A review of Rule of Wolves or of the Shadow and Bone adaptation? Why not both, and a bit more on the side?
I read Shadow and Bone and the rest of the initial Grisha trilogy from Leigh Bardugo fairly soon after it came out. I do have a weakness for entertaining YA fantasy and that’s exactly how I would describe it. It is definitely a bit tropey and formulaic at times, but the writing is solid and the world different enough to feel fresh. I also have a distinct weakness for a first-person narrative and Bardugo delivers that as well, with a heroine who is interesting and has a sense of humour without being the usual “strong” female character who is sassy and kick-ass all the time. My main complaint after finishing the series was that the one formula of the YA fantasy I can do without is the tease of the female character almost hooking up with the villain/bad boy. I think it could have been quite interesting if Alina had not learned of the Darkling’s evil intentions until they were getting ready to deal with the Fold. Or at the very least somewhat later; I realise that the plot still needs her to spare the stag. I liked the overall setup of Alina’s relationship with Mal, with the good friendship and the seemingly unrequited love, but as his own character he didn’t quite come to life for me which meant that the romantic relationship felt a bit flat. What I enjoyed most about the series as a whole was probably Alina’s relationship with her power, going from suppressing it to wanting more of it and ultimately losing it all.
I’ve also read the two duologies, Six of Crows and King of Scars. I’ve seen people saying they feel Six of Crows is better than the Grisha trilogy and I can agree it shows more writing skills because it is less formulaic and has a more complex structure. Or rather, it uses a set of formulas that aren’t that common in a fantasy setting since it is a heist novel. I can agree with it being the work of a more experienced writer, but overall I was less invested in it, particularly in the characters. But admittedly, heist plots aren’t really something I get very invested in. They’re fun, but not as personal.
I would, however, place Six of Crows over King of Scars. I may be wrong but in reading that duology it felt as if Bardugo was reaching a bit too much to find something more to write in this world. She fleshes out Nikolai and Zoya to have them become the main characters (since Alina and Mal are “retired”), but with Zoya in particular it felt as if the backstory now given to her wasn’t at all in the cards before. The Suli heritage, for example, seemed suspiciously “tacked on” and I can’t quite shake the feeling that it had something to do with the direction that they had decided on for the casting of the Shadow and Bone adaptation. While the first cast members weren’t announced until after King of Scars was published, the planning of the series must have been going on during 2018. And in that book there’s just a single reference to her father being Suli.
Its not a big deal, but it just feeds into my feeling that the way Zoya was fleshed out didn’t quite sit right with her portrayal in the initial trilogy. I did find the overall plot of the latest duology interesting, with further exploration of the Saints/Grishas of the past, the costs of merzost and the place of Grisha in a more and more industrialised world. But the characters just didn’t quite grab me (though having the resurrected Darkling as a point of view was pretty cool, I admit).
I also have one small and one major quibble with the conclusion of the duology. First, the small one, which is Yuri. For a while, they don’t want to harm his body to get to the Darkling. When the time comes to close the rift in the world, no one even mentions him and presumably he’s along for the unpleasant ride. But the more significant quibble is the conclusion of Nina’s and Hanne’s storyline. That was terribly convenient and seemed like such an easy way out with just benefits and no costs. Magical sex changes aren’t a problem as such, I loved that storyline in Judith Tarr’s A Fall of Princes, but this was such a deus ex machina solution.
Writing more in a setting after you’ve done the big “the world is ending” storyline or something similar is always difficult and generally leaves authors with two choices; come up with a new threat to the world or concentrate on smaller things. In general, neither is entirely satisfying. There are exceptions (Robin Hobb comes to mind), but I don’t think this is one of them.
Now, I’ve already touched briefly on the Shadow and Bone adaptation, but since we binged that one over the weekend it definitely deserves a few paragraphs of its own.
Both Elio and I found it enjoyable, even though it triggered my “stupid adaptation changes”-headache at least once an episode. He’s not read the books and did end up asking me quite a lot of questions, which supports the suggestion I have seen from others that it may have been a bit too reliant on people having read the books. I don’t mind books and shows that throw people in at the deep end in terms of world-building elements, but the pace that the series set due to mixing in the characters from Six of Crows was a bit too high for that approach. It definitely felt rushed at times and I think I would have preferred the series without the addition of Kaz, Inej and Jesper. Especially since parts of their plot made no sense, such as there existing a secret train service through the Fold for smuggling Grisha away from Ravka…
I can see why they wanted to bring these characters in right away. It establishes them for later on and without them there’s no way they get a full season out of one book. Too much of Shadow and Bone is Alina’s thoughts and that’s hard to translate into scenes of a TV show. The show would likely also have felt too YA with just the focus on Alina and her relationship to Mal and to the Darkling. Especially since the approach of using voiceovers of her letters to repeated flashbacks of Alina and Mal together ended up feeling a bit overwrought at times. And speaking of things feeling too YA, the scene with Nina and Matthias walking through a snowy landscape was just plain stupid. Flirting like 14-year-olds when you are in serious danger of freezing to death? I liked their chemistry otherwise, but that was silly.
And while we’re on the subject of characters and relationships, I thought the casting and the acting was very good. Everyone put in good performances and had good chemistry with each other, whether as friends or romantic interests. Still, as much as I thought the actress did a good job as Alina, the change to her background was a conceptual mistake. Why foreground race instead of class? Why insert racism in the setting when it isn’t there in the books? I don’t recall anyone being disparaging about Botkin who is a former Shu mercenary. I’ve even seen comments on social media where people of Asian descent have been uncomfortable with seeing typical anti-Asian sentiments expressed in a fantasy setting where they were hoping to not have to deal with that. It also felt like a superficial way of dealing with race to just throw in a few slurs at the beginning of the show. I feel like this is typical of the problems that arise from today’s pressure to insert diversity of race above all else. Keeping Alina as a war orphan (they even change that and have her parents killed by the Fold instead) who feels beneath the Grisha because she is as common as can be served the story and her arc much better in the long run.
In addition to good casting and acting, I also thought the show looked very good. One thing that Elio and I said to each other on several occasions was that the team behind The Wheel of Time ought to be concerned about Shadow and Bone getting there first in terms of the feel of the show and, in particular, how they handled the magic (sorry, the Small Science). Alina even has a classic Channeler block to overcome (and one of her friends describe something similar) and Baghra would fit right into the White Tower as an Aes Sedai. So we’ll see what that means for The Wheel of Time, whenever that comes out. I am going to need to stock up on Advil for that one, though, if I go so far as to give it a try.
But in the meantime, do watch Shadow and Bone if you like fantasy and/or adventure. It is NOT “the new Game of Thrones”, however. By which I mean that if you compare it to the early seasons of GoT, it isn’t as strong and it is, more importantly, a very different kind of story told with a very different kind of feel. And I like that, because there should be room for all kinds of fantasy on TV.