When Shadow and Bone first premiered in 2021, it demanded a lot from its audience. Its world is chock-full of warring nations and tribes, and at first, it could be difficult to keep them all straight. For those of us who watched the series when it first premiered, jumping back into Season 2 feels a lot like the first; there might be questions like “Where is Ravka, again?” and “What the hell is merzost?” (An explainer never hurts.)
Just like before, however, Shadow and Bone Season 2 rewards those who take the time to find their footing with a high fantasy adventure for the ages. There’s a slew of new characters on deck here—most delightfully, a merry band of privateers—but even more enticing are the increasingly fraught bonds between our central characters. It’s not just our hero Alina Starkov’s love triangle, or mercenaries Kaz Brekker and Inej Ghafa’s “will they, won’t they”; this season, it seems that no one’s relationships are simple anymore, even fast friends.
While Shadow and Bone’s premiere season could sometimes squander precious time setting up future stories, Season 2 pays them off. For instance: Those still wondering about Kaz Brekker’s backstory after all that teasing will be delighted to know that we’re finally in for some details about what transpired in the past between him and Pekka Rollins.
And then there are all the questions this season raises about Alina: Is she really the savior for whom this world has been waiting, or will her power ultimately corrupt her? Does being “Chosen” really mean being alone? These questions already hung over Season 1, albeit less urgently than they do here; now, however, we begin to see glimmers of a different Alina—one whose actions might just become a little harder to predict. But we don’t land on answers yet; instead, those questions ring the loudest at the end of the season, teasing what might lie ahead.
While Shadow and Bone Season 1 primarily remixed Leigh Bardugo’s novel of the same title, Season 2 blends two books from the Grishaverse—Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising—with varying degrees of fidelity to the original text. When we first reunite with our central heroes, Alina (Jessie Mei Li) and her best friend (slash longtime crush) Malyen “Mal” Oretsev (Archie Renaux), they are on the run and working to keep Alina’s identity a secret.
As we found out last season, Alina is the only one who can destroy the horrific shadow world that bisects the nation of Ravka. Called the Sun Summoner, she must find and harness the power of three magical amplifiers (she found one last season) and use her powers to summon an incandescent burst of light that can cut through the shadows. Mal, a master tracker who is also deeply in love with her, is hellbent on helping her succeed.
Standing in their way, once more, is the Darkling, also known as General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), who created the shadow realm, called the Fold, to expand his power and, he claims, to ensure a world in which all magical folk like himself and Alina (called Grisha) would be safe from persecution. (Humans aren’t all fond of Grisha, whose powers some tend to mistrust, and most Grisha aren’t wild about the Fold, either.)
The sexy little love triangle between Alina, Kirigan, and Mal from last season remains alive and well, but Kirigan himself is not doing great. It turns out, he used a dark kind of magic to create those shadow monsters that stepped out of the Fold with him last season, after Mal and Alina thought they’d left him for dead. The magic, called merzost, has consequences. Kirigan’s face is covered in nasty scars from whatever happened to him in the Fold, and he spends most of this season coughing up a noxious black bile. His hand is also turning an unspeakable color.
Nevertheless, he persists—in appearing to Alina in her dreams and her waking hours to tell her that they belong together. Mal doesn’t get her, Kirigan insists, and over time she’ll realize she needs a bigger life than what he can offer. The mental bond is trouble for Alina. Kirigan was able to turn her and her powers into a literal puppet last season, and although the bond should be broken, Alina struggles to fully harness her powers, blocked by the memory of Kirigan’s exploitation. This is not great news if we’re supposed to be destroying the Fold!
Meanwhile, the mercenary crew of the Crows of Ketterdam—who wound up giving Alina an assist last season after initially being hired to kidnap her for a bounty—are not exactly thriving, either. Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) is still determined to ruin Pekka Rollins (Dean Lennox Kelly), who stole his club out from under him last season, and his tunnel vision jeopardizes his relationships with his beloved Crows. As we begin to untangle Kaz and Pekka’s history via flashback, we begin to understand why Kaz is the way he is—emotionally closed off, constantly clothed and gloves, and outwardly, at least, concerned only with money.
Inej (Amita Suman), meanwhile, is busy figuring out her own feelings for Kaz, and whether or not they’ll lead anywhere. Delightfully, this season also gives Jesper Fahey—the group’s trusty gunslinger, played with unfailing charisma by Kit Young—a little more to do. He’s grappling with an inner truth of his own this season, one that seems to permeate his relationship not only with himself and his talents, but with other people. Also joining the group? Fan-favorite Six of Crows character Wylan Van Eck, played with wonderful gentleness by Jack Wolfe. The Crows remain the show’s most consistent source of comic relief, and their adventures bring a streak of levity that can go missing from Alina’s very important quest to save the world.
That’s not to say that Alina is all doom and gloom this season; while there might not be any baby goats this season (bring back Milo!!!), we do meet a few new players who help to lighten the mood. The most fascinating of these characters is the unfailingly charming Nikolai Lantsov (Patrick Gibson), an heir to the throne of Ravka who also works as a privateer under the alias “Sturmhond.”
The rapport Alina and Nikolai develop becomes somewhat transformative for both of them; Nikolai, like Alina, is driven by a desire to change the world for the better, but he’s also got a sense of humor that grants Alina the levity she’ll need at times if she’s really going to save the world. Alina, meanwhile, helps Lantsov embrace his position in the royal family. Could a there be a love quadrilateral in our futures? As an admitted non-book reader, all I can say is, it seems like an enticing possibility! (Sorry, Mal.)
As before, Shadow and Bone’s world remains sprawling and beautifully rendered. The costume design combines steampunk, Eastern European influences, and traditional fantasy, while the sets remain as opulent and eye-popping as ever. The show’s cast has always been diverse, and this season seems to invest even further in exploring how different characters throughout this world have come to see it—and themselves—in the way that they do. As much as Shadow and Bone can burn through plot, its characters remain vividly human, and watching how their relationships with one another can change them is the highlight of the show. After all, no journey worth writing about has ever been completed alone.