Shadow and Bone Season 2 Is Epic and Queer, but Fails Its Sapphic Characters

If you thought season one of Shadow and Bone was ambitious in combining two beloved book series, Netflix has one message for you about season two: “Hold my mead.” Not only does this season cover plot points from Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows series, but it also adds in content from her King of Scars duology. The result is an intense, dramatic, weirdly fun, and sometimes too jam-packed season that could use a helluva lot more sapphic energy. Let’s get into it, shall we?

The Grishaverse is large, the lore is deep, and its political system can get a bit complex, so season one spent a lot of time introducing us to all of that, in addition to a diverse cast of characters. If you’re new to this universe, here’s a quick and very high-level summary. The story is set in Ravka, a fictional country that is split in two by a shadow barrier known as the Fold. As is common in many a high fantasy tale, there is a group of people who have special abilities and are looked down on by most of society; the Grisha. When we meet Alina Starkov, we (and she) believe she is simply a mapmaker but throughout the season we learn that she is actually the Sun Summoner, a fabled Super!Grisha (yes, I made that up) destined to destroy the Fold. Her path crosses with Aleksander Kirigan, commonly known as the Darkling, who can control darkness and trains Alina to use her new powers. Also Alina has a best friend named Mal who absolutely has feelings for her. Big “Mal is also there” energy.

Screenshot of Alina examining her hand

“I’ve got the power!”

The other half of the season is spent with a group we’ll know as the Crows, a band of thieves led by Kaz Brekker, who are tasked with kidnapping the newly revealed Sun Summoner. The most interesting of the Crows (to me) are Jesper, a bisexual sharpshooter, and Inej, a spy on a mission to find her brother. Eventually both plot lines cross and season one ends with the revelation that the Darkling has been manipulating Alina the whole time as a means to his own evil ends, and he further expands the Fold before being attacked by creatures called volcra.

If that seems like A Lot(™), well, it is. Season two finds Alina and Mal continuing their mission to destroy the Fold by searching for two amplifiers to strengthen Alina’s power; a very much alive Kirigan training his own Grisha to prevent that from happening; and the Crows taking on a heist to wrest control of their club back from a mob boss called Pekka Rollins. And of course there is all of the action and romance you might come to expect from a high fantasy series.

Shadow and Bone is at its best when it focuses on its characters. Where season one found Alina learning her power, season two finds her standing in it. She spends much of this season wielding that power in an attempt to become the person so much of Ravka expects her to be. She balances her duty against her heart, all while Kirigan attempts to manipulate her into his control. And speaking of Kirigan, everyone’s favorite villain is back and as unsettling as ever. His abusive language and sometimes unhinged behavior makes it difficult to watch some of his scenes, but I’ll say this for Ben Barnes, he does an incredible job of getting me to hate Kirigan. Some of Alina’s best moments though, come when she gets to work in tandem with the other women. When each one of them stands in their respective and collective power, it makes for some of the most compelling and inspiring scenes of the season. (Give me my Alina, Zoya, Tamar, Nadia, Genya, Inej, and Nina spin-off PLEASE!)

Screenshot of Inej in a tank top and looking over her shoulder

TANK. TOP.

One of my favorite things about this season is the introduction of several potentially very interesting new faces: warrior twins Tolya and Tamar, Grisha Second Army member Nadia, crown prince of Ravka, Nikolai, and an explosives expert called Wylan. Readers of the books have been especially excited to meet Wylan, as he is one half of Wesper, the fan favorite ship of Wylan and Jesper. Now, admittedly, I didn’t have the same attachment to these bois going in, but suffice it to say, I will protect these queer babies with everything I have! Now here’s the thing, dear Reader, I don’t want to minimize the importance of seeing this couple being given the same level of attention as the het pairings on the show; there are multiple scenes where their relationship is clear with no ambiguity whatsoever, and that is massive. However, I would have loved to see that same energy given to what I can only guess is the wlw pairing of Nadia and Tamar.

Screenshot of Tamar and Nadia gazing into each other's eyes while sitting at a banquet table.

“A lingering gaze is enough for the sapphics, yeah?” — Netflix, probably.

As soon as Tamar appears on screen, her swagger radiates off of her, and not only do I recognize it, but Nadia does too. We see several lingering glances and touches that can only be described as “overly familiar”, but unfortunately, that’s as far as the show goes in confirming their relationship or even their attraction. And the thing is, the chemistry between the actors is so palpable that I would believe you if you told me they were newly dating or if you said they’ve been married for years. So why, when Netflix has no problem showing Wesper’s romantic escapades, are the sapphics forced to settle for “maybes” and “good enoughs”? Personally, I’m tired of it.

Perhaps part of the reason Nadia and Tamar’s relationship doesn’t get explored is because of the sheer number of plot lines happening at once. I won’t spoil anything of course, but while writing this, I actually just remembered a plot line that completely escaped me until this moment. This season would be much better served by even an additional two episodes to give the story some room to breathe.

Overall, season two has all of the tenets of a high fantasy adventure including a beautiful world to play in and themes of love, fate, and choice to explore. It does a fantastic job at expanding that world and its varied cultures while highlighting the effects of real life issues like prejudice and war. At times though, its need to cover so many storylines comes at the expense of deep character development. Netflix has yet to confirm a season 3, but if it happens, you can bet you’ll find me captaining ye olde Nadia/Tamar ship into the sunset.

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Nic

Nic is a Senior Product Manager at a major Publisher and lives in Astoria, NY. She is way too attached to queer fictional characters and maintains that buying books and reading books are two very different hobbies. When she's not consuming every form of fiction, you can find her dropping it low on the dance floor. You can find Nic on twitter and instagram.

Nic has written 79 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. I’ve read the books and I’m enjoying the adaptations. While there are huge changes in some aspects, not least because they’re smooshing the two, three now, series together, they seem to be developing the various non-het relationships at the speed they do in their respective books.

    We do end up with a full panoply of rainbow coloured relationships (yay) but it takes a while to get there. I don’t know if that’s because the author is het and clearly remains much more confident writing attraction to men, then branches out to write queer women as she feels more confident about the rest of the world or something else. But she gets there.

    The TV adaptation could have gone faster, for sure, but, to be honest, I’m enjoying seeing the flirting and the swagger and trusting that they’ll develop it next season.

  2. Haven’t seen the show, but Nadia/Tamar, while very very background in the books, was absolutely formative for baby dyke Lark with the whole “I have no heart” and then feeling butterflies about a pretty girl. I am waiting to see how the show handles Genya’s trauma and if “I am not ruined I am ruination” makes it in before I watch

  3. I can’t believe this season received a good review. Please, read Therese Lacson’s review explaining how racist and orientalist this season was. It was such a shame especially since people had hoped the producers learned not to be offensive after the whole cover the white stunt double in brownface scandal in season 1. And JML was casted specifically because Leigh wanted Alina to be Shu Han, and after backlash that s1 only used race to add bad racist comment to the character like the “rice eater” and other lines Eric Heisserer and Leigh promised S2 would let Alina explore her Asian heritage….. cue in actual s2 and the white Kaz Brekker took her plotline…..
    all because Eric wanted to get rid of s&b since his crow spin-off was not announced after s1 like he wanted.

    The show shafted Alina and ridiculed Asian fans, cepeucted them with backwards orientalist caricatures in s2 and did not learn from their past mistakes.

    The show does not deserve a high rating

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