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