Leigh Bardugo Unites the Grishaverse's Found Family With 'Rule of Wolves'
The best-selling young adult fantasy author sets the Grishaverse to rest after the epic, explosive conclusion to the King of Scars duology.
April 23, 2021
Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.
Melissa Bendixen: Hi. This is Audible Editor Melissa Bendixen, and here with me today is Leigh Bardugo, the New York Times best-selling author of several works that are part of the Grishaverse world, which includes three series: the Shadow and Bone trilogy, the Six of Crows duology, and the King of Scars duology, as well two short story collections. Today we are discussing the conclusion to the King of Scars duology, Rule of Wolves. Welcome, Leigh.
Leigh Bardugo: Hi. Thank you for having me.
MB: So happy to have you here. First, before we get into your new title, I wanted to ask you about the Netflix series. It's so exciting, I'm super pumped. It's coming out at the end of April. And for listeners that don't know, the show, titled Shadow and Bone, will combine elements from both the Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows series, which is going to be really interesting. I'm really curious to see how that plays out. What are you most looking forward to in seeing your world translated to this new format?
LB: Wow, I've been lucky enough to be fairly involved in the project from early on. But I think that seeing the way these two stories come together is really going to be a fun and surprising thing for a lot of readers. I know there's been a lot of anxiety within the readership about how we're going to pull this off. But I think we did it, and I think Eric Heisserer and his writers did a very good job. It's special because it means that even though we've kept a lot of story intact, and we've kept the characters and their journeys intact, we're trying to offer people something completely new and separate from the books.
So I don't really know what to anticipate. I admit I alternate between just giddy excitement and sheer terror. It's been an intense time around the house.
MB: I know you're also a producer on it. What's it been like working in this new format? And also watching it develop?
LB: For me the first part of it was very natural, because I would meet with the writers' room every week or every other week and hear their pitches on episodes. We would talk about particular plot points or if we might be accidentally moving something around that would blow up the road somewhere in the future. It was such a great room full of people. I think that Eric's superpower is building these sort of wonderful teams that you really need for creativity. You need people to feel safe and able to put ideas forward. And I think it allowed that writers' room to be really bold in some of their moves.
"I write books with a lot of war and a lot of battles in them, and to think that you're going to get through those things without some kind of fundamental loss, I think would be so dishonest."
None of it has seemed real, even when I was standing on set in Budapest. I felt like it's all going to go away, you know? That none of it is real, they'll change their minds, they'll be like, "Nope, everybody go home." At every step you think, "Oh, I'm actually here, I'm actually here." Because even if you... It is wise as an author to keep your expectations in check, even if you sell an option, even if they green light something, even if you go into production. I think we constantly play this game with ourselves that says just don't take anything for granted. But I have never been able to stop hoping or dreaming that something like this would happen. So now that I'm actually in it, it still feels a little like I'm hoping and dreaming, and that it's not real.
MB: Impostor syndrome is real.
LB: Yeah. That I believe in. That is easy to understand, yeah.
MB: So the Grishaverse is an apt name for your world, because it really has become that. It's a whole universe. The King of Scars duology combines the characters from the Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows duology. Did you always know the books would continue this way? And do you have a master Grishaverse outline somewhere?
LB: No. I know that people… I think that people really want to believe that that everybody's like Brandon Sanderson and has 36 books planned when they're age 15 or whatever it was. But my brain doesn't work that way. I don't tend to think in terms of one big arc. I tend to think in terms of puzzle pieces, and sort of building a larger picture.
When I was writing Shadow and Bone, my only goal was to finish a book, because I had never finished a manuscript before, had wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. I had no idea what my process was. I didn't know what I was doing at all. And so learning that, and learning what my process was, and learning to write an outline, and how I actually work, was how I was able to finish that first draft. About halfway through, I thought, you know, this doesn't actually feel like one book. It feels like a bigger story, but I didn't know if I was going to sell one book let alone three. So I took some notes, and I made a plan. But then I just crossed my fingers.
When I got to the end of that trilogy, when we published Ruin and Rising, I knew I wanted to continue Nikolai Lantsov's story. But I also wanted to take a break from the Grishaverse for a while. I had some other ideas I wanted to write. And then I was driving down the street in LA, and I saw a billboard for a movie called Monuments Men. It didn't make me want to see Monuments Men, but it had George Clooney and Matt Damon in it. And I was like, "Oh, I want to watch Ocean's 11 again." And as soon as I had that idea, I thought, "I want to write a fantasy heist," and I didn't realize it, but the idea had sort of been cooking in my head and there were certain characters who I had put aside.
And I did not know actually even then when I said I'll try it, I don't know if this is one book or two. I told my editor. When I got to the end of Six of Crows, I was like, well, I can tie this plot up no problem, but these characters have a lot further to go. I've inflicted too much damage on them that I'm going to need another book to set them to rights. When I got to the end of that duology I could see a clear line for one of the characters, Nina Zenik, who I wanted to bring into Nikolai's story.
And the Nikolai Lantsov duology really, the King of Scars duology, became not just about him but about Nina who is dealing with some very serious grief and is deep under cover in Fjerda, which is Ravka's enemy to the north, and also a character named Zoya Nazyalensky, who had sort of been the requisite mean girl in the first trilogy, but who I had really started to love writing and who I felt had a separate journey to make that was going to change Ravka's future.
MB: It's interesting that you touch on Nina and her grief because that really stood out to me too. With Nina's story she lost someone very close to her in Crooked Kingdom. Grief of her level isn't often tackled in YA fantasy. I'm curious, how did you approach writing her grief, and what was it that you wanted to explore with her grief?
LB: Look, I'm 45 years old. My life has been touched by grief. I lost my father 10 years ago but it certainly doesn't feel like that long ago. My partner lost his mother in October of last year, in the middle of the pandemic, or what I hope was the middle. You know, grief is just a part of life. I write books with a lot of war and a lot of battles in them, and to think that you're going to get through those things without some kind of fundamental loss, I think would be so dishonest. To tell readers that everybody you love gets out alive is, I don't know, maybe people would be happier that way, but my goal is always to tell a story honestly. I don't set out with an agenda. I didn't set out with an agenda with Nina, but I wanted to be respectful of what she's been through.
And, you know, I frequently will get angry messages from people saying, "This character didn't deserve it, he didn't deserve this, she didn't deserve this." We don't get what we deserve. That's not how the world works, that's not how death works. The best people aren't always the people... I dedicated Ruin and Rising to my dad, and the dedication is, “sometimes our heroes don't make it to the end.” That's something that I take to heart. So I think that that grief will resonate. I hope it will resonate with people who need maybe to read about those emotions to help process them themselves. Or maybe down the road it will be something that people who haven't experienced that may touch back to. Or maybe it'll just make people very sad and they'll cry. I don't know.
MB: Well, one sad fact of life is that there will be death in it at some point. And if you haven't experienced it yet, then you will. I resonated with it in that regard, and so I appreciated it. You know, it's hard, it's hard to read it, but it's also important at the same time because it helps you and we need more things like that.
LB: It was hard to write it. I used to really roll my eyes when authors would say they would cry when they wrote a particular scene, and now I feel like quite the chump because I've cried multiple times while writing. The particular scenes in Crooked Kingdom where Nina is really being forced to face her grief, I cried through all of them. I was writing once with a friend and I was sitting working and I was crying as I typed, and she said, "What? What's wrong?" I said, "This is really sad." She said, "Well, you're doing it. Stop." You know, but you can't. I think when we write at our best we are writing daringly and we are willing to look at the things that cause us pain or shame or worry, and we try to put them on the page as honestly as we can.
MB: Yeah. I'm glad that you guys do it. I'm glad the writers do it. So I would like to ask about your world-building. I'm curious about, what was it about the czar era Russian culture that drew you in and made you decide to use it as Ravka's framework, and also what other cultures did you draw from to create your other countries?
LB: So when I was writing Shadow and Bone, I didn't really realize it initially, but I was definitely setting myself up for a kind of organic link to czarist Russia of the mid-1800s. And that is because there were already elements in the plot that matched up correctly with that. There was a large young conscripted army of disenfranchised people, a failure to industrialize, and a big gap in wealth between the rich and the poor.
In terms of the time period I always sort of wanted to answer the question, what happens when you bring magic to a gunfight? And so it makes sense for the military tech to sort of link up to around 1860. Also, I'm Russian Jewish on one side, and I grew up in a household with people who were one generation removed from fleeing Russia and Lithuania, and Russia in that home really embodied history, culture, beauty, this kind of unattainable thing that had been somehow lost in leaving. But it also was a place of tremendous danger and oppression and fear. And so in some ways I had been primed to view it as the perfect touchstone for a fantasy world.
"To commit to something, you have to love it, and love it enough that when you fall out of love with it you're going to be able to remember what that love felt like so you can get through the process and fall back in it."
Other cultures… I mean, the one that comes the most clearly to mind is Kerch, where Six of Crows takes place, and particularly Ketterdam are inspired by the Dutch republic of the 1700s. But they're also inspired by the Venetian republic, by Britain to some extent, by early New York or New Amsterdam, by Las Vegas. There are a lot more influences kind of butting up against each other there. But I really wanted to write a country that was as far from Ravka as I could in terms of, not geographically, but in terms of development. This is a highly prosperous, highly developed, very cosmopolitan city. In Ketterdam it's a kind of place where people from all over the world come to trade, legally and illegally.
I also wanted to elevate the idea of profit there to this kind of Protestant work ethic, prosperity doctrine, but, you know, turned up to 11. And to really ask what happens to a culture and to the people within a society when profit is viewed as almost a holy aspiration.
MB: That's really interesting. That kind of ties into the whole narration element too. You have Lauren Fortgang, your narrator for the Grishaverse novels, and she has truly brought the world to life. How does your process go when it comes time to record a new novel? And how does that cultural influence affect how her narration process goes?
LB: Well, I can't answer for Lauren. I've been very lucky. She's been narrating the Grishaverse since Shadow and Bone. She's an extraordinarily gifted narrator, and I think of her as the voice of the Grishaverse at this point. What our process usually is, is once she has the manuscript or the script, she then sends me a long list of pronunciations and questions about characters, about particular things in the story. And we just email back and forth about them. I will make her recordings.
There are moments when I'm writing now, because we've been working together for so long, that I will even send her notes and say, "I'm so sorry. I am writing this scene that has probably 15 characters in it. So I apologize." Or when I'm doing a really long, like if I have a long speech in Fjerden or Ravkan that I'm sticking her with. And with Rule of Wolves I actually gave her a lullaby to sing. So I had to subject her to me singing my little Ravkan lullaby on the recording. But she did an incredible job as always.
MB: Wow. That's so cool. You gave her the melody and she then repeated that in recording?
LB: Yup. Yup. That's how we did it. In fact, it is the same melody that when I met with Joe Trapanese, who is the composer for the Shadow and Bone series on Netflix, he and I met when we were in the early stages, and talking about music. And I gave him a list of influences and the music was very important to me. I said this is a song I learned when I was a kid. I am not a good singer, and I foisted this music upon him in a café in Los Angeles. He probably thought I was completely out of my gourd, but that is one of the privileges of being an author. You can just be like, “Oh, I'm a creative, I'm eccentric, I wear a lot of shawls and I ghost around my neighborhood.”
MB: Yup, yup.
LB: I'm very comfortable with being the neighborhood eccentric. I have come to cultivate it. It means you can walk around talking to yourself and nobody thinks twice about it.
MB: Right. You have an excuse. When it came to choosing accents and dialects for each character, was that something that you always knew? Or did sometimes you leave it up to Lauren to make those decisions?
LB: A lot of the time I would just leave it up to Lauren. If there were particular things I didn't want her to lean into I would address that with her in particular character notes. If there were things that… She would usually ask about particular accents before going into something, if something would be appropriate or inappropriate. She gave Zoya a light Slavic accent in the trilogy. But I talked to her when we went into King of Scars and I said, "Look, I don't know about doing that for a whole POV." We talked through some of that. But at the end of the day I trust Lauren much more than I trust myself. This is her wheelhouse.
Occasionally I'll be asked to do a reading or a… I had to record a scene promotion for the new book. All I can think is, “Can't we just have Lauren do this?” There's just not comparison. It's hard enough for me to get through a few minutes. I can't imagine the level of focus and talent it takes to get through hours and hours of a book. When she was narrating King of Scars, she said she didn't like to telegraph the ending. So she doesn't read the last chapter of the book or the last scene of the book. And she said when she was recording it, she got to the end and she screamed. She said, "Ah!" So they had to re-record. But I felt like I had achieved a little victory there.
MB: Well, I think most of us probably screamed a little bit, yeah.
MB: I actually have a question about that later. Do you listen to your audiobooks?
LB: I do not. I will occasionally listen to a particular scene or a moment if I just want to hear what it sounds like. When we did the Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom audiobooks, I did listen to a couple of chapters in those books because I was curious to see how the narrators had handled them. I will say, too, with the guy who read Matthias [Jay Snyder], he has this amazing movie trailer voice, and so when I was writing Crooked Kingdom, I think I deliberately made certain Matthias scenes more emotional and sappy and romantic because I just wanted to hear him in his movie trailer voice be like, "Nina, I love you." There are moments where I feel like I'm playing almost like a game with the audiobook narrator.
Yeah, I've listened to little segments. But I read my books aloud when I'm revising, and so it's very hard to me to listen to a full audiobook because I have my own voice in my head and it doesn't match up, and it shouldn't match up. There's just too much dissonance for me.
*WARNING: Spoilers for King of Scars ahead*
MB: So, listeners, spoilers abound here. At the end of King of Scars, the Darkling comes back.
LB: He does.
MB: Leigh. You did this to us. Did you always know you were going to bring the Darkling back?
LB: Yes, absolutely. There's a reason for that. If you notice at the end of Ruin and Rising, when his body is burned, he had died, he is given a funeral, and he says, "Don't give me a grave." So they set his body to burn and somebody has tended to him, you know that. And somebody has also tailored the person he is cremated beside. A First Army soldier has been tailored to look like Alina. For anybody who's paying attention they should be asking, “How do we know who's really lying next to her?” So for me it, you know, I always leave a door open. There's a big door wide open at the end of Rule of Wolves, but I don't in that moment commit to walking through it.
"At their heart all of my stories are found family stories."
I didn't know if I was ever really going to get to writing Nikolai's duology. If the books hadn't continued to sell, I wouldn't have. I wouldn't have been able to write Six of Crows. If my readers hadn't stuck with me, hadn't shared the books, hadn't drawn fan art and shared playlists, none of that would've happened. The trilogy might not even have gotten finished. So you can have plans, and you can have ideas, but I also have never wanted to put myself in a situation where I absolutely have to write another Grishaverse book. I want to write them because I want to tell the stories, not because of some obligation or because I want to remodel the kitchen or something.
A book requires so much of your heart and so much of your time. I don't find writing easy; I find it quite challenging. To commit to something, you have to love it, and love it enough that when you fall out of love with it you're going to be able to remember what that love felt like so you can get through the process and fall back in it. So for me I left that door just a little crack open. I figured I could decide down the road if I wanted to walk through.
MB: Were you excited to get to write him again in this new capacity in Rule of Wolves?
LB: Oh yeah. He is so much fun to write. He's so fun to write. He's so high drama. His voice is so clear and so precise. And he talks in a way that nobody else does. He has this wonderful sort of immortal, eternal quality to him.
He gets his own POV in the second half of the book. I really loved putting him in situations where he had to deal with people again. I mean, this is a man of so much power and so much life who now has to sort of start again with almost nothing. There's a petty and judgmental side to him too, which I think keeps him human. But he is an absolute delight to write. He has his own arc in this, which is an understanding of what he wants, or rather what he needs. This is, again, somebody who's spent a very long time claiming that what he wants is to help the Grisha, and to keep Ravka free. But his ego is such… Again, I don't say that to be unkind. I think when you've lived for as long as he has and seen what he has and lost what he has, a little ego is understandable, but it has gotten in the way of him really thinking about what might be best for his people.
And so he has a reckoning with that. That's in part something that comes about through him and also that comes about through the fact that Urie, the monk whose body he possessed, still has some consciousness and acts as a conscience for him. And because he's witnessing what faith is capable of firsthand, for the first time in a very long time.
MB: That's very deep. Faith. I know you said in a previous interview that Rule of Wolves is your true, grand, epic fantasy. And I can definitely tell from an answer like that that we're getting grand, epic scenes in Rule of Wolves.
LB: I did not want to write a war book. I had a moment where I did not want to write. I don't like writing battles. I don't like writing court intrigue, and I had to really think about what I do enjoy and what brings me happiness. And Nina's chapters, I thought, “Oh God, I've set up a situation where I'm going to have to write court intrigue, and I don't like court intrigue.” Then I realized, “Wait a minute, Nina is just running a long and elaborate con and I love writing cons.” So I was like, “Okay, this is a mini heist,” and Nina being undercover as a spy, that's something that gives me a lot of pleasure to write.
My war book is largely a book that's about trying to stop a war. Real war lasts for months, for years, and the war in these books lasts for a matter of days. But it certainly has a high cost. And it's why Nikolai, who understands what developments the military technology made, what the future looks like for warfare, is just trying desperately to prevent a tremendous loss of life.
MB: This is interesting. Okay, so you've described the Shadow and Bone series as a chosen one story, and the Six of Crows duology as a large group heist story. In that vein, how would you describe the King of Scars duology?
LB: I think at their heart all of my stories are found family stories. They all ask the same question: Where do I belong and what power do I have? I guess that's two questions. Alina's quest was a chosen one story, but if you see what emerges in Ruin and Rising is very much a story of found family, and of people asking themselves, "What power do I have to change the world?" In Six of Crows you have a group of people who the world views as expendable, who don't have grand destinies, who don't have royal blood, and who are asking those same questions and forming the connections that will allow them to effect change in the world.
In some ways the King of Scars duology is a culmination and a combination of those things. Because you do have people of tremendous magical ability, and who do in theory have royal blood, although that's up for some debate where Nikolai Lantsov is concerned. But they are asking those same questions: "What will I give up to save my people? What will I give up to save myself? Who are the people I can rely on? And what am I capable of in this moment?" I think that's maybe something we're all asking ourselves, particularly in this strange time. "What power do I have and how do I want to use it?"
MB: So, what inspires you to continue living in the Grishaverse?
LB: For me it always feels a little like I think I know where I'm going. And I'm walking that path, I'm following my outline, I'm going on my journey. But as I'm going on that journey I'm getting glimpses of all these other paths, and sometimes to horizons that I can see very clearly and sometimes into the dark of the woods. There's always a desire in me to follow those paths and see where they lead. Like I said, I've been lucky because a lot of people have grand ideas for writing long series, or continuing to write in their worlds, and they're not lucky enough to get that chance. So I feel very fortunate in that way.
And I think also the world keeps opening up to me in the way that the inspiration came for the Six of Crows story and where it should be set. There are other places in the world of the Grishaverse that I want to go and explore. They always have their own religion, their own lore, their own culture, and it's quite thrilling to then get to visit those places, and especially during the pandemic to suddenly feel like I was in a new place—what does it look like, what does it smell like, what does it sound like?—was really pleasurable. We do go to some new places in Rule of Wolves.
MB: I'm glad to hear that you're excited to explore more places, because my next question is, should we expect more stories in the Grishaverse after this? I know Rule of Wolves has this feel of an ending to it, so…
LB: You know, I really don't know. For a while I said that I might write a third Six of Crows book. And I'm not ruling that out, I have a lot of notes for it. I could imagine writing it. Like I said, I left a door open at the end of Rule of Wolves. But I also don't know if I'll walk through that door six months from now, or six years from now, or never. It may be a door that is left for readers to walk through and create their own adventures and their own ideas about where some of these characters end up. I love writing in the Grishaverse, but I also feel like we're at a sort of strange crossroads. The show is coming, and I've put these characters through a lot. So I'm going to let them rest for a little bit.
I also am writing the sequel to Ninth House right now, and trying to balance that with all of the promotions. I have that to do and I have some other stories that I really want to write.
But I can't pretend that when I was writing Rule of Wolves, there are certain characters that I could absolutely imagine writing spin-offs for. There's a particular set of characters that I would love to see in a graphic novel. I'd love to write more folktales in the world. But I'll just have to wait and see. Right now I'm just trying to get through the next couple of months of chaos and then I'll step back and see what I feel like doing.
MB: Well, I'm glad you took the time today to have this conversation with us. I thought it was really enlightening. And, listeners, you can listen to Rule of Wolves and all of Leigh's novels on Audible today.
LB: Thank you so much for having me. It was great to be here today. I hope you enjoy the rest of Rule of Wolves.