Shadow & Bone is Netflix’s latest YA fiction reboot (Picture: Netflix)
If Netflix’s latest fantasy drama Shadow & Bone was charged with doing anything, it was to adhere to the Young Adult fiction-to-TV drama checklist.
So here goes: one seemingly normal person discovers hitherto unknown magic powers and is thrust into an adventure to save the world? Check.
A sensitive love interest we’ve known since childhood – yet somehow those boots remain very much unknocked? Check.
A more brooding love interest who comes from the upper echelons of society and, oh, is that a big palace they reside in?
A palace that will make a nice contrast to the humble upbringings of our… orphan? Ooh, Shadow & Bone, you’re spoiling us now.
All of this is to say that S&B is, well, familiar. But what makes it work is how it embraces the unfamiliar: a diverse cast of young, up-and-coming actors who quietly subvert what you expect from the fantasy genre.
Jessie Mei Li says her lived experience as a mixed-race actor helped her play the role of Alina (Picture: Netflix)
Take Jessie Mei Li, our aforementioned hero, a British actor of mixed-race descent who recognised her own experiences of being a minority within the story.
‘We’re in a time where we’re seeing more colour-blind casting on TV, which is great for diversity, but when you cast actors of colour you’re not just casting their face, you’re casting an experience,’ she says.
‘And while the show is fantasy, we’ve still got countries at war with people from all over this world so there’s still going to be integration and race is going to play a part.’
It certainly does for Jessie’s character, Alina, who is an orphan born into a country where she looks like the enemy. When it turns out she’s the key to destroying the ‘Void’, which has splintered the world, all of a sudden she’s being pulled by forces who up until then had dismissed her.
‘She wants to prove herself and save her country,’ says Mei Li. ‘Because she’s spent her whole life essentially saying, “I am Ravkan, I’m one of you and I’m going to prove I’m not the enemy.”’
Alina has magical powers that could be key to saving her country (Picture: Netflix)
But what is this power? Well, while her fellow magic-users are shooting fireballs and healing broken bones, Alina can, um, emit a burst of sunlight. Vital for plot reasons, not particularly cool to play.
‘It’s funny, a lot of the effects on set were practical and so you’d have fire or wind cannons but all I got was a light bulb on a stick that would appear out of nowhere,’ laughs Mei Li.
Her co-star Freddy Carter, who plays the charismatic Kaz, leader of a gang of thieves hunting their big score, doesn’t have any magical abilities – he prefers to trade in information.
‘He’s always two steps ahead of everyone, which as someone who is never two steps ahead of anyone is a real treat to play because you’ve always got an ace up your sleeve,’ says Carter.
‘He’s not a thug. He’s pretty handy with a cane and can throw a good punch but he doesn’t need to most of the time, he’d rather use his wit and intelligence.’
Ah, the cane. Fans of the books should start planning their Halloween costume now because it’s effortlessly cool.
‘I knew from reading interviews with Leigh [Bardugo, author of the books] that it was incredibly important to her because she uses one and she wanted to create a character who wasn’t the villain, who was the cool anti-hero, but who had a limp and walked with a cane,’ he says.
Ben Barnes (left as General Kirigan) provided the cast with a pronunciation guide for the fictional realms in the series (Picture: Netflix)
‘I was very keen to make Kaz have no sense of shame about his injury and his use of the cane. It was something that made him stronger.’
This being a fantasy drama, it comes with its fair share of incomprehensible jargon: there’s Ravkans, Grishas, some dude is called a Darkling. You’ll pick it up as you go along but it will turn you into a massive nerd.
‘It’s a lot of jargon to get your head around,’ laughs Carter. ‘My scripts are covered in notes with definitions of what things mean and how to pronounce them.’
Pronunciation became a bit of a problem on set with each of the actors throwing their own twist on how to pronounce fictional places like Ketterdam – until Ben Barnes [who plays the brooding General Kirigan] came to the rescue.
‘Ben took it upon himself to record a guide that we all had so we knew how to say each term in an English accent,’ explains Mei Li.
‘Obviously we all called him a teacher’s pet – but it was actually really helpful!’
Shadow & Bone is on Netflix from Friday.