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.

The Small Science is also a nice metaphor for scientific progress and science fiction in general—here, it's magic, but it's a testament to the power scientists have at the moments of great leaps forward.

The idea for the Small Science came from my interest in what happens physically when you mutter a curse or wave a wand. What are we actually seeing? This sort of opaqueness occurs with most magic. That was sort of the first straw. I decided also that I wanted a magic that was highly constrained, because I wanted the advent of modern warfare to play a part in the story. What happens when you bring a gun to a magic fight?...If the magic is constrained, if the magic is bound by rules in a very specific system, things can get really interesting. The Grisha age is ending. Yes, they are more advanced, but they are wholly reliant on these particular skills. While the rest of the world is industrializing and creating things like repeating rifles, Ravka is falling behind.

It's a magical version of molecular chemistry. An Inferni can't just make flame come out of nowhere. They can summon combustible gases, but they still need a flint to create that initial spark. A Heartreader, the Corporalki doesn't just send a magical beam at your chest, they rupture blood vessels and crush your heart in your body without touching you. It's taking science and a loose interpretation of modern chemistry and making it magical.

When I created the Grisha, it was important that they be powerful but that they kind of represent the Jewish brain trust that developed before World War II and after World War II in the US. They're these very talented people that were drawn from all over the world and cast out of places, persecuted, put to death, put in camps. So they all ended up in this one place, and for better or for worse—I think for better—they developed weapons and became a kind of brainy fighting force for the Allied Powers. And that is not is something that is strongly referenced in the book but that was sort of always in my mind in the way that Grisha had been treated. That said, in books two and three, we're going to encounter some Grisha who had no interest in serving the Grisha or the Darkling and kind of went their own way.

So is the Darkling Robert Oppenheimer?

This is not a fully developed metaphor. This is not Russia. And as a Jew researching Russia, a lot of issues come up...there's a kind of fundamental alienation of reading Russian history as a Jew. And I didn't want to get heavily into that. You talked about religion in the context of the story, but I never get specifically into Christianity. That was really important to me. There is no Christ in this world. The religion that is in the world is much closer to the kind of pagan tradition that was in Russia pre-Christianity, and even that grew out of the influence of Christianity, but that couldn't tamp down these local mythologies.

Can you talk about the challenges of world-building in a time when people are constantly looking for analogues? In Game of Thrones, it's the War of the Roses, and people are constantly looking to see what lines up here. What does it take to build a world that's recognizable, but still achieves escape velocity from our own history?

That's interesting. I started out in the first phase of world-building really just looking for a sense of place, the ability to give people a texture and a grounding that would be real enough that would be transporting. Things creep their way into narrative. There were certain things that made their way into the narrative post-research...When I first wrote the book, the main characters had parents because I wanted to avoid the fantasy stereotype of the orphan. Then as I was doing my research, I read about all these men returning from the Napoleonic Wars, who for the first time were fighting beside their serfs, these men who worked their estates. They were staying up long nights around bonfires with them, and living under siege with them and watching them die. There's a story of a noble given a wooden icon by his serf, and it stopped a bullet, saved his life, and when he got home, he built hospitals and orphanages for his serfs. This was the root of what became the Decemberist result. I could not get this out of my head, I had to share changed the whole dynamic of the story. Here are these two kids who have been elevated out of this brutal peasant existence but only slightly. They know how to read and write, but they're still they're cannon fodder, they're still headed for the king's army...I think those resonances with the real world are powerful, they make it interesting. But for some people, there's this feeling of "it's not alternate history" or "it's supposed to be alternate history."

Do you think the power comes from this idea of uncovering secret or lost histories?

I think it can be powerful. At least when I was a kid and a reader, I loved the feeling of wondering whether or not something was real, being able to look up connections. That's why the king's symbol is the Ravkan Double Eagle. That was the symbol of the Romanovs and that has resonance. It instantly places you in the feelings of a world, and you're walking a line between that and what people's expectations may be...I used very few Russian words, but the ones that I did use, I think of them as like little breadcrumbs. If you look them up, there's usually some additional meaning in them. I don't know if a reader will go out of their way to look for it, but if they want to, it's there. It's the kind of thing that I as a fantasy fan geek out over and am excited to be able to build into the story.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.