Shadow and Bone – Leigh Bardugo

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.

12 Responses to Shadow and Bone – Leigh Bardugo

  1. […] and garnishes for their otherwise vapid “imagination” can be had mix-and-matched while ignoring their context, meaning and value. Isn’t “tsarpunk” cool? And if anyone calls you out for it, no worries; there are […]

  2. […] is a positive review of the book that raised the questions that prompted this entry; this is a trustworthy negative review. Context about myself for those who do not know me: born in Ukraine, native speaker of Russian, a […]

  3. Rose L. says:

    Hi, you might be interested the entry I just posted on the subject; I refer people to your review:

    One minor quibble with your wonderful review: kutya is a word – it’s a grain dish that is traditional for Yuletide celebrations, and Bardugo even uses it more or less correctly.

    • Next Friday says:

      Thanks! I can only imagine how painful this word(world)building looks to a linguist. The prevailing attitude seems to be even more annoying – ‘We take your stuff, but we don’t give a damn about your context. And without context, it’s not yours anymore. So you shouldn’t complain.”

      Kutya sounds vaguely familiar if I use Russian way to pronounce it, but not as much with Ukranian. I couldn’t place it.

      • Rose L. says:

        The prevailing attitude seems to be even more annoying – ‘We take your stuff, but we don’t give a damn about your context. And without context, it’s not yours anymore. So you shouldn’t complain.”

        Yes, exactly this. If I have the spoons to deal with the inevitable trolls, I want to write on “who owns a language” and its sibling “who owns folklore” – but it’s hard, as I have limited spoons and must prioritize my own work.

        Re: kutya, it is a pagan dish that is not a part of daily life in modern Russia for most people, unless they happen to be folklorists or pagan ritual afficionados; Bardugo’s usage of it is to exoticise, akin to her uses of balalaika and troika.

        (Nice to meet you, btw).

  4. […] The negative review that Rose links to and a follow up post. […]

  5. […] things to say about Leigh Bardugo’s first novel set in a Russian-influenced universe: here is Next Friday’s review and Rose Lemberg’s post about worldbuilding in the novel. So I didn’t expect much, as […]

  6. […] have been other reviews that have covered the issue of the author’s use of the Russian language in greater […]

  7. […] AND BONE by Leigh Bardugo – There are concerns about this text as being appropriative. (I obviously don’t agree with every word of those posts; one of the readers clearly thought […]

  8. MackenziLee says:

    I see your points, but I disagree very strongly with almost everything you say. But that’s the great thing about having an opinion, right? :)

    “The fact that Bardugo dares to present herself as a friend” seems like some very strong language. I don’t think Ms. Bardugo has created this world with any spiteful intentions, and I don’t think her “friendliness” as you put it is false at all. I also don’t think she’s ignorant, and I don’t think that’s a fair genearlisation on your part. She did not write this book and say “look I wrote a book about Russia!” She has created a fantasy world *inspired by* Russia. Which means that she can take liberties she desires, because it is her world, and her creation.

    And really, isn’t all fantasy an amalgamation of culture? No fantasy world actually exists – all authors draw on other cultures, myths, and legends taken out of context to create the culture of another world. Why not leap to the defense of English cultural identity when authors choose to base their fantasy worlds on medieval Britain? How is that okay, and has been for years and years and years, but when Bardugo writes about Russia, she’s suddenly insensitive and ignorant? Sure, Grisha’s a boy’s name, but why can’t she use it as the name of a magical elite in her world, which is not Russia? We all take words all the time and reapply them and make them our own. She is creating her own world and her own vernacular based on elements that already exist in our own world, as so many writers before her have done. She’s not spitting on Russian heritage. She’s creating something beautiful in tribute to something beautiful that already exists.

    Isn’t that what culture is, when it comes right down to it? A conglomeration of pieces that come together to create one unique identity.

  9. […] 2. About Friday posts on some of the mis-use of Russian in the book. […]

  10. […] and Bone by Leigh Bardugo: GR Tatiana’s review, GR Nataliya’s review,NextFriday Problems: cultural appropriation, treatment of […]

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