On Netflix, Leigh Bardugo's 'Shadow And Bone' Celebrates A Diverse Grishaverse

Apr 24, 2021
Originally published on April 24, 2021 3:02 pm

If you've spent any time at all on the corner of the Internet where fantasy readers live, breathe and theorize, you'll know that the April 23 release of Netflix's new show, Shadow and Bone, is a big deal.

Every so often, a fantasy series with adventure, magic and an unfairly attractive villain comes along and captures the imagination and attention of a passionate base of readers. And when that series leaps into a fully realized television adaptation? Well then, that niche fixation can become a global fantasy phenomenon overnight. And Netflix is hoping its new adaptation will do just that.

Shadow and Bone, described as "Ocean's Eleven meets Game of Thrones" is an adaptation of two of internationally best-selling author Leigh Bardugo's fantasy series, the Shadow and Bone trilogy and The Six of Crows duology. Both series takes place in a world, dubbed the Grishaverse, where certain people possess the ability to manipulate elements. The show centers around Alina Starkov, a young soldier from war-torn Ravka, who discovers that she has the mythical power to summon light and thus the responsibility to save her country from the swath of darkness, known as the Shadow Fold, that has divided it for centuries.

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Bardugo's work in the Grishaverse has remained a darling of the young adult fantasy world for years. Fans from across the world have dedicated countless hours to writing lengthy fanfics, drawing stunning fan art, and making BookTok memes about the series and its morally gray characters. Bardugo's work in the Grishaverse has also received widespread critical acclaim: Six of Crows was featured on Time magazine's list of "The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time."

While fans of the books are undoubtedly nervous to see their favorite characters come to life, they might find some relief in the fact that Bardugo served as an executive producer on Shadow and Bone.

"It's a little like being locked out of your own house and watching somebody eat your food and put their feet on your couch and you're standing outside the window banging to be let in. I think adaptation can be a really awful process. And so I felt very grateful to actually be able to be involved and also then to feel very excited and proud of the work we've done," Bardugo tells NPR's Michel Martin on All Things Considered.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


"I never want people to feel like fantasy and romance and magic and adventure belong to just one kind of person," Leigh Bardugo says.
Christina Guerra

Interview Highlights

On seeing her work adapted for television

I've always wanted these stories to reach as many people as they could. And there's a radical difference between who can be reached from the shelves of a bookstore and who can be reached through Netflix's subscribers. Books are in a constant battle for attention in a very crowded media scape. And so I'm grateful that more eyes may be turned to these, but I can't pretend that I didn't feel a certain amount of grief when I thought about the characters that I had in my head and that readers have been able to envision and create in fan art would essentially be replaced by actors. But what I didn't anticipate was how extraordinary it would be to see actors bring their own experience and their own physicality and their own spirit to these characters and alter them in such an exciting way.

On the decision to cast Alina Starkov as half-Asian, or as she's described in the show half-Shu

Shadow and Bone was my first book, and I think I was unconsciously echoing a lot of the fantasy that I had grown up with, which sets a kind of default for straight white characters. And that's something I've tried to improve on as I write, to write more authentically and reflect the people around me in the world, around me more realistically. And I said to Eric [Heisserer, Shadow and Bone showrunner], you know, you guys can do this better than I did. And we talked about how to build this into the story organically.

And it really made perfect sense for Alina to be half- Shu because in the books she comes from a border town and the border is constantly shifting, depending on who's winning the war. And borders, despite the best efforts of some, are not walls. They are porous. People fall in love across them, and form partnerships across them and do business across them. So it made perfect sense for Alina to be half-Shu, and it meant that her outsider status was not something that could be hidden. And to me, there was something incredibly poignant about somebody who is treated with prejudice and treated shabbily by her country and disrespected by her country, then being thrust into the role of savior and potentially having to sacrifice a great deal in order to save this nation that has treated her so poorly.

Here's the thing, we talk about diversity in the media as if it's some weird artificial construct that we're putting onto these narratives. But it isn't. Our world is not homogenous. It is not all straight or white or able-bodied, or if it is, maybe you should make some new friends. That is not what our world looks like. So why should our fiction look that way? And, you know, as a fantasy writer, I want everyone to feel welcome in the Grishaverse. I never want people to feel like fantasy and romance and magic and adventure belong to just one kind of person. I don't see why it should. We didn't set out to send a message. We set out to tell a story authentically and honestly, and that that's what good storytelling is.

On writing Kaz Brekker, a main character with a disability, in a world where magic makes anything seem possible

I have degenerative bone disease and I walk with a cane. And when I wrote Six of Crows, I went out on tour, and I met a lot of readers who would say, "Oh, I don't know why, but I pictured Kaz as being an old man at first." And I thought, of course you did, because the only people we see with mobility aids in media and in culture are old. They're old, you know, a wizened crone or an old geezer or a villain whose disability is supposed to indicate some kind of weird otherness. So, you know, this was not, again, something I thought of consciously. I was at the time coming to grips with the fact that I would be using mobility aid and increased pain that I was living with. And I think unconsciously, I sort of created this swaggering, brilliant, badass character to be a kind of self-insert and to give me a little swagger as I walked around with my cane.

On her journey as an author

I worked in makeup and special effects. I had a lot of jobs. I wrote movie trailers. I did all kinds of things. You know, the thing about wanting to take the creative road is that it is not clearly marked for anybody. I remember when I got my first rejection, when I started looking for agents and I got it five hours after I sent out my first query. And I thought, well, this is either going to be the end of the story or it's going to be a footnote and something I talk about in interviews. So I feel pretty good.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, every so often, a book or series comes along that becomes more than just something to read or look at. It becomes a phenomenon, transporting people to strange and wonderful new worlds just when they need it most. And after a year in quarantine, Netflix's new show "Shadow And Bone" may do just that.

The show is an adaptation of two of internationally bestselling author Leigh Bardugo's series, "Shadow And Bone" and "Six Of Crows," set in a world where some have the ability to manipulate the elements. The main character, Alina Starkov, discovers that she has the power to summon light and thus potentially save her war-torn country from an impassable darkness that has divided it for centuries. It's a power she's reluctant to wield.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHADOW AND BONE")

JESSIE MEI LI: (As Alina Starkov) I don't want any of this. Why can't you get rid of it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Do you think I haven't tried? Ms. Starkov? If I enter the Fold, I'm a beacon for the Volcra. All I can do is make it worse.

MEI LI: (As Alina Starkov) Just - can't you use some Grisha science to transmit this to someone who can use it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You would give up your gift?

MEI LI: (As Alina Starkov) Gift? You dragged me away from my only friends, and now, according to you, I'm going to be a target for the rest of my life. You want to know why you've never found someone with this power? Maybe it's because they don't want to be found.

MARTIN: And Leigh Bardugo, author of the "Shadow And Bone" trilogy and the "Six Of Crows" series, is with us now. She is also an executive producer on the Netflix adaptation.

Leigh Bardugo, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

LEIGH BARDUGO: Thank you so much for having me. Is it weird that I still get a little choked up when I hear the actors talk?

MARTIN: No, not - I was going to ask you about that. I mean, first of all, congratulations.

BARDUGO: Thank you.

MARTIN: Had you dreamed of having your work adapted for the screen? Some people don't because they feel like they'd mess it up (laughter).

BARDUGO: Look, adaptation is terrifying, right? And we've all heard horror stories about it going badly. But I think - I certainly dreamed of it. But I also was very conscious of the odds. And you hope for it, but you certainly don't expect it because that would be a spectacular brand of hubris.

MARTIN: Well, talk to me a little bit about that, though. I mean, there are some authors who are famously reluctant to let film adaptations be done of their work because they feel like they live on their own, and I want people to live in their own heads. And, you know, you did welcome this. Tell me why. What's good about it? You feel like it expands the audience...

BARDUGO: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Or...

BARDUGO: They may be more pure artists than I am. I mean, for me, I think the fantasy of having an adaptation is, yes, to see someone else's imagination bring your characters and your world to life. That is a thrilling thing. But I think it's also that I've always wanted these stories to reach as many people as they could. And there's a radical difference between who can be reached from the shelves of a bookstore and who can be reached through Netflix as subscribers.

But I can't pretend that I didn't feel a certain amount of grief when I thought about the characters that I had in my head and that readers have been able to envision and create in fan art would essentially be replaced by actors. But what I didn't anticipate was how extraordinary it would be to see actors bring their own experience and their own physicality and their own spirit to these characters and alter them in such an exciting way.

MARTIN: Glad to hear. So for people who haven't read the books...

BARDUGO: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Set up the world for us just a bit, if that's OK.

BARDUGO: Sure. So "Shadow And Bone" is set in a world inspired by Czarist Russia of the mid-1800s. And it takes place largely in a country called Ravka that has been torn in two by a swath of darkness known as the Shadow Fold that is crawling with monsters that feast on human flesh. And in order for them to trade with the outside world, they have to cross this Shadow Fold.

And a young girl named Alina who has spent most of her life being overlooked and disregarded is a member of the First Army, a lowly grunt, and she enters the Shadow Fold with her regiment. And when they're attacked, she reveals a power not even she knew she had and that puts her on a collision course with the most dangerous forces in the kingdom.

MARTIN: So notable change from the book...

BARDUGO: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Something that's already gotten a lot of attention - the decision to cast Alina as biracial, half Asian - or as she's described, half Shu. In the show, the neighboring country of Shu Han, inspired by East Asia, is one of the enemies, and Alina is well aware of the history of that heritage. Let's just play a short clip where we talk - where she talks about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHADOW AND BONE")

MEI LI: (As Alina Starkov) When I was young, I was afraid of the dark. When I got older, I learned that darkness is a place, and it's full of monsters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROARING)

MEI LI: (As Alina Starkov) I live in East Ravka, but I've never been welcome here because I look like my mother, and she looked like the enemy.

MARTIN: Well, so clearly, this decision was made, you know, long before kind of current events, right? But what made you decide to cast Alina in this way and - you know, and her race be part of the story in a way that it was not in the original book? What made you do that?

BARDUGO: Well, there were really two things. One was that, you know, "Shadow And Bone" was my first book, and I think I was unconsciously echoing a lot of the fantasy that I had grown up with, which sets a kind of default for straight white characters. And that's something I've tried to improve on as I write to write more authentically and reflect the people around me and the world around me more realistically.

And it really made perfect sense for Alina to be half Shu because in the books, she comes from a border town, and it meant that her outsider status was not something that could be hidden. And to me, there was something incredibly poignant about somebody who is treated with prejudice and treated shabbily by her country and disrespected by her country, then being thrust into the role of savior and potentially having to sacrifice a great deal in order to save this nation that has treated her so poorly.

MARTIN: You know, on the other hand, I will say that one of the reasons some people like fantasy - at least that's what they say, at least some of the reasons why people, like, say they like sports - is because it takes them away from the issues of, like, race and racism that are part of the real world and that they say they want it as an escape. And I was just wondering if any of that was swirling in your mind when you made this decision, when you and your team made the decision to change the casting.

BARDUGO: No.

(LAUGHTER)

BARDUGO: Because here's the thing - people talk about diversity in media as if it's some weird artificial construct that we're putting onto these narratives. But it isn't. Our world is not homogenous. It is not all straight or white or able-bodied - or if it is, maybe you should make some new friends. That is not what our world looks like, so why should our fiction look that way?

And I never want people to feel like fantasy and romance and magic and adventure belong to just one kind of person. You know, we did not set out to send a message. We set out to tell a story authentically and honestly, and that's what good storytelling is.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, though, another prominent character, if I say this correctly - Kaz Brekker...

BARDUGO: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Who's another prominent character in the series, also has a disability.

BARDUGO: Yes.

MARTIN: And that isn't always something that one sees in the fantasy world unless the whole point is to remove it, right?

BARDUGO: Believe me, I'm very conscious of that because I have a disability. I have degenerative bone disease, and I walk with a cane. And when I wrote "Six Of Crows," I went out on tour, on book tour, and I met a lot of readers who would say, oh, I don't know why, but I pictured Kaz as being an old man at first.

And I thought, of course you did because the only people we see with mobility aids in media and in culture are old. They're old - you know, a wizened crone or an old geezer or a villain whose disability is supposed to indicate some kind of weird otherness.

So, you know, this was not, again, something I thought of consciously. I was at the time coming to grips with the fact that I would be using mobility aid and increased pain that I was living with. And I think unconsciously, I sort of created this swaggering, brilliant, badass character to be a kind of self-insert and to give me a little swagger as I walked around with my cane.

MARTIN: Well, gosh. What's next for you for this feature? I mean, what a remarkable story you had. I mean, I just can't get over it. Did I read this correctly that you were a makeup artist at one point? Is that true?

BARDUGO: I worked in makeup and special effects. Yeah. I had a lot of jobs (laughter). I wrote movie trailers. I did all kinds of things, you know? The thing about wanting to take the creative road is that it is not clearly marked for anybody.

MARTIN: Well, how do you feel now? You've created a whole world.

(LAUGHTER)

BARDUGO: I remember when I got my first rejection when I started looking for agents. And I wondered. I got it five hours after I sent out my first query, got my first rejection. And I thought, well, this is either going to be the end of the story, or it's going to be a footnote and something I talk about in interviews.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BARDUGO: So I feel pretty good right now.

MARTIN: OK.

BARDUGO: Things seem to have worked out.

MARTIN: That was Leigh Bardugo, bestselling author of the "Shadow And Bone" trilogy and the "Six Of Crows" duology.

Leigh Bardugo, thank you so much for joining us. It's been such a delight to talk to you. I can't wait to see what you come up with next.

BARDUGO: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MND WORKS' "ARVO TO ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.