Shadow and Bone
I must say I haven’t seen such a ridiculous book in a long while.
The book is praised for “authenticity” and “originality”. It so happens that there’s nothing authentic or original in this book. Leigh Bardugo’s understanding of Russian culture fluctuates around zero. Her sources, by her own admission, are a few books by western authors. Yet she’s not ashamed to count reading them as “research”. She’s not ashamed to sift through our images, symbols, and language and appropriate them to brighten up a generic fantasy setup and mediocre writing style.
There’s not a single concept, not a single detail pulled from Russian culture that retained its original meaning and value.
Grisha is a name for a boy or a pet, not for an army of magically gifted people. Starkov is not a last name for a girl. Morozova is not a last name for a guy. Malyen is not a name at all. Bardugo seems to have no clue about gender inflections, nor does she seem to understand how Russian names work in general. Or care.
Odinakovost’ doesn’t mean “thisness”. Otkazat’sya doesn’t mean ‘the abandoned’. Malenchki, Ravka, Poliznaya, Os Alta, Keramzin, Corporalki, etovost, volcra, kefta, tsifil, kutya, “moi soverenyi”, Sankt’ya don’t mean anything. “Sankt Petyr of Brevno” makes me facepalm. Really hard. Oprichniki existed in a very specific historical context connected to the reforms of Ivan the Terrible, and the name itself doesn’t mean what Bardugo thinks it means. A troika cannot be pulled by three black horses. It means “three horses”. Which Bardugo didn’t bother to find out. In Bardugo’s narrative all these words are just empty sounds thrown together, because they look cute and exotic, nothing more.
The characters pour tea from samovars, play balalaika, go to “the banya”, watch ballet, and wear fur hats and coats. Can you go more stereotypical than that? Especially given the fact that none of the real Russian traditions and beliefs were mentioned. Yet, you can see kvas on every other page. Bardugo apparently thinks that kvas is a hard liquor drink. Incidentally, it’s sold in every major American city. The price of research would’ve been $1.99 per 2-liter bottle. I know, too expensive to bother.
I could go on forever. Why should I care?
It’s very simple. Taking cultural elements out of context and discarding the context as irrelevant is not how you express your love and respect for that culture. It’s how you promote existing stereotypes and perpetuate ignorance. It’s cultural appropriation.
Russian culture is not a free clip art gallery for ignorant writers with zero imagination, zero awareness, and zero common decency. It’s not a convenient repository of shiny exotic artefacts for everyone to steal from. The fact that Bardugo dares to present herself as a friend, doesn’t help matters.
Why should you care?
If the first reason not good enough (and you’re ok with offending people in general), consider the fact that the general public is unable to recognize whether the context presented is accurate or not. Under these circumstances, knowingly passing fake interpretations is misleading at the very least. Honestly, you’d end up being a better educated consumer when you buy a fake Rolex. At least you’d know that your Rolex is fake.
If you’re interested in Russian culture, read the books by Russian authors.
As simple as that.