The Grishaverse novels have been bestsellers around the world.

But, if they've managed to pass you by, here's the deal: set in a war-torn world, they follow a lowly soldier and orphan called Alina Starkov, who happens to have an extraordinary power that could be the key to setting her country free.

And now, the beloved characters - created and crafted by Israeli-American author, Leigh Bardugo - have been brought to life in the eight-part Netflix series, Shadow and Bone.

Here, we chat to two of its captivating stars - Ben Barnes and Jessie Mei Li - to find out more.


As with any book trilogy or TV show set in a whole different universe, there's a fair bit of background information online for Shadow and Bone.

The main points to take in are that there's a monstrous threat called the Shadow Fold looming, which leads to Alina being torn from everything she knows in order to be trained up and become a soldier in an elite, magical army called the Grisha.

There are many dangers Alina faces, including a crew of charismatic criminals, and while she has incredible powers, she finds them hard to hone - and she also has to learn who and what she can really trust.

For 25-year-old Mei Li, who hails from Brighton and is a relative newcomer, playing Alina could lead to her fame soaring - something she admits has only recently hit her.

"I felt very confident that it was going to be good, but I didn't really think about people actually watching it, you know?" quips the star, who has appeared on stage in All About Eve, alongside Lily James and Gillian Anderson.

"It's pretty scary and daunting, and I can be quite shy and private sometimes, so it's going to take some getting used to. But I'm also really excited for everyone to see what everyone worked so hard on to make."


Westworld actor Barnes, 39 - who is also known for The Chronicles of Narnia film series, and Marvel's The Punisher - acknowledges he has become known for a certain type of role.

"I found this sort of strange niche for myself, which was vaguely morally ambiguous manipulative characters who are revered by some and feared by some - but still somehow find themselves entangled with the young heroines".

But General Kirigan - who's known as the Darkling to his enemies - felt different from the coming-of-age characters he's played in the past.

"He [General Kirigan] is at the top of the hierarchy, in terms of status in this world, someone who's powerful, who, when he walks into a room, everyone immediately falls silent and sort of hangs on what he's got to say. And I think that that was just a new angle to approach."

The general is the head of the Second Army - the kingdom's magical military elite of Grisha soldiers - and is determined to see his nation freed from the Shadow Fold, no matter the cost.

He's also a Shadow Summoner, which means he has the ability to gather and manipulate darkness.

Interestingly, Bardugo had mentioned Barnes in connection to the character in a tweet nearly a decade ago - and he's certainly mastered the complexity of the villain.

"It was important for me to find the sort of the gracefulness with which he's described through Alina's eyes in the books, but also with some of that Machiavellian kind of threat to him," he elaborates of his portrayal.

"Because the books are first-person, I think that it was important to really pull out the humanity in characters like The Darkling, and see what their vulnerable side is.

"If he's powerful, why is he vulnerable? If he's stubborn, where is he open? I think finding those balances, in all the characters, was what was exciting about it for me."


When adapting the books, a decision was made by Bardugo, plus showrunner, creator, and writer Eric Heisserer, to make Alina half Shu Han - the Asia-inspired land that Ravka (Alina's country) is currently at war with.

Reflecting on the prejudice Alina experiences across the episodes, Mei Li says she was able to bring her own life experience to her portrayal.

"I grew up in a predominantly white area, in a white school where I was very much 'the Chinese one', and I would speak poorly pronounced Cantonese to my friends but then be with my Chinese family and not really be able to speak to my grandma. And so you never really feel like you belong anywhere. And it's really weird because it's never really seen as a big deal; it's not something that people talk about, being constantly othered. So it adds so much to Alina's character.

"She is really strong, because she's had to stand up for herself and she's had to grow this thick skin, but she also is very gentle, and I think that comes from the fact that if she's being told every day you look like the enemy, she's saying 'No, I'm not. I'm gentle'."

The star adds she likes the way Alina's mixed heritage has "really shaped her personality" but that "it's not her story".

"She's a mixed-race character, but that's not all she is. She's also the Sun Summoner, [she has the ability to bend and summon light], the Sun Queen - and she's just a girl trying to work out where she belongs in the world. So I really like that and it felt very authentic to my life. I'm a mixed-race person, but that's not all I am."


When a new fantasy series starts, there are inevitable comparisons with past hits like Game of Thrones.

But Mei Li notes she thinks Shadow and Bone has more of a Star Wars-feel to it, "in that it has all the fun characters, it has 'the chosen one' sort of narrative - but obviously, it's a different genre".

"Game of Thrones has lots of political intrigue and backstabbing, and it is quite violent, and it's quite adult, whereas I think our show is a little bit more universal," she follows.

"And, while it is exciting, and it does have a bit of violence here and there, I think it's something that people can watch with their family as well, which is quite nice."

As for the telly the mostly British cast watched during filming - which took place in Budapest, Hungary - there was only one show for the job.

"We made our little life out there, and we'd all come together, we'd go to my house or something, and we'd all watch the Bake Off as like a little taste of home," recalls Mei Li, smiling at the memory.

"It always brought us together, especially at the beginning, when we were all getting to know each other."

Shadow and Bone launches on Netflix on Friday, April 23