The series wisely combines a few books from the same universe and does so well.
Ravka is a kingdom that is divided into East and West by the wall of darkness called the Shadow Fold. Inside the darkness, monstrous beasts devour anyone they can find, making travel between the two halves of the kingdom perilous. While on such a journey, cartographer Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) is attacked by the monsters and discovers that she has the power to create light which repels the darkness of the fold. It turns out she is a “Grisha,” a group of people who can manipulate various elements, and the only known one that can use light. Naturally, she is considered a valuable asset to the kingdom and its head of the army General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) and taken to be trained. Her childhood friend, Mal (Archie Renaux), worried about her, sets out to find her. At the same time, a group of mercenaries, the Crows, set out to capture her for their own ends. The Crows consist of: Kaz, the mastermind (Freddy Carter), Inej, the former acrobat and assassin (Amita Suman), and Jesper, the sharpshooter (Kit Young). All of these groups are now on a collision course with the future of this kingdom on the line.
One of the things this show does correctly is that it assumes that the audience is already at least passingly familiar with this kind of setting. It’s a world where science is still at the beginning of the industrial age (there are trains and guns), but where certain people also have fantastic abilities that allow for other aspects of life to be completely different (mostly the military). Since you’ve probably heard of a setting like that before, this show wisely focuses on the aspects that are much more unique to this particular world and on the characters. It makes it feel like there was a lot more creativity in worldbuilding when a number of elements were just pulled wholesale from other series. It helps that, rather than being modeled after Western European kingdoms, the setting takes much of its cultural and fashion inspiration from Russian history.
The plot of the season roughly equals the plot of the first Grisha novel, Shadow and Bone, but has the addition of the Crows from one of the other books set in the same world. This is probably the best decision the show makes, because it gives us a decent B-Plot that feels more original than the central plot, gives the show a lot of freedom to expand the world in fun ways, and, most importantly, gets us three of the most interesting characters before we would have gotten to them if the show followed the book releases. Jesper is personally my favorite character in the series, a gunslinger who is apparently a criminal with a lot of anxiety issues who becomes an unstoppable force when he’s calm.
I’m not going to say this show is up there with The Witcher or Game of Thrones (pre-last season), but it tells an interesting number of stories that incorporate the more inventive elements of the world of Ravka. It showcases an interesting variety of powers of the Grisha, but also makes it clear that they’re becoming less important to the society every year as science grants people aspects of their abilities… and guns get better. The performances are all top-notch (again with a special shout-out to Kit Young as Jesper), the setting is elaborate, and the pacing is exactly what it needed to be.
Overall, pretty good show. Check it out.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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