How a Young-Adult Author Creates Her Russia-Inspired Fantasy World

An interview with Leigh Bardugo about her new novel, Shadow and Bone

Henry Holt

This month saw the release of Shadow and Bone, the first novel in author Leigh Bardugo's trilogy about magicians in a world called Ravka with strong echoes of Tsarist Russia. Shadow and Bone follows the adventures of Alina and Mal, orphans raised and educated on a lord's estate who end up cannon fodder in the king's army. Their lives seem destined to be nasty, brutish, and short. But when they're sent to the border of a magical wasteland, Alina's magical powers—which she's tried to keep hidden so she won't be separated from Mal—manifest themselves, and she's spirited off to join the Grisha, the order of the king's magicians. There, Alina finds herself drawn to the mysterious Darkling, the head of the order, as she's educated in the Small Science, the Grisha magic that has its roots in chemistry and biology. We spoke with Bardugo about creating fantasy worlds that are based in real history, designing magical systems that make sense, and rehabilitating Rasputin.

How'd you decide to set the series in tsarist Russia? It's a great setting, darker in some ways than the medieval Europe where a lot of fairy tales are set, but it seems to be ignored by a lot of writers.

The first thing I should say is that it's not tsarist Russia—it's a world that's inspired by tsarist Russia. People seem to hear that there's a different cultural touchstone being used than Medieval England, and...they instantly go to alternate history. Even seeing the map and given all the things that are happening in it, they still seem to go to alternate Russia, which is a bit of a surprise to me. I knew I wanted to take readers someplace different. I love the standard fantasy setting of Medieval England and Medieval Europe, but I wanted to go somewhere different. I got into the world-building phase, I went to a used bookstore, and I was poking through old travel books and textbooks, and i came across this Russian imperial atlas. There was a cover with three men in fur hats next to a sledge in snow. I started flipping through it, and it had trade logs, and military campaigns, and shifting borders, and pretty much instantly I knew this was the right world for the book. There were already these fundamental issues, deep divisions in class, this ill-equipped army, this idea of an elite drawn from other countries and called upon to defend the country. That was all stuff, power dynamics that were already emerging in the narrative, and finding tsarist Russia as an inspiration helped to bring them into focus.

Alina has great magical power, but she's concealed it for much of her life, even though revealing it would have won her a better life. That sort of ambiguous attitude towards her abilities is something of a diversion from the standard fantasy narrative, where characters are usually excited to discover their powers. Talk me through her motivations.

I guess there's two things: One is that I wanted power to operate differently in this world. Power in superhero stories and in magic, when people use it, it drains them. It makes them more tired or it drains them. I wanted power to feed the people that used it. I wanted it to make the people who used it stronger, more powerful, and beautiful. That was one of the tents of being a Grisha. The message that I hope is at the heart of the book, the things that you fear most in yourself, that make you different, and that keep you from being like everyone else are also the things that give you power. Alina's greatest desire as an orphan and a refugee is to find someplace to belong. She doesn't want to leave her home behind, and her only home is with Mal. The story is really about her coming to accept that there are things more important than being accepted. She goes through a lot of transformations in the story. She has this makeover, but it doesn't take. When you are that deeply needy of other people's approval and love, that's not going to get you right with the world. What gets her right or gets her closer to right is being able to accept being powerful and that the path to power freaks people out. It's not something everyone is comfortable with, it makes her different.

I also love that you've got a religious mystic, an adviser to the royal family who's one of the more sympathetic figures at court. Are you trying to rehabilitate Rasputin?

I wanted to play with the idea...that when you abdicate power, when you give it to someone else, bad things happen. It doesn't matter if you give it to somebody good or somebody bad. The easy thing is with great power comes great responsibility. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But there are a lot of ways to abdicate power. You can hide power, you can delegate it...One of the appeals of Rasputin is he has the answers. One of the appeals of the Darkling is he has the answers. These people turn to Alina because they want her to have the answers. It's a very compelling thing to look to someone else to lead. And I wouldn't say that I was trying in any way to rehabilitate Rasputin, who, frankly, given how hard it was to kill him, I wouldn't want to bring him back. But the Aparat is meant to evoke a lot of our suspicions and fears about the particular character. People who don't know anything about Russian history know that name.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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