(This was originally published on MochaLatteReads as part of the Shadow and Bone blog tour.)
One of the biggest challenges in building the Ravkan world was language. As one glance at the map will tell you, Ravka isn’t Russia, so it didn’t make sense to simply transcribe Russian (though it would have made life easier). And even if I had, for non-speakers, Russian is an incredibly opaque language. Because we don’t share an alphabet, very few words have any resonance for a western reader. Still, the world of Shadow and Bone was clearly inspired by Russia and I didn’t want to violate the reader’s sense of place by throwing some random language into the text. My goal was to use language to reinforce the reader’s experience of the world rather than undermine it.
One of the first problems I came across was the Darkling’s title. Because so much fantasy is set in Medieval England, I didn’t want anyone running around saying, “Yes, m’lord” in Ravka. In Russian, “yes, sir” or “yes, m’lord” would be something like moi gospodin—again, meaningless for a non-Russian speaker. I wanted something that belonged wholly to Ravka, but that would evoke something for the reader. I took the root word “sovereign” and added a Russian suffix. The Darkling’s title became moi soverennyi. Generally, I think most readers skim over italics. (I often do!) But you never know what the eye may pick up and if someone does want to look more closely, I’ve given them something to find.
I used a similar strategy with Poliznaya (the town where Mal and Alina took their military training), starting with the root “polis” for city—which also gives a nice echo of “police.” This was also the way I approached the names of the Grisha Orders: Corporalki, Etherealki, and Materialki.
Nothing to See Here
There were moments in the story where I decided it was okay to let the language be opaque. When Alina is studying Grisha theory, she comes across the concepts of odinakovost (thisness) and etovost (thatness)—which are actually based on haecceity and quiddity. She doesn’t understand them at this point in the story, so in that moment I like that the reader is grappling with the word as Alina grapples with the ideas.
In a very few instances, I used real Russian words. Sometimes they were simple and obvious, like “tsar,” which is obvious in its meaning to any reader. But some were a bit more complicated.
The Grisha: I chose the name Grisha for the magical elite because it is the Russian diminutive of Gregory which means “watchful” and derives from the biblical Grigori (which a lot of paranormal fans will recognize from fallen angel tales). It also evokes the word “geisha,” which reinforces the sense of beauty, secrecy, and the elite.
Kvas: Kvas is, in fact, a semi-fermented beverage popular in Russia, but in Shadow and Bone it’s an obvious stand-in for vodka. For me, “vodka” places us instantly in our world and time. It’s simply too common. Kvas, however, maintains immersion in the world, but has the advantage of visually evoking the word “vodka”—there’s no real leap for the reader to make. (Also, this is YA. I suspect a lot more flags would have been raised if I’d had a bunch of teenagers sitting around drinking Stoli.)
Otkazat’sya: “The abandoned.” This is the word Grisha use to refer to people unable to practice the Small Science. In Russian, this is a verb form and not a noun. But because I liked the look and sound of the word, I adopted the “‘sya” suffix for other constructions later in the series. The verb itself can mean “to abandon,” but it has other meanings as well, an ambiguity that comes into play in the story.
Merzost: This word doesn’t actually appear in Shadow and Bone, but it does show up in the next book and my short story, “The Witch of Duva.” This is the Russian word for abomination, but it’s the Ravkan word for both abomination and magic.
Again, I don’t know if readers will pick up on things like this or care about them, but it was a way for me to add another layer of meaning to the story for anyone who wants to go looking.
Truth in Fiction
Let’s be honest: I chose to use Russia as my inspiration, but my goal was never authenticity. As I mentioned above, it would have been far easier to bring on a Russian translator and simply have him or her transcribe words and dialogue. Deciding not to go this route meant agonizing over much smaller decisions—from how to construct a plural (“Corporalki” over “Corporalniki”) to whether or not Ravkan surnames should be gendered (Starkov” over “Starkova”).
The fact that there are guns in the Grisha Trilogy and that its cultural references are not drawn from Medieval Europe seems to cause some confusion, but Shadow and Bone is high fantasy—not historical fantasy or alternate history—and Ravka is not Russia. For me, using Russian wouldn’t have felt true to the world.
Writing high fantasy, every choice is a bit of a gamble. We take something familiar, put our own spin on it, and hope the risk will reward the reader’s experience. There were days when naming that fifteenth town or figuring out what to call a character who I knew I was going to kill off just a few pages later made me want to down a few shots of very real vodka. But how many people get to build a world and then invite others into it? Sure it’s a gamble, but it does leave a girl feeling lucky.