Shadow & Bone ups fantasy's diversity quotient with Asian and queer characters

Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov in Shadow And Bone. (Photo: Netflix)
Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov in Shadow And Bone. (Photo: Netflix)

Shadow And Bone is the latest big-budget fantasy series from Netflix, helmed by writer-showrunner Eric Heisserer (Arrival) who adapted the story from Leigh Bardugo's bestselling Grishaverse novels. Ben Barnes (Westworld, The Chronicles Of Narnia) anchors a relatively young cast that includes Jessie Mei Li, Archie Renaux, Freddy Carter, Amita Suman and Kit Young.

The Shadow And Bone universe feels a lot like what our own world looked like in the 18th century. In this world, some people, called Grisha, are born with magical abilities to manipulate the elements such as fire, wind, metal and even the bodies of living things. In the country of Ravka, inspired by Imperial Russia, Grisha have been deployed as soldiers in wars with other countries, who are also inspired by real-life cultures such as Scandinavia (Fjerda), East Asia (Shu Han) and the 18th-century Dutch Republic (Kerch).

Alina, the Sun Summoner on Shadow & Bones
Alina (right) is the Sun Summoner in Shadow And Bone.

Ravka is divided by a huge, seething sea of solid darkness at its centre called the Shadow Fold, which was magically created long ago by an evil sorcerer. The Fold contains fearsome man-eating monsters called volcra, who prey on humans who travel through. Shadow And Bone follows a group of characters who seek to destroy the Shadow Fold. (Read a review here.)

The eight-episode series combines the characters and storylines of the books Shadow And Bone and Six Of Crows, which actually were not set in the same timeline, but have been amalgamated into a cohesive story for the TV show. (Check out the order of the books here.)

Besides magic, action and adventure, what is notable about this fantasy epic is that it features a diverse cast of characters that includes Asians and at least one queer character.

Ben Barnes as the Darkling, or General Kirigan, in Shadow And Bone. (Photo: Netflix)
Ben Barnes as the Darkling, or General Kirigan, in Shadow And Bone. (Photo: Netflix)

In fact, the protagonist, Alina Starkov, played by Jessie Mei Li, is a half-Shu orphan who often encounters racism because of her looks. Alina is the "chosen one" of the story, as she's discovered to possess the rare and incredible power of light-summoning, which is believed will destroy the Fold. Li herself is half-English and half-Cantonese Chinese, as she shared with us during a virtual junket before Shadow And Bone's release on Netflix.

Li's father is from Hong Kong, while her mother is English. She grew up in the UK in a predominantly white area. She says her own experience and heritage helped her to portray Alina as a gentle, compassionate character who is also wary and suspicious.

"The reason they decided to make Alina half-Shu and half-Ravkan," said Li, "was to give her this real feeling of desperate loneliness, of being an outsider. Her whole story revolves around, 'where do I belong?' As a mixed-race person growing up... to all my friends at school who were non-Asian, I was always the Asian one, and I would speak in really bad Cantonese to impress everyone. But when I was with my Asian family or friends, I felt very English, and I couldn't speak Cantonese; I couldn't speak to my grandma. That feeling of never truly belonging anywhere is something that has been so prevalent in my life... it was really nice to be able to use that part of me and bring it to this character."

(Left to right) Kit Young, Amita Suman, and Freddy Carter as Jesper, Inej and Kaz in Shadow And Bone. (Photo: Netflix)
(Left to right) Kit Young, Amita Suman, and Freddy Carter as Jesper, Inej and Kaz in Shadow And Bone. (Photo: Netflix)

Besides East Asian representation from Alina, the main cast also includes the brown character Inej Ghafa, the knife-throwing acrobat thief played by Nepal-born Amita Suman, who comes from the Suli nomadic tribe who are loosely based on South Asian culture.

Kit Young plays the wise-cracking sharpshooter Jesper Fahey, who is gay in the books. His sexuality isn't dwelt on at length in the TV series, but one of his storylines in an episode reveals that he is queer. Jesper, together with Inej and Kaz Brekker, form the criminal gang known as the Dregs.

Barnes, who plays General Kirigan, has often portrayed roles in fantasy and science fiction such as Prince Caspian in The Chronicles Of Narnia and Logan Delos in Westworld. He spoke about the importance of the fantasy genre in creating imaginary worlds that still reflect the diversity of people in the real world: "I've always loved the fantasy genre... I love this idea of exploring human identity and where we all fit in the world and how unique we all are and how we can use our talents and our gifts to encourage and support each other, and defeat the darkness, as it were... I love the way that you can see these worlds, literally worlds apart from your own, with people who can do things that you could only ever dream of doing, going on these extraordinary adventures, and yet still see yourselves in the character... Casting this wonderfully diverse cast who comes in and portrays all these characters (who are) part of the world as they're part of our world... I think it's really interesting."

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