The fantasy genre is experiencing a boom, with every network and streaming service seeking their own Game of Thrones. Netflix has thrown its hat in the ring with series like The Witcher and Shadow and Bone, which returns after a nearly two-year hiatus from a well-received first season.
Shadow and Bone season 2 picks up right where it left off in world-building, based on Leigh Bardugo’s popular Grishaverse books. As any fantasy franchise worth its salt should, Shadow and Bone expands in its next installment — more of everything, from characters and locations to action sequences and emotional depth.
Many of the show’s elements feel very familiar. You’ve got the orphan hero(ine) with special powers who’s prophesied to defeat a dark villain. Other antagonists who fear the heroine’s powers. A charming rogue (or in this case, several of them). And the hope that love and friendship can save the day.
Even while it sticks to the usual tropes, Shadow and Bone season 2 is elevated by an appealing cast, beautiful visuals, and flashes of wit and humor. It has a breeziness that makes escaping into this magical realm a pleasure, not a slog.
This Shadow and Bone season 2 review contains major spoilers.
Shadow and Bone season 2 review: A already-charismatic cast grows even larger
Shadow and Bone’s hero and villain continue to shine in season 2. Jessie Mei Lin was a relative newcomer when played Alina Starkov in the first season, and it showed. Still, she was able to pull off the necessary beats — vulnerable, excited, confused. In season 2, Lin grows as a performer. Alina veers between determined and confident to fearful and doubting, and it all feels natural.
It helps that Lin has good chemistry with her two most frequent scene partners, Archie Renaux as Mal and Ben Barnes as Kirigan. Renaux is given more to do this time around and proves capable of being a leading man.
Barnes, of course, is Shadow and Bone’s biggest star, so it’s no surprise that he’s the most magnetic of all the cast members. He clearly relishes chewing the scenery as the tortured Darkling. I only wish there was more of him in Shadow and Bone season 2 (and beyond, though that seems unlikely since Kirigan is defeated in the finale).
His screen time comes at the expense of both new and existing characters, but I won’t complain since they are all highly compelling. The most significant new face is Patrick Gibson as the privateer Sturmhond aka Ravka Prince Nikolai Lantsov, who has such an inviting earnestness that you can’t help but root for him.
The Crows also get a brighter spotlight, which is a good choice. All of their actors are fantastic, though I give extra kudos to Freddy Carter as Kaz Brekker and Kit Young as Jesper Fahey. Both do excellent work exploring their rogues’ back stories. A lot of season 2’s emotional depth comes from the Crows’ storyline.
Shadow and Bone season 2 review: Quests are just a delivery system
The main arc of Shadow and Bone season 2 is Alina’s mission to destroy the Shadow Fold, the darkness separating her country. It’s broken up into a few sections that essentially involve finding various MacGuffins that can aid her.
The details of these quests can get a bit confusing. As someone who hasn’t read the books, the why and wherefore of amplifiers (objects that increase a Grisha’s power) elude me. That’s fine, since these plot devices largely serve to illustrate the characters. Alina’s search for amplifiers is a means to show her wrestling with a growing desire for power, fear that she’s inextricably linked to Kirigan, and the gulf between who she was (orphan cartographer) and who she is becoming (a saint).
Likewise, the Crows become embroiled in a scheme against the crime boss Pekka Rollins (Dean Lennox Kelly). This turns out to be a window into Kaz’s past, as we learn of Rollins’ prior relationship with the thief and his long-deceased brother. Their storyline also reveals a big secret about Jesper and introduces a love interest for him, the demolitions expert Wylan (Jack Wolfe). And it brings Nina (Danielle Galligan) into the Crows’ circle, which creates a tie to her doomed romance with an imprisoned Matthias (Calahan Skogman).
After all the MacGuffins have been mac-gotten, Alina’s ultimate quest is successful: She eradicates the Shadow Fold and kills the Darkling. But the Grishaverse isn’t a place for a happily ever after. The last part of the finale scatters the main characters, but sets up a story that could reunite them in a potential third season.
Shadow and Bone season 2 review: Verdict
With its use of so many well-worn fantasy tropes, Shadow and Bone season 2 may not feel particularly original or groundbreaking. Yet, it’s as or more enjoyable than many fantasy streaming entrants in the last few years. The show clicks along in a quick, orderly fashion; it rarely drags or feels bogged down. That’s evident in the fact that it took just two seasons to wrap up the main story of the Shadow Fold.
The inclusion of so many characters can feel busy at times. I couldn’t keep track of all the different names or who has what powers. Still, the standouts, like Kirigan or Kaz, are captivating enough to anchor their own spinoffs.
Shadow and Bone season 2 is satisfying because it goes beyond the magic. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of that. But seeing how the magic affects people you’ve grown to care about is what makes this show more than a paint-by-numbers fantasy adventure.