Leigh Bardugo was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Los Angeles, and graduated from Yale University. These days, she lives in Hollywood, where she indulges her fondness for glamour, ghouls, and costuming in her other life as makeup artist. Occasionally, she can be heard singing with her band, Captain Automatic.
Her debut novel, Shadow & Bone (Orion/ Indigo in the UK and Holt Childrens/ Macmillan in the US), was a New York Times Best Seller and the first book in the Grisha Trilogy. It was followed by
Shadow and Bone: The Grisha
(Orion Children's Books)
Author Leigh Bardugo introduces Shadow and Bone, the first novel in her YA fantasy Grisha trilogy and already a bestseller in the US.
Shadow and Bone (first published as The Gathering Dark) is the first book in the Grisha series, an epic fantasy trilogy set in Ravka which follows the fortunes of Alina, a lowly map maker who finds herself swept up into Court life, intrigue and magic after her hidden powers are dramatically uncovered.
A little like her heroine, Leigh Bardugo has arrived in spectacular fashion onto the publishing scene, achieving a New York Times bestseller when Shadow and Bone leapt into the charts after its US launch.
Bardugo is based in Hollywood and she visited the UK this autumn to meet her fans who eagerly await the second book in the series, Siege and Storm, which she has just finished writing.
While she had always wanted to become an author, Bardugo found it hard to do so while working as a copy writer. Once she swapped the endless writing deadlines for a new start as a make-up artist in LA, however, writing became something she could once again enjoy. Ideas for The Shadow and Bone started to emerge, she says, during long, 12-hour shifts spent turning other people into monsters or beauties. She would then write long into the night to get her first novel completed.
Bardugo did not set out to write a fantasy novel, nor indeed a trilogy, but a particular story. "I had read a lot of fantasy as a kid and I was one of those children who wanted so badly to step through the wardrobe into another world," she explains. "I was drawn to stories that suggested there was more happening in the world than we expect.
"I wanted the world I created to have the brutal and desolate side of fantasy, but still have elements of romance and decadence. When I first sat down to write I just wanted to complete the story to finish a book, but half way through I realised that I had more to say about this world, and these characters, and that one book wouldn't be enough."
Shadow and Bone is the introduction to the world of Ravka and to the Grisha, those with magical abilities whose skills such as weaponry or assassination are used to keep Ravka safe. The Grisha live within the Court of Ravka but live separately from the courtiers and have their own rules and traditions. Overseeing them is the mysterious Darkling, the most powerful of all the Grisha.
One of the strengths of the opening book is the sense of place that the hierarchies and the court traditions help develop. "I wanted a cultural touchstone to keep the world consistent and to make it feel tangible to the reader," Bardugo explains. "Czarist Russia of the early 1800s became my point of departure. I read cultural and traditional histories, collected old recipes and textiles. But I was surprised at the ways the research impacted the actual plot of the book and the characters."
The sense of place helps to build the story; the power struggles, the social markers, the failure to industrialise, the vast discrepancy in wealth between the upper classes including the Grisha and noble families and those of the lower classes (particularly those conscripted into the more traditional First Army).
The failure to industrialise is partially due to the Fold, a dark shadow land that has cut off Ravka from the sea and from its trade routes. While neighbouring countries develop, Ravka languishes in poverty.
No one really knows how the Fold came to be but it is a dark place that few dare to enter or cross. Full of shadows and danger, it is inhabited by the volcra; creatures that are the stuff of nightmares.
Bardugo says she was inspired to develop the Fold when staying at a friend's house in the mountains one night. "I had this moment of absolute panic while scrambling around looking for a light switch. I grew up in the city and I'm not used to darkness that absolute.
"When I got back to bed, I lay awake wondering, what if darkness was a place? What if the monsters we imagined there were real and we had to fight them on their own territory? Then, of course, I had to start thinking about what those monsters would look like. They'd be blind from years evolving in the dark, but pure predators that could smell blood from miles away. They'd have wings so that they could come at you from any angle. Those monsters became the volcra and their territory became the Shadow Fold."
Alina's formidable powers as a Grisha emerge unexpectedly while she is crossing the Fold with her regiment, and it is hoped that her powers can eventually be used to destroy the Fold.
Bardugo says the idea of children and teenagers developing special powers - especially at puberty - is a long-running theme in books for children and teenagers. "We do all want to believe we have something special and unique inside of us just waiting to be discovered. The danger is that we wait for someone else to find it instead of cultivating it ourselves. There are no fairy godmothers. No magical mentor is going to come along and show you how it's done."
She adds, "The things that make us powerful are often the things that make us different. Sometimes, it's hard to embrace them." For her, the question at the heart of the book is what we're willing to sacrifice to belong to someone or something.
She explores this theme through Genya, one of her favourite characters. Genya, a beautiful servant to the queen, has unique and special Grisha powers of her own; she can make anyone beautiful.
"Having grown up in LA and worked there as a make-up artist in Hollywood, I know what beauty can and can't do for you," says Bardugo. "Genya is empowered by her gift of beauty but also victimized by it. She's one of the few characters who can move between the Grisha court and the Royal court, but she doesn't truly belong to either."
"For me, she's an important figure because I'm sometimes frustrated by the way beauty is treated in books. Beauty is a commodity. I think that makes some people uncomfortable, but I also think it's worth talking about what it can or can't buy.
"I love her friendship with Alina because, though they're so different on the surface, they're really both outsiders who are hungry to belong."
The book has found fans among both male and female readers and Bardugo has heard from male teen readers and from parents of boys as young as ten. "I wonder if The Hunger Games opened up this type of fiction to more guys?" she asks. "Even if the book has a heroine, it seems like guys will still read it. Sometimes we assume they will make judgements that they don't."
The second book in the trilogy, Siege and Storm, which Bardugo has just finished writing, will take us beyond Ravka's borders. "A lot of characters from the first book will be back and I'll be introducing some new characters as well," she says. "We discover that the Darkling has emerged from his ordeal on the Fold with a new way of using his power."
Alina will discover more about her own abilities as well; Shadow and Bone is just the first stage of her evolution. "Alina's had a taste of what she can do and the fallout of the decisions she makes will come back to haunt her," says Bardugo. "At that age, at any age, we don't always make the right choices and then we have to live with the consequences."