Leigh Bardugo: Why Weakness Is My YA Heroine’s Greatest Strength
In a binge-read worthy of my Harry Potter days, I spent the last week absorbing myself in the world of Ravka, the setting of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy. The YA tsarpunk series—high fantasy inspired by Russia—concludes today with the release of Ruin and Rising. Eager fans have waited over a year to learn the fate of Sun Summoner Alina, her beloved Mal, the roguish Nikolai, and the dangerously alluring Darkling.
While I was new to the series, the continued criticism of YA as a genre and the pressure put on its heroines to be symbols for women were not news. Alina guides the books with a mixture of strength and missteps, learning to come to terms with her destiny and the amazing powers within her. Anything but the saint she is hailed as, she represents the struggles of real women as they enter the world: The struggle to own their confidence, trust themselves, and discern what people really want from them as they forge their own paths forward.
Here, in a spoiler-free interview, Bardugo discusses the importance of YA protagonists showing their weaknesses, the challenges of avoiding falling into tropes, and the true strength that readers should take notice of in Alina.
Bookish: In Siege and Storm, Nikolai says, “Anything worth doing always starts with a bad idea.” Was there a bad idea that sparked this amazing trilogy?
Leigh Bardugo: Well, not a spark, but I can tell you that there were lots of bad ideas in the first draft of Shadow and Bone. And that's what first drafts are for. You get to shut down the internal editor and say, "Wouldn't it be awesome if..." Then you go back and revise and say, "Hmmm, let's try this, with a little less crazy."
Bookish: Does anything happen in Ruin and Rising that you never would’ve expected when you first started writing?
LB: Nikolai was the biggest surprise of the series for me. When I was first outlining the books, he had a more abbreviated role: He showed up, moved the plot forward, and got out of the way. Then I started writing Siege and Storm.
Most of my characters take a while to settle in and find their voices, but Nikolai basically strolled in fully-formed and wouldn't shut up. He clearly had a bigger role to play, and he wasn't shy about letting me know it.
Bookish: Alina spends the first book studying Grisha theory (What is infinite? The universe and the greed of men), and the second taking advice from Nikolai (The less you say, the more weight your words will carry). How did you come up with these fortune-cookie bites of knowledge? Do you follow any of it in your own life?
LB: I really enjoy playing with the different ways people dispense what they consider wisdom. Baghra is all about tough love and comes from a folk tale tradition. Grisha theory is more about spirituality and science and where those things intersect—definitely influenced by my love for Frank Herbert's Dune.
As for Nikolai's words of wisdom, I think anyone who's worked in an office, dealt with a bureaucracy, or just had to organize a carpool knows that politics and strategic thinking aren't only the stuff of monarchs and nations. As for actually taking his advice? Unlikely. My big mouth gets me into all kinds of trouble.
Bookish: As a first-time writer, it could’ve been easy to fall into fantasy tropes, but you subverted many of them. Was this a conscious worry when writing? How did you avoid it?
LB: I think some fantasy tropes are alive and well in my books—elite group of magic users, orphan with powers, etc. But there were a few others that I wanted to work against. I like the idea of a character understanding his own narrative and using it to manipulate the people around him. That becomes a game of manipulating the reader's expectations as well. Even the pacing of a book can work that way sometimes. I knew people would expect the beginning of Siege and Storm to play out in a particular way, and I thought, OK, I’m going to take you down that road. And then, just for hoots, I’m going to blow up the road.
Bookish: Slate ruffled feathers with their recent “Against YA” article. They had a similar piece a few years ago that you responded to. I loved what you said about fantasy giving tangible form to the natural feelings teenagers are experiencing. What fantasy books did you find the most helpful for you as a teenager?
LB: Isn't it funny how those pieces keep cropping up? People are just so confounded by YA. If it weren't so infuriating, it would be hilarious.
Dune was hugely important for me. Herbert gave me a world where the stakes were high, where anything was possible, and where being clever and resourceful actually mattered.
LB: Here's the great thing about the boom in young adult as a category: There are so many different kinds of heroines out there demonstrating different kinds of strength. We're also seeing characters that aren't always strong or brave or heroic or wise, who don't always get it right, and that's important, too.
Protagonists don't have to be paragons, and I tend to think they're more interesting and more relatable when they're not. I hope the message readers take from all of these heroines is that strength isn't about being the toughest or having some kind of super power; it's about how you meet challenge and how you treat the people around you.
LB: Honestly, just knowing that authors I admire also struggle with doubt and frustration and occasionally bang their heads against the wall when they're in the middle of a draft has been a tremendous gift.
Bookish: You’ve said that you likely would be a Heartrender in the Grisha world. What would be the Grisha ability you would least like to have?
LB: I'm not sure I'd have much use for being a Squaller. I mean, I guess I could get work powering a turbine?
Bookish: Alina thinks a lot about what love means in this book: Is it unreachable longing, or when like calls to like; is it about alliance; does it even exist? What does it mean to you?
LB: I don't really know what love means. It can be sustenance. It can be poison. I guess the only thing I can say about it for sure is that it demands courage.
Leigh Bardugo was born in Jerusalem, raised in Los Angeles, and graduated from Yale University. She is fond of glamour, ghouls, and costuming, and gets to indulge all of these fancies in her other life as a makeup artist. She can occasionally be heard singing with her band, Captain Automatic.