shadow clone jutsu and bone

On Netflix's Shadow and Bone living in my head rent-free.

Welcome to Hyperfixate! This is a weekly newsletter that publishes every Wednesday on the subject of, you guessed it, popular culture I happen to be fixated on within that week! If you’re into that sort of thing, sign up for free here.
Hyperfixate’s latest It Boy, Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux) from Netflix’s Shadow and Bone. He has now taken up residence in the beach resort Pedro Pascal built in my mind and recently vacated.
Spoilers for Netflix’s Shadow and Bone.

I was feeling a bit lost last week after publishing my little F9 piece. I felt like I was losing the essence of what Hyperfixate really is. I guess at the time, I wasn’t consuming anything in particular and that coincided with the disinterest cycle of this entire experience.

But then, something shifted.

On Sunday, after seeing all the hype on my Twitter timeline, I decided to give Shadow and Bone a watch. It’s this new fantasy series on Netflix adapted from the Grishaverse novels by Leigh Bardugo, set in the fictional nation of Ravka very literally torn apart by darkness; a sea of shadows referred to as “The Fold.”

To cross the Fold, Ravkans must board skiffs in total darkness, hoping the Volcra, man-eating monsters, won’t come after them. And that’s not all, some Ravkans are born with special gifts (in true YA fashion), powers if you will. All sorts of powers ranging from manipulating the elements, machinery, and even the human body itself. These people are called Grisha. The Fold was created by a Grisha Gone Bad (Gone Wrong Not A Prank), known as The Black Heretic, a Shadow Summoner. And the nation has been in shambles ever since.

A quick rundown: Shadow and Bone follows Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a cartographer in Ravka’s First Army (army of non-Grisha soldiers), who finds herself reunited with her childhood best friend Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux) after their conscriptions separated them long ago.

To stay with Mal, Alina manages to get her crew onto Mal’s assigned ship straight through the Fold. During a Volcra attack and desperate to save Mal, Alina discovers that she is Grisha and that she has the ability to create and manipulate light; a Sun Summoner. Alina gets roped into a whole world of Grisha bureaucracy and Hogwarts-like academy training under the watchful but slightly suspicious guidance of General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), a Shadow Summoner and descendant of The Black Heretic.

Meanwhile, in the city of Ketterdam, master thief Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) and his trusty band of Crows, Inej (Amita Suman) and Jesper (Kit Young), have been tasked to kidnap Alina for a cash reward that could set them up for life.

Now, I’m not sure if you followed all of that, what with all the different words for things that already exist, it really took me a few episodes and a couple of Google searches to figure out who and what everything was. In grand YA tradition, the world has its own language and lexicon different from our own. To this day, I think about how The Maze Runner uses the word “klunk” instead of “shit” in their little mazes. Just say shit! There are no grown ups around!

Shadow and Bone combines the Grishaverse trilogy with the Six of Crows duology, bringing the characters from both books together for an eight-episode romp. It’s a good time. Lead actor Jessie Mei Li has compared the story to Star Wars and I completely agree. It’s definitely a strong genre piece, it feels massive the way Star Wars does, and it explores the main character’s toying with a Light and a Dark side.

Reminiscent of franchises like The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner, or god forbid, Divergent, the cast is filled with gorgeous up-and-coming talent and YA Franchise and resident pee paw alumnus Ben Barnes. Barnes came into my life as Prince Caspian in the Narnia films and subsequently starred as Sirius Black, a collective fan fantasy/delusion alternate universe that focuses on Harry Potter’s dad and his posse.

I’ve enjoyed watching the internet point out how this man is most known (amongst my generation at least) for playing a hot prince and a character he did not portray in the slightest. I myself have grown re-acquainted with Mr. Barnes via Westworld, where he plays troubled heir to the Delos empire, Logan Delos.

A post shared by @benbarnes

I am eternally fascinated by Ben Barnes’ Instagram, and one post in particular where he appears to be reciting a slam poem he wrote. Although, dare I say it, he may also be spitting bars? During the show’s press build-up, it was revealed that Barnes introduced himself into the cast group chat with the infamous Steve Buscemi “How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?” meme from 30 Rock, as he’s about 16 years older than most of the cast.

Underneath Ben Barnes’ epic rap battle against social media were the following comments:

Hyperfixate alumnus Will Poulter also makes an appearance in the comments. If you see my man in Ben Barnes’ comments, don’t tell me, I already know.

I love this cast’s off-screen chemistry. As you know if you’ve read this newsletter before, I am obsessed with press junkets. It’s very bizarre. It’s capitalism’s most dressed-up and exciting arm. It’s their Bucky Barnes arm. The cast of Shadow and Bone in particular seem to know each other very well and grew quite close during filming. My favourite dynamic is how they have this unspoken thing of setting Ben Barnes up and ganging up on him, but from a place of love. It’s very cute. And very funny.

Exhibit A:

No further questions, your Honour.

I’ve become enamoured by this entire cast, Ben Barnes notwithstanding. In the battle for Pedro Pascal’s beach resort he’s built and collected taxes from in my mind, Barnes, predictably, was knocked out in the first round. (I say this with a lot and I mean a lot of love.)

The show’s lead, Jessie Mei Li, is literal sunshine, much like her character’s ability to conjure sunshine. I first saw Li in a production of All About Eve on the West End a few years ago, alongside Lily James and my favourite white woman Gillian Anderson. Little did I know then that this person was about to take up a considerable amount of real estate in my mind.

I haven’t read the books, but in doing my research for this I found that in a lot of concept art and fan art for Alina, she’s drawn as white. They make a point to address Alina’s mixed-race heritage and how it affects her experiences as her story progresses. Li, who uses she/they pronouns, has also expressed interest in exploring Alina’s sexuality in the future. As a queer person herself, Li told Digital Spy that Alina just seems like she could be queer. And that in Shadow and Bone, all the ‘representation and diversity’ are incidental rather than deliberate. They’re not trying too hard to pepper in the odd performative tokenism. There will be no Cho Changs or Afterthought Gay Dumbledores in this house!

That was something I always struggled with with YA fiction, that a lot of the popular franchises were written by and centered around white people. It was hard to imagine yourself as being part of this world you escaped into when you decided to open up a book or go see a movie with your friends at the mall. Growing up a huge fan of The Maze Runner movies, I did feel a bit slighted when Minho (Ki-Hong Lee), the franchise’s only Asian character was sidelined and literally taken hostage in the latter films. Whilst there are many Indonesian young adult novels with characters I could project onto, we have yet to have our big blockbuster franchise moment. I hear Tere Liye’s Bumi series has been picked up for an screen adaptation, so we’ll see what happens!

Whilst I don’t think representation will ultimately save us, it’s been cool to see an mixed-race, queer, Asian person helm a major fantasy franchise. We’ve been getting crumbs our whole lives, it’s nice to finally eat some good fucking food. In the same Digital Spy interview, Li brings up how Alina is essentially a self-insert character in the first place anyway, so she had a lot of room to bring a lot of her own interpretations to the table as much as the writers did. To that end, a friend of mine put it really sweetly: that it’s just been nice to be able to picture yourself in a high fantasy setting because the lead finally looks like you, and that makes it a whole lot easier.

I know I’m getting into precarious territory here, because representation isn’t exactly the road to liberation, but if I had seen Jessie Mei Li in a franchise as massive as Shadow and Bone back in middle school I think it would’ve brought out something in me. Not exactly a sliver of hope or anything like that, but just knowing that Asian faces have as much of a right to be part of these types of stories is a good feeling. Also, Chloé Zhao on a couple of Oscars this week, so it’s been a good week for me, personally. (Again, we still have ways to go! Zhao was the 2nd woman to ever win Best Director AND the first woman of colour. How did it take 93 years to get to this milestone? Isn’t that kinda fucked?)

Getting to tell traditionally Western narratives as well as our own, be it within the continent, as part of the diaspora, or a completely fictional landscape captures our experiences with as much agency and nuance white storytellers have dominated the industry with. This time it’s the Asian character who’s The Chosen One, someone with as much power as they do quirks, flaws, and insecurities.

And then we have Mal. Crowned Hyperfixate’s new It Boy. According to fans of the book, Mal was one of the Grishaverse’s more controversial characters. A lot of fans dislike Mal in the books. Since I went into the show blind, Mal was more of a pleasant surprise to me. I absentmindedly tweeted this:

And I stand by what I said. There’s a point in the show where Alina and Kirigan grow very close. Like real close. Of course, what is a piece of young adult fiction without a love triangle? Kirigan is revealed to be the “Darkling”, a very meow meow name for a guy that’s supposed to be evil, or the Black Heretic himself.

So, obviously, Kirigan is no Peeta Mellark at all. He’s like President Snow if he were younger and had more mommy issues. But Alina and Mal find their way back to each other, a recurring theme throughout the show. I am an absolute sucker for the Best Friends to Lovers trope, even moreso for the Childhood Friends to Lovers trope. When Alina and Mal were growing up in the orphanage, they would run out into the meadow promising to run away with each other.

There’s this whole thing about how the two of them are each other’s True North, a realisation they both come to towards the end of the series. Mal is a tracker for the First Army, and Alina is a cartographer—it’s only fitting that their love for each other was signified with directions. I can’t believe I just typed that out. They think about each other a lot, which I think is adorable, but they don’t become consumed by each other. At least, not yet. We’ll see what happens in season 2.

They gave Mal the Gale Hawthorne treatment, the best friend from home that gets sidelined to the new love interest, but this time Mal might have a shot at getting the girl. Or he does? I’m not too sure if they’re “official” but Alina cares for Mal deeply, and vice versa. Mal has a heart of gold and loyal to a fault. He’s resourceful and persistent. Also, I think he might be indestructable. I keep seeing this kid get shot, stabbed, and thrown around and he gets up like it’s nothing. That may also be because there are Healer Grishas, but hey, who’s to say?

Mal, as twitter user SIRGAWAlN puts it, is short for malewife. And I couldn’t agree more. He’s this big guy who deep down just wants to care for the people he loves. There’s a scene where Alina admits to have been, for lack of a better word, “seduced” by Kirigan and all Mal has to say is “you don’t have to tell me.” Not in a cold, or cruel way. He’s saying that he won’t judge her, whatever happened. I don’t know why I find that so refreshing. Perhaps because envious male rage is boring, or perhaps it’s wonderful when a hot guy is emotionally intelligent in some way.

Archie Renaux and Mal Oretsev have certainly occupied a sizable chunk of my brain, I would go so far as to say as they’re taking over Pedro Pascal’s beach resort in my mind; everything from management to taxation. All rent-free, of course. I think he’s my dream man. Hunky, yet sweet. Tall guy with a heart of gold. A big, strong man that will cook a nice soup for you. Mal seems like a soup guy. I’m begging for him to take my hand, wreck my plans, and whatever else Taylor Swift said. There’s a really good Malina fancam set to willow by the way, if I can find it I’ll pop it in next week. It’s all getting very idealistic, so I should stop before I get carried away. It’s very juvenile! Very nostalgic! And isn’t what this newsletter is here for in the first place?

I’m actually quite excited for the future of this series. I might read the Six of Crows duology next month just because I can’t get enough of them. I’ve loved the Crows the most on the show so far. Again, I’m an absolute sucker for an ensemble of thieves. They’re all very well-rounded and multi-faceted; I’m particularly interested to see how Inej continues to reconcile her faith with what she will become. I found her apprehension to commiting murder very interesting, and I want to see how her past at the Menagerie will play into her story going forward. I’m obsessed with Jesper. In another life, we might have been the same person. He reminds me the most of me—a little reckless, but gets the job done in the end. Kaz took a while for me to warm up to, but I loved how he kept proving his love and loyalty to his friends over and over again.

I would’ve loved this show (and probably the books) as a teenager, and I’m glad I’m enjoying them now! I’m even more relieved that kids my brother’s age have this show and more like it to follow to look forward to. There’s so much more to the show I want to talk about but I fear it’ll overload your inbox. Another time perhaps. If you have time this weekend, go binge Shadow and Bone. You might have a little fun.

That’s all for this week! See you next time!