The Big Idea: Leigh Bardugo
Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum states that any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. For Shadow and Bone, author Leigh Bardugo uses and interesting twist on that idea to give the magic in her book form and shape (and rules). Here she is to explain it to you.
Shadow and Bone began at the end of a darkened hall in an unfamiliar house. It began with my hand scrabbling along the wall for the light switch, sure that I could hear something breathing in the dark, something with too many teeth, waiting for me to inch just a little closer.
After I reined in my heart rate, talked sense to myself, made it to the bathroom and back to my bed, I lay awake thinking of what it was like to cross that hallway and I began to wonder, “What if darkness was a place?”
In fantasy, darkness usually operates as a metaphor—for evil, destruction, chaos, dogs and cats living together. I wanted to take something figurative and make it literal. And, of course, once I gave this wasteland substance, the logical next step was to fill it full of monsters, creatures just as bad as anything you might imagine lurking under your bed or slithering beneath the closet door. They would be blind from years spent living and breeding in the dark, but able to scent human prey from miles away. They’d be pure predators, with batlike wings so that they could come at you from any direction.
I could see a girl there, drawing light to her, leading a regiment through this nightmare territory. But what the heck were they doing there? What would lead our heroes to do battle in the dark? They could be after some magical object, but that felt a little too easy. So I tried the same trick again: I took something figurative and made it literal; I decided to tear a country apart.
The Shadow Fold (as my wasteland came to be called) would stretch from north to south across the country of Ravka. It would act as a kind of reverse blockade, separating eastern Ravka from its only coastline, leaving it landlocked, cut off from its ports and harbors. To trade with the outside world, to obtain finished goods and the weapons and ammunition needed to defend its borders, Ravka would have to find ways to cross the Fold and fend off its monsters, risking life and treasure every time. In this way, the Fold became not only a physical obstacle, but a way for me to put an entire nation in an economic chokehold and squeeze. (Don’t worry, I’m perfectly pleasant at dinner parties.)
People always ask me why I chose Russia as the cultural touchstone for my world. The easy answer is that I wanted to build atop something other than the familiar high fantasy bedrock of Medieval England. But there’s a bit more to it than that. I remember standing in a used bookstore, flipping through a Russian Imperial atlas, perusing trade routes and military campaigns. At the time, it felt like something just clicked. But looking back, the choice seems obvious: a kingdom on the brink of collapse, an incompetent monarchy squandering its resources, the failure to industrialize, an ill-equipped army of conscripted serfs. That’s a lot of tinder just looking for a spark, and it felt like a perfect fit for the broken world I was looking to create.
I also knew early on that I wanted changes in military technology to play a role in the story. Confession: Some little voice inside me always wondered why someone didn’t just muggle up and shoot Voldemort. In truth, I think Rowling sets up plenty of prohibitions against something this simple in her world building. But I did start to wonder what would happen if you brought a gun to a magic fight.
If your magical system is largely unconstrained, then that question gets boring really fast: I conjure a gun. You conjure a bigger gun and so on. Ravka is defended by the First Army, who fight using traditional means, and by the Second Army, a magical elite known as the Grisha. For the threat of modernity to be real for this country, I needed to constrain that magic, so I decided to bind it (loosely) to molecular chemistry. The Grisha practice the Small Science, the manipulation of matter at its most fundamental levels. They can’t create or animate matter. They can summon combustible gases like methane or hydrogen from the atmosphere, but they still need flint to start a fire. Similarly, Grisha steel or corecloth (similar to modern body armor) isn’t endowed with some kind of opaque spell that gives it wizardy goodness. It’s the result of the Grisha ability to hone a blade at the molecular level, and to create modern alloys and polymers through means that to us would appear magical.
To me, the impossible feels so much more possible when it’s bound by rules. Of course, once you make them, it’s sort of delicious to find ways to break them, to ask what happens when taboos are broken and barriers transgressed. It leads you to the kind of rupture that might create a wasteland peopled by monsters.
Shadow and Bone is my first book and my first foray into high fantasy. I’d be lying if I said I fully understood the alchemy of how worlds get made. Reading over this post, it all seems quite logical, quite orderly. The truth was far less tidy. At some point, the discrete elements of the story—the magic, the politics, the science, the tech—began to inform each other so that it’s hard to remember where one thing ended and another began.
I think it’s also worth saying that as I built this world, assembled the skeleton, gave it flesh, the heart always lay with the characters: two refugees raised in the dusty rooms of a Duke’s abandoned dacha, drafted into the army and headed for the Fold, that girl standing alone against a flock of monsters, and the boy she sought to protect. They were what brought me back again and again, what made me wade through piles of index cards, unwieldy translations, paralyzing doubt. They helped me find my way in the dark.