind of capture some kind of fighting.” Suman, notably, is one of the very few Nepali actresses in the business.
But the actor that Bardugo got to play the most crucial role of the Darkling certainly fits her prophesized description, because he is played by Ben Barnes, who has moved on from playing, in his own words, young earnest roles like those in Prince Caspian in “The Chronicles of Narnia” movies to the villain Jigsaw in Netflix’s “Punisher” and now the very mysterious and powerful General Kirigan. In the past he was always the youngest person on set; now he is one of the most experienced.
“Well one of the glorious things was that, on the first day, I was one of the last people to arrive in Budapest, turn up in this restaurant where they were all sitting there, the other five protagonists, Freddy, Archie, Amita, Kit and and Jessie and I walked in and within 10 seconds of processing I knew who was playing who,” he tells Super. “You know they leap off the pages and into my story and into my dreams. Suddenly they’re there. Having done the ‘Narnia’ and ‘The Seventh Son’ and all these big movies when I was their age, I know what it feels like to be thrown onto these big sets. I know what that pressure feels like. You find ways to kind of impart that experience to them. Sometimes they’ll come to you with questions and sometimes it will be less direct than that and they’ll just sort of need you in a moment or whatever but it feels wonderful to be able to share something like that because, as an actor, you don’t necessarily think, I’ve gotten better. I’m one of those people who likes to work on something. I’m not naturally good at things but it took me 10 years to be proud of something I’d sort of done on screen, and, and to be able to be someone who realizes I have accrued knowledge and experience over that time and I can start to share it with people, it feels really good to me.”
Barnes’ brooding, dangerous Darkling only works with the breakout performance of Li whose freshfaced but determined Alina jumps out at you. These two represent the two sides of what is deep at work in the Grishaverse. And Mal won’t be far behind. There are two things that make “Shadow and Bone” the next big fantasy franchise.
The first is the incredibly rich world that Bardugo has built. “Shadow and Bone” barely touches the tip of this intricate, deep setting. Bardugo has written more than 10 books, including companion volumes. She has histories, maps, languages, political rivalries and religions all written out. This is a Ravkan rabbit hole worth going into.
The second is that Netflix did not spare a “kruge” (Ravka currency) in making it. The show was shot in Budapest, and all it takes is to look at the intricate woven coats called “keftas,” which are color-coded depending on which kind of Grisha you are all courtesy of the talented costume designer Wendy Partridge. Barnes actually stole his distinctive black kefta after shooting. Li’s white kefta is unique as well. Ever heard about a show called “Game of Thrones?” Well, Netflix got that HBO show’s VFX supervisor Ted Rae to work on the monstrous Volcra in the Fold. It’s a gorgeous show and an addictive one. Everyone is desperately hoping for a Season 2 and maybe even a Season 3. The show, as it is, only covers the events of the first book.
In the end, Bardugo has made her dreamed-up world become reality—with her in it. Yes, Bardugo actually gets to appear in a blink-andyou’ll- miss-it scene in the Little Palace when Alina is being presented by the Darkling to the King, much like how Netflix is introducing “Shadow and Bone” to viewers. “I write about magic a lot, but this was really experiencing magic,” she says. “I was standing in a scene—you know there are scenes in the show that don’t exist in the book but this scene I remember writing 10 years ago, I remember trying to come up with the colors that people would be wearing, the choreography of how they would enter the room, and then to suddenly be in it, and to be dressed in a kefta was truly such an emotional and extraordinary experience and I had to keep blinking to keep from crying, to keep from ruining the very nice makeup they put on me. I recognize how how fortunate I am. Although I will say, you can tell I’m not an actor, because I just look so happy to see this big scene going on and it’s just me with this giant grin on.”