YA fantasy adaptations tend to be dense in mythology and self-seriousness, with so many lands and lineages and plot turns that the newbie viewer might need a drink, or at least a thorough set of recaps. “Shadow and Bone,” returning to Netflix for Season 2 (a feat in itself these days), has all of the standard intricacies. Between Ravka and Fjerda, the Grisha and the Shu, the Barrell and the Fold, there’s a lot to keep track of, and the task can be daunting for novices to navigate.
But “Shadow and Bone” has an ace in the hole that the cardsharps of the Crow Club would appreciate. It rarely forgets to have fun, a quality that can easily get lost amid the spells and brooding that often characterize such enterprises. The series has a swashbuckling spirit and lively wit. It has clever heist plots and barroom brawls. Even as it throws you into its intricate worlds of fetishistic detail, “Shadow and Bone” keeps one foot in the grime of old-fashioned action and adventure.
That said, you still might want to keep those recaps handy, especially if you’re a brave soul jumping into Season 2 cold. When last we left “Shadow’s” heroine, Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), she had come to recognize the evil in fetchingly handsome shadow summoner General Kirigan (Ben Barnes). Alina is a hot commodity, a Sun Summoner with the power to, well, summon the sun, or at least harness its powerful heat and light. This comes in handy when she’s navigating the Shadow Fold, or simply “the Fold,” a massive dark cloud barrier that separates West Ravka and East. Alina’s soulmate is not Kirigan but Mal (Archie Renaux), a mere mortal soldier and her bestie since their days as orphans.
As a Grisha, or one with special powers, Alina has a target on her back, especially among the Fjerdans, who view Grisha as a force of evil. The Ravkans, however, train Grisha as valuable soldiers. Alina fits the timeless fantasy mold of The Chosen One, in this case a potential uniter of the warring factions. (Dear “Shadow and Bone fanatics: I have learned your language only recently, and I hope I got all of this right).
In the new season, Alina and Mal join forces with a deceitful but damned charming seafaring prince, Nikolai Lantsov (Patrick Gibson), who brings some dynamic steampunk creativity to the party. They engage in a ripping battle with a Sea Whip, a mythical creature with whom Alina hopes to fuse in order to absorb its powers. Meanwhile, Kirigan is rallying rogue Grisha for a holy war against the mortals, keeping his reconciliation-minded mother, Baghra (the great Zoë Wanamaker) imprisoned.
That’s all well and good, and smoothly plotted and executed. However, as in the first season, the real party is going on in the Barrell. That’s where the glowering young underground criminal Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) leads his band of merry hooligans, including the effete sharpshooter Jesper Fahey (Kit Young) and the wraith Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman). This season they pick up a new team member, the Heartrender Nina Zenik (Danelle Galligan). Kaz’s crew is growing wary of his single-minded obsession with bringing down crime boss Pekka Rollins (Dean Lennox Kelly, oozing menace). They bicker, they flirt a little, they fight their enemies and they usually win. The Barrell is a shadowland of brothels, bars and double-dealing; think New Orleans gone to further seed. It’s also where the series’ pulse picks up and the production design really shines.
The more memorable of such series tend to have discernible worldviews, and this one tends to be tolerant and generous. Jesper is gay; when he first meets Kaz’s new chemist and explosives expert, the waifish Wylan (Jack Wolfe), it takes him a while to realize he previously encountered the lad in bed. Alina is not just a Grisha, but also half Shu, an Asian people widely discriminated against. Racism is a major throughline of “Shadow and Bone,” and it resonates with some extra urgency in light of ongoing violence against Asian Americans. A little real-world grounding can go a long way in making the fantastical more relatable.
Based on the YA novels of Leigh Bardugo, “Shadow and Bone,” like other shows of its ilk, must serve two masters. One is the core fanbase, the folks who have not only read those books but can explain their ins and outs down to the last comma. The other is made up of viewers who simply seek good television. It’s not easy to meet both groups where they live. I can only speak for the second group, but “Shadow and Bone” seems adept at serving red meat for the faithful without forgetting to take the rest of us along for a taste. It invites everyone into the Fold. Getting out is up to you.
“Shadow and Bone” Season 2 premieres Thursday, March 16, on Netflix.