Books, Pop Culture

Here’s why you need to stop sleeping on Leigh Bardugo’s books if you’re a fan of YA

It's time to stop. She’s doing beautiful things for YA fantasy.

There is a moment, just when you’ve discovered how poorly written so many of your teenage favorites were, when you kind of lose faith in young adult literature and vow to move on to more serious literature. And then, you see everyone and their grandmother on Tumblr raving about the newest release everyone just has to read, and you decide to give YA fantasy another go.

Too often, it can end in disappointment, but with Leigh Bardugo, it pays off.

For those who don’t know, Miss Bardugo is an author of YA fantasy, and most of her books are set in the same universe: the world of Grisha. Her world-building is well-established, her plots are solid, and her characters are mostly well-rounded dynamic personalities. Most importantly, this woman is not playing around when it comes to diversity and improving her writing with every single book. But my favorite thing about her isn’t the books themselves at all; it’s how reliable she is.

Leigh Bardugo just keeps getting better. There’s no way around it. If you read her work chronologically, there’s no mistaking it. The improvement is obvious and heartening to see, and reason number one that makes her one of my favorite authors.

A quick disclaimer: the conclusion of her first trilogy is one of the angriest I’ve ever been with a book. Like the last ever episode of How I Met Your Mother, I like to pretend that certain details about it don’t exist at all, and I will be the first to say that one of the male characters in the Grisha trilogy (if you’ve read it, you know who) annoys me more than words could possibly express. But despite the inevitable human shortcomings, the development her writing undergoes between each book ensures that it’s very hard indeed to not be ridiculously excited about every new release.

Compared to Shadow and Bone, her first Grisha novel, which was about as white and straight and limited in representation as possible, her Six of Crows duology is a wonder. Between the six main characters of the ensemble cast, you find representation for POC, LGBTQ+, addiction, sex work, PTSD, body diversity, physical and learning disabilities, unlearning racial prejudices and more. Plus, you find some of the most glorious female friendships written by her and they are so refreshing to see, especially in a genre that too often falls into the trap of pitting women against each other and making their protagonist different – i.e. better – compared to other girls.

In a world where more and more YA writers are giving in to fan service and sacrificing quality and truthfulness to their art, just to please a chunk of the fanbase, Bardugo represents an exhilarating change. To me, she exemplifies the integral quality we need in this age of social media social justice warriors to be dynamic and constantly bettering ourselves. Her progress as a writer embodies the ability to learn from your mistakes, educate yourself, and then do better in the future instead of blindly defending your own flawed preconceptions.

I won’t call her perfect, because that is damaging in itself. But I will say that Leigh Bardugo has actively improved with every single book and given the world a little bit of the diversity we deserve. She has definitely written a fat, loud, beautiful, unabashed girl with a love for sweets whom I can relate to and made it a point to mention how she is perceived unanimously as beautiful and badass. Among the more obvious diversity squares checked by her work, there are prize jewels such as portrayals of addiction, sex work and the unlearning of ingrained prejudices. Simply put, Leigh writes some brilliant fantasy series and she outdoes herself every single time.

Convinced you should try her out yet? If in doubt – or not prepared to tackle five books – her latest release, The Language of Thorns, is an excellent place to start. It questions damaging implications in existing fairytales, creates a mythology within her fictional universe, and just slays the fairy tale genre. There is also (spoiler alert!) a hilarious gay river and stunning illustrations, among other excellent things.