Q&A: Author Leigh Bardugo reveals plot details and the cover to ‘Crooked Kingdom’

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With "Crooked Kingdom" author Leigh Bardugo brings readers back into her Grishaverse, a world concocted of magic and mischief. Think "Harry Potter" meets "Game of Thrones" with a dash of 19th century Europe and a caper twist. We spoke to Bardugo about her second book of the two-part series set in a new corner of her fantasy land. Plus get an exclusive look at the cover to "Crooked Kingdom." 

Bardugo found her audience crafting the Grisha Trilogy, a three-part collection of books set in the Grisha world. Inside this world were places like Ravka, heavily inspired by an old world Russia with fringes of the fanciful. But don't let the mysticism fool you; Bardugo's land isn't a fairy tale, destruction and heartache lie around every corner.

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Her latest work, the two-part novel pair of "Six of Crows" and "Crooked Kindgom" expand the Grisha world. The first book, "Six of Crows" took off with a heist orchestrated by protagonist Kaz Brekker and his newly formed company of criminals. The sequel, "Crooked Kingdom" takes place only a few days after the grand heist ended, and now heaven and hell are descending on the city of Ketterdam with Kaz and his crew caught in the magical mix. The gang's thievery and cunning must be upgraded to the level that Bardugo describes from a mere heist to a "grand con."

In our Q&A with Bardugo the author revealed her plans for Kaz and company and warned readers not to get too attached.

Exclusive cover reveal of Leigh Bardugo's "Crooked Kingdom." (Handout)

In the first book, revenge was a large part of Kaz's goals. But now there's a whole new villain involved and it seems to be saying that the stakes are higher. Are they indeed higher? And what sort of stakes are we looking at?

This is still very much a story about revenge and potentially redemption for some of the characters. In the first book you had the team moving, going out and having to journey to another country to pull off this heist. The second book is more of a con book than a heist book, there are heists in it, but it's much more about the grand con.

What you have is all of these countries from around the world descending on [the city of Ketterdam] because they still want to get their hands on this drug, jurda parem. It could really change the face of magic, and warfare in the world. There are a lot of different players operating; the gangs of Ketterdam coming in to play, Kaz's old rivals, international powers who have their own stake in the game.

Basically a war is going to be fought on the streets of Ketterdam for what's going to happen to magic and everyone that's influenced by magic in this world.

How much time are we going to spend in Ketterdam?

Ketterdam is pretty much the city I always wanted to write about. It's a mix of the Dutch Republic, Amsterdam, Antwerp, old New York, Victorian London, Vegas. It has a lot of different influences in it and this is very much a book that's tied to that city. You're going to get a much better sense for sort of the different parts of the town and the way it works, and the way power works in the city as well. There's a big world war that's being decided in these streets, but you also have some decisions that are being made about Kaz's future and the future of the city itself.

Your books like to mix the real with the magical. But the characters still eat turnips (or they replace watches with turnips). It's still grounded in reality. How do you find a balance as to what the readers can take, as to what they find believable?

You know fantasy, you're always walking this line between the fantastical and the real. And I think that what we're really doing is taking the real world and applying a different kind of lens to it. We're sort of looking at the gaps between things and sort of shadows and mysteries that appear between things and we're just kind of diving into those.

I think the biggest thing that grounds the story is the characters. If you believe the experiences they're having, then you're probably going to be willing to invest in and believe in the world. I think as long as you abide by the rules that you set, you can do pretty much anything you want.

I think that people start getting frustrated with speculative fiction or with fantasy fiction, when they don't feel like any rules apply. Or when the author sets up the rules and then violates them. There are times when I think, "Wow it'd be really great if I could magic myself out of this situation." But it really doesn't work that way. And you find different stories because you've set those challenges for yourself and you've set those limits for yourself.

But you do have to make up words. What word did you struggle the most with, like creating?

Oh wow. It's hard to remember now, it's been awhile. The funny thing is that they always make perfect sense to me, the words and the names. For instance Inej's name popped into my head almost immediately. And it's really just a very subtle variation on Inez and is in fact closer to the Brazilian pronunciation of Inez. I was shocked by how many readers were asking, "How the hell do you pronounce this girl's name?" "What do you mean, isn't it obvious?"

I spend maybe too much time on names and that kind of thing, but I always want to build a little bit of a spoiler, a little bit of an Easter egg into most of the terminology in the world that I create.

Do you find yourself saying it out loud? When you read a book you don't say the words out loud, you say it in your head. So do you just write it down a bunch of times and reread it?

I write it down, I want to see how it looks on the page, and I absolutely say it out loud. Although I will confess when I was doing the recordings for pronunciations for the audio book, I felt such sympathy for the people that have to do this. Because I would get to a section where I was reading this long phrase in Fjerdan and I thought, "Wow, I feel a little ridiculous." This is why I am not the narrator. "Oh God, I made this up and and I made this bed and now I have to lie in it."

Can't go back and change it now, can't name everyone Peter. So what do you think fans are most excited about in "Crooked Kingdom"? Is there anything you want to tease them or ease their minds with?

Oh, I don't want to ever ease their minds, I want them to suffer as much as humanly possible. I think... I mean all I can say is that there will be quite a bit of progress and forward momentum in the number of the relationships in the book. I know there are a lot of readers who are looking forward to that and beyond that... Let's just say that some of the bad people get worse and some of the good people get worse, and I try to put them through their paces. This is not a trilogy, it's a two-book series, and that meant that a lot had to happen in this second book. That means that not everybody's going to make it out either. So...

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What can you tell us about this new big bad?

Oh, well you know Van Eck is more powerful in some ways than Pekka Rollins could ever be because he's protected by respectability. And that's not something that Kaz has ever sought, but it's something that offers a kind of protection and a kind of influence that he's also never had to fight before. So it's sort of like, if you've been boxing your whole life and all of the sudden you're fighting a wrestler, it's a whole different game. That's really what Kaz is up against in this battle. It would be a mistake to rule Pekka out of the game too.

What about the illustrations in the second book? Can fans look forward to more beautiful maps that usually come with your books? 

We almost always include a map, and I'm hoping we'll include a city plan of Ketterdam, but I don't know yet if that is going to be the case. [The artist]  Keith Thompson did the plan of the ice court and he's done all of the maps of the Grishaverse, so Ravka and all of the surrounding countries.

When you work with an artist for that long, does it actually start impacting when you're writing now? Does it change the way you look at your world? Or is it still the same world for you?

It doesn't really. Keith comes into the process fairly late, the map was laid out of the world and Keith made it beautiful. The ice court plan was drawn, I had to draw the ice court before I could write the heist. You know first I had to build this impenetrable fortress. And there were actually moments after I had built this impenetrable fortress where I was like, "How the hell do I get them in, and then how the hell do I get them out?"

I would actually say I've been maybe impacted by fan art more than I have been by the maps and so forth in the book. I mean Keith has an incredible hand and I think he's given the world this richness for readers that it wouldn't otherwise have had. But in terms of thinking about my characters and that kind of thing, honestly sometimes it's fan art that I'll see and think, "Wow I hadn't pictured the character that way, but now I can't picture the character any other way."

How have the fans impacted you, and are you surprised or did you know that fans were going to really embrace this character?

You never know when you put a book out how people are going to respond to a character. There's always the fear that everybody's going to say, "Well it's OK, but it's not as good as the Grisha Trilogy," or "Kaz is all right but he's really dark." I have been really thrilled to see them embrace him, for a lot of reasons.

He has a disability, I have a disability. It's not a coincidence that he walks with a cane and I walk with a cane. I didn't know how people were going to respond to him, how they were going to respond to all the characters. The really remarkable thing has been the way Inej has resonated with readers. She was really, to me, the heart of the book. I sometimes feel like readers can be harder on female characters than male characters, so it's been really gratifying to see what she's meant to people.

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What are you excited to dive deeper into with the characters in the second book?

Well, I'm really excited because Wylan gets his own POV. I mean he's a lot of fun to write because he's not like any of the other members of the crew. He's the most teenager of any of them because he's led the most sheltered existence, so he hasn't had this kind of rough upbringing that has aged him quickly. He's got a lot of his optimism intact. I really enjoyed writing him. And you find out a lot more about his background and Jesper's background. That was a lot of fun.

What are the biggest difficulties or struggles when you're writing a novel from six different perspectives?

The different POV's was never, I mean look, these books get built in revision. They start as very rough drafts. The zero draft of "Six of Crows" was essentially an elaborate outline, it was 30,000 words long. And the final draft of "Six of Crows" was 130,000 words long. But that's usually the way I work, I draft something out, I draft everything I know in that moment, from beat to beat. Then I go back and I start filling in more and more.

I think the hard work of writing is just how long a book is terrible before it's good. You think of an idea, you fall in love with the idea. That first zero draft gets, for me, written in this blaze of momentum and excitement. But then there's a really long time while you're revising and working and solving all of the problems. And getting to know the characters before their voice is really crystallized, that is incredibly painful. You feel like, "This is a disaster and a terrible idea, and who do I think I am that I thought I could write this?"

I frequently would look up from the draft and just think, "This is such a great idea for a book, I really think somebody else should write it. Preferably somebody a lot smarter than I am. I don't feel like I'm smart enough to write the book."

There's this long period of time when you don't know when you're going to fall back in love, and you just have to go on faith, that by continuing to work through it, you will. And then there's this crazy moment where you realize, oh this is fun again, this is actually something I'm excited about.

What have you learned about this world now that you've spent so much time in it?

I guess I just learned that it keeps getting bigger. You think you have one story to tell, and it's almost like your peripheral vision, your view gets wider. You set out on a path, "All right, I'm going to go through the woods." So you have an idea of where you're going and that you want to get there.

And as you're walking this path you start to hear rustles in the underbrush and you start to wonder how did this get there, how did that get there? Maybe walk by some old run-down ruin of a cottage or whatever it is. And you begin to wonder about the wider world. And then you skip out of the woods and there's this whole vista, there's this whole place that I never saw before.

So for me the more I write about the world, the wider it gets. And that can actually be a little distracting, because there are so many pieces of a wider story that I want to tell.

You started off with the trilogy, and now you're doing two more books in the Grishaverse, do you feel like you know this world really well, can get into that zone easily? 

The weird thing is that you think, oh I've got this whole world to work with that I've created, this will be easy now. Except that, you always want to level up, you always want to do something new with the magic, and you want it to feel expansive. You don't want to just feel like you're in this kind of cloistered environment. So I think that it becomes more and more challenging.

Also you create more limitations as you go. I love the feeling of the first draft when you're kind of throwing doors open. But the longer you stay in a world the more doors you're responsible for closing for the reader, so it's really a mix. There are wonderful things about it and there are frustrating things about it.

I just started a new project, I can't really say anything about. But I was working on it while I was on retreat, and I have to say it was a lot of fun to be in a completely different universe. I have no doubt that I'll come back to the Grisha eventually, but I'm definitely enjoying building something totally new.

So it's in a tropical island set in the future?

That's an exciting proposition. Who can say?

Crooked Kingdom will be released on Sept. 22.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity. 


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