When Leigh Bardugo first came face to face with her characters, she wept. In a video that was uploaded everywhere from YouTube to TikTok, the author stepped on to the Budapest set of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone and embraced her heroine, Alina – or rather, the actor Jessie Mei Li in costume. “You guys look amazing,” Bardugo repeats in the video, between hugs and tears. “You look so incredible. It’s actually eerie.”
“Adaptation is scary,” Bardugo says now. “I don’t begrudge any author the right to say that they don’t want to do it, because we’ve all seen it go wrong. It would be heartbreaking to be locked out of the house that you built. But I got lucky, because the people I collaborated with cared deeply – not just about the material, but the people who love it.”
To understand how popular Bardugo’s books are – more than 5m sold in English, translated into 50 languages, a No1 show on Netflix and countless passionate fans, including one Tiktoker steadily adapting the books into an unofficial musical – is to understand why young adult fiction itself is so significant. Her seven YA books, starting with Shadow and Bone, meet very fundamental human desires – to be recognised as special, powerful or loved. They are filled with high emotional stakes and transformative life moments – whether that is a first kiss or discovering you are a powerful sorcerer with the potential to save the world.
Like Twilight’s Bella or Katniss from The Hunger Games, Bardugo’s Alina is yanked from obscurity. She is an orphan conscripted to the First Army, a non-magical force in the kingdom of Ravka that serves as cannon fodder, when an accident reveals that she is actually a Grisha, one of the mysterious magical elite who are usually identified in childhood and form Ravka’s feared Second Army. But Alina is no ordinary Grisha. She is the Sun Summoner of prophecy with the power to destroy the Fold, a gigantic, shadowy zone filled with dark creatures that has split Ravka for centuries. So Alina is whisked away from her dishy childhood friend Mal to be trained by the equally dishy Darkling, a Ravkan general who wields the shadow to her sun, and holds a secret, vested interest in her power.
A special, magical girl with two boys fighting over her: so far, so YA. But Bardugo’s books are unique in a few ways: their rich, tsarist Russia-inspired setting; her ornate social hierarchies and magic systems; Alina’s prickliness. They are popular for the same reasons snobs may mock them: they’re nerdy, romantic and appealing to young women. “Teenage girls have so much sway over culture, yet people sneer at the things that women and girls love, and are contemptuous of the creators of that content, particularly if they are women,” Bardugo says. “To me, that contempt speaks to a deep fear. When you start dictating culture, money gets involved and people take notice. When I see someone deride things that women and girls find pleasure in, all I see is someone fearful that women will overtake the culture they’ve had dominion over for so long.”
With her dark lipstick and gothic clothing, often seen with a silver-headed cane (Bardugo has osteonecrosis), the 46-year-old is the antithesis of California beach culture. But though she was born in Jerusalem, Bardugo was raised in Los Angeles, a precocious reader, as lonely children often are. Bullied for her Jewish faith and relative lack of wealth by rich kids at school, she was also “very unhappy” at home. So she retreated into Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Octavia Butler, Diana Wynne Jones and Stephen King. “Reading, like writing, was a survival strategy when I was young because these were ways of feeling that my world could be much larger than it actually was,” she says. “It was inevitable that I would end up writing sci-fi or fantasy.”
While it may have been inevitable, it was not immediate. In the 1990s she went to Yale, where she “found my tribe, my fellow weirdos”. She joined Wolf’s Head, one of the university’s eight secret societies, dating back to the 19th century, and which only began admitting women in 1992. This would eventually inspire her first novel for adults, 2019’s Ninth House, in which Yale’s secret societies have supernatural specialties. In the years between, she worked as a journalist, wrote movie trailers, transcribed footage for reality TV show The Bachelor and did a stint as a Hollywood make-up artist. This last job freed her from writing, so she could finally concentrate on her first book, 2012’s Shadow and Bone.
She considers herself a latecomer, landing her book deal at 35, but her career took off at breakneck speed. Within 37 days, she had an agent and a three-book deal, but she still doubted that she’d be published: “I had wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but I could not finish a manuscript. I always lost momentum, I had no idea what I was doing.” She wrote Shadow and Bone in eight months.
She credits her success to “fortuitous timing”. Shadow and Bone was published in 2012, in the aftermath of the success of Twilight and The Hunger Games. Adults who might have been embarrassed to buy teen books five years earlier purchased Bardugo’s without thinking twice. It was an immediate hit. Siege and Storm followed in 2013, and Ruin and Rising in 2014.
Then, while driving in LA, she had a flash of inspiration from the strangest of places: a billboard for the 2014 George Clooney and Matt Damon film The Monuments Men. This got her thinking about the Clooney and Damon film Ocean’s Eleven – “and then of course, I had to write a fantasy heist! I had every intention of moving away from the Grishaverse, but I was so excited. I had the characters in my head waiting to be called up, and I realised that I could bring them all together, so I wrote Six of Crows.”
In Six of Crows, Ocean’s 11 become the Dregs gang. The heist mastermind is Kaz Brekker, a street-smart club owner who walks with a limp and a cane. His companions include Inej Ghafa, a devout young woman who survived sex trafficking to become a much-feared spy; Jesper Fahey, a bisexual sharp shooter; and Wylan Van Eck, a merchant’s son with dyslexia, and Jesper’s eventual boyfriend. Where JK Rowling announced her characters as being gay (Dumbledore) or potentially not white (Hermione) years after finishing her books, Bardugo did it on the page and doesn’t want applause for it. “It isn’t my place to take credit for representation and to say, ‘Oooh, look at my diverse book.’ “It is our job to make our worlds welcoming to all,” she says. “And I think it’s garbage when people look for congratulations, especially when they don’t make something explicit on the page. That is just bad writing.”
Bardugo realised that her first trilogy was overwhelmingly white and rectified this from Six of Crows onwards; in the Netflix adaptation, Alina was re-written as having Shu heritage, Bardugo’s equivalent of east Asian. “I am very proud of Shadow and Bone but it is laden with tropes,” Bardugo says. “I think that was because I was echoing a lot of the books that I had grown up with. But as I wrote more, I gained confidence. I felt I could reflect our world more authentically. I look back and see mistakes that I wish I could alter. My world is not straight, white and homogenous. I don’t want to be. So why should my fiction look that way?”
Six of Crows and Shadow and Bone were combined in Netflix’s adaptation, a suggestion made by the showrunner, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Eric Heisserer. Bardugo thinks it worked “beautifully”: “It makes the world feel bigger. It’s a much more fitting introduction to a universe that I’ve been working on for a decade now. I’m very proud of the show. I feel grateful for all the love and care that went into it.” In an episode filmed in a Budapest palace, Bardugo even makes a cameo, hugging Alina in an ornate purple coat.
But as her fame grows, so too has her caution around her fans. She used to chat freely with them, sharing their art, costumes and playlists; now she must contend with the peculiar ownership fans can feel for what they love. “When I was new, it was so thrilling to find people who wanted to talk to me about these books. Fans were vital to the life of that first trilogy. It is a rare privilege to be seven novels into a series,” she says. “But, unfortunately, as my readership has grown, it’s become less possible to be that engaged. That feels like a tremendous loss. I used to be very active on Twitter and, quite honestly, I don’t feel comfortable interacting there any more, so I stopped.” Her fandom simply got too big. “Now it has its own life,” she says, sadly.
And she’s not getting any less famous. With Heisserer, she has “a grand plan” for more seasons of Shadow and Bone: “We are all crossing our fingers and hoping that Netflix will give us the chance.” There are seven books – the Grisha trilogy, plus the Six of Crows duology and the King of Scars duology – but she doesn’t think it would take seven seasons: “Our plan is it will be quite different from the books.”
Bardugo published the seventh book in the series, Rule of Wolves, in March, which she is calling the “finale, of sorts” for the Grishaverse. She had worked hard to make it come out before Netflix’s adaptation, because “I knew it would be the last opportunity to release a Grishaverse book that just belonged to the readers. I wanted to offer closure.” Is it really the end? “We’ll see! I don’t know. There is a big door left open. But I want to write books because I feel compelled to, not because I feel an obligation to. And for now, I want to take a step back.” She may visit “Ravka” in person, to hug her creations in Budapest again. “And maybe in three months or three years, I will want to return to Ravka on the page. Right now, I don’t.”
Rule of Wolves (Orion, £14.99) and Shadow and Bone (Orion, £7.99) are out now. Shadow and Bone is available to stream on Netflix now.