Stories Within Stories: Exploring The Lives of Saints by Leigh Bardugo

Sometimes there are books within books. I don’t mean this in a metaphorical sense—the worldbuilding in some novels includes the creation of a physical tome that plays a part in the overall story. This Russian doll of the publishing world usually remains only on the page of the original book. Sometimes, however, the book within a book gets its own real-life publication.

This month, in fact, there are at least two books coming out in our world that previously only existed inside another novel: Over the Woodward Wall from Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame and The Lives of Saints from Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse.

You can learn more about Over the Woodward Wall here, which looks like an amazing read, especially for those who loved the 2020 Locus Award-winning novel, Middlegame. This review will delve into The Lives of Saints, a 128-page tome that’s also called by its Ravkan name, Istorii Sankt’ya, in Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy.

In Shadow and Bone, Istorii Sankt’ya (AKA The Lives of Saints) is a collection of folk tales about the magical, martyred Saints of Ravka. Alina Starkov, the protagonist of the trilogy, has her own battered edition of the book, and some of the stories she reads there act as an impetus for major plot points in the series, which takes place in a magical world that fans call the Grishaverse.

The Grishaverse books, which include the Shadow and Bone trilogy, the Six of Crows duology, and a handful of other novels, are immensely popular, so much so that Netflix is making an adaptation of it. This deserved attention has also paved the way for Lives of Saints to be published in our world. The book—whose real-life version contains 28 tales related to saints from Ravka and other countries in the Grishaverse—is a beautiful one that’s brought to life not only by the stories it holds, but also by the rich, full-color illustrations by Daniel J. Zollinger.

The stories and the drawings contained in The Lives of Saints can be enjoyed by anyone, but this is a book that will be truly appreciated by fans of Bardugo’s Grishaverse. The hardcover, with its red backing and gold lettering of the title in Ravkan, looks like it was plucked off the page and plopped onto your coffee table or bookshelf. And while the cover is nondescript by contemporary standards, the pages inside—both the illustrations and the lettering—more than make up for those who prefer something flashier.

At 128 pages, one could read The Lives of Saints in an hour or two. I’d argue, however, it’s better to savor its stories by reading a few entries at a time, ideally curled up on your couch at night with a lit candle or two providing just the right amount of warmth to stave off the darkness outside. The stories themselves, which each revolve around a saint, vary in their focus—some are a saint’s gruesome origin story, for example, while others recount how individuals have been magically saved or protected through their devotion to a given saint. What all the entries have in common, however, is a macabre undertone reminiscent of Grimm fairy tales (the un-Disneyfied versions) and stories of martyrs from some of our world’s religions.

As for the saints themselves, Grishaverse fans will recognize some of them from Alina’s copy of Istorii Sankt’ya, and they’ll even notice that The Dark One and Alina herself have their own entries (which, one can choose to think, was added to later editions of the book found in the Grishaverse). And no matter what tale your reading—whether you’re learning about the patron saint of thieves and lost children (Sankta Margaretha) or the patron saint of horticulture (Sankt Feliks Among the Boughs)—you’ll be able to get enveloped by the Grishaverse for at least a few moments. That alone is worth something, especially these days. And perhaps when fans see this book on their bedstand, they’ll be pulled ever so slightly into Alina’s world, a place where they’ll get a little bit of relief and respite. In that way, The Lives of Saints is more than the stories inside it—its an artifact in and of itself, a cherished item that becomes a refuge from whatever struggles we may face in this one.

The Lives of Saints is available from Imprint.
Read an excerpt here.

Vanessa Armstrong is a writer with bylines at The LA Times, SYFY WIRE, StarTrek.com and other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog Penny and her husband Jon, and she loves books more than most things. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @vfarmstrong.

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