Life & Culture

TV review: Shadow and Bone

Scratch the surface of Netflix's new fantasy series and you'll find Jewish allegory, says John Nathan



Scratch the skin of Alina and out shoots a beam of laser-like light. It shines like a beacon of hope in a dark land ruled by remote royalty and stalked by barbaric hoards. Vast swathes of the country are blighted by a permanent darkness populated by man-eating monsters. Yet scratch the surface of this gothic thriller’s narrative and Jewish allegory emerges.

The prejudice conveyed here — and originally in Jerusalem-born American author Leigh Bardugo’s books — feels awfully familiar. Alina is subjected to constant micro and macro humiliations and the cruelties she suffers are often accompanied by jibes about her different appearance. That said the appearance of actress Jessie Mei Li (the daughter of English and Chinese parents), the young actress who plays Alina, is mainly different because she is better looking than everyone else which in non-fantasy worlds often attracts more friends than it does enemies.

The setting is Ravka, a violent and unruly land that looks a lot like 19th century Tsarist Russia. The long trench coats worn by army officers swirl like the mist and smoke that seems to invade every scene in this shadowy, candle-lit world. On their heads they wear square ushanka hats and around the shoulders of the infantry are slung old school bolt-action rifles, although battles are fought with magic as much as bullets.

But you need to scratch deeper to find the Jewish influences which Bardugo herself has said informed much of her thinking. Alina is brought into the fold of the Grisha, an order of the King’s magicians who the author has likened to Jews who, having escaped persecution, were at the forefront of American advances before, during and after the world wars.

But no, according to an interview with Bardugo in The Atlantic nearly ten years ago, when Shadow and Bone the book was forging its place on a fantasy landscape dominated by Game of Thrones, it would be too much to say that Kirigan — the strangely attractive General played by Jewish actor Ben Barnes whose destructive Darkling powers can slice an enemy quicker than a kosher butcher can a piece of brisket — is a fantasy version of Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. One can take allegory too far you know.

Better to sit back and let the rollocking machinations wash over you. The show moves fast enough for the blunt acting of the young cast, who conjure such emotions as happy and sad, or scared and brave but not a great deal in between, to matter much less than it might. Trust also that the off-the-shelf message here and of so much YA literature — that being different is a source of strength — invokes a reassuring cosy glow among all the gore.


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