Author: Leigh Bardugo
Books: Six of Crows, Crooked Kingdom
Spoiler-free for both books
In Ketterdam, nothing speaks louder than cold hard cash. From the upscale merchers making trades in the Exchange to the flashy gang members hustling marks in the back alleys of the Barrel, money is the key to unlocking the world. No one is more aware of that than Kaz Brekker, who has built the foundation of his criminal empire on being willing to take on any job, earning himself plenty of cash and the nickname Dirtyhands. So when a job with impossible stakes and an astronomical payout arises, Kaz knows he’ll need a very special crew to pull it off.
There’s Inej, known as the Wraith, who ghosts across rooftops gathering information for Kaz. Jesper, who can’t keep his twitchy fingers off his revolvers or away from the gambling tables. Wylan, a wide-eyed, softhearted runaway trying to run with the tough crowd. Nina, who breaks hearts with her incessant flirtation as well as her Heartrender powers. And Matthias, an austere warrior whose sense of honor is severely infringed upon by his irreverent companions.
The job? To infiltrate the impenetrable Ice Court and retrieve the scientist behind a terrifying new drug. The payout? 30 million kruge, enough to get them out of the bottom of the Barrel. They’re all in it for different reasons – family, freedom, vindication, or ice-cold vengeance – but to pull it off, they’ll have to work together and trust each other, which just might kill them before the Ice Court does.
Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom take place in the Grishaverse, the world established in Leigh Bargudo’s Grisha trilogy (Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, Ruin and Rising). Knowledge of the original trilogy is not required to understand or enjoy the Six of Crows duology, though there are references to the trilogy’s events and a few minor appearances by trilogy characters. I read Six of Crows before any of Bardugo’s other books, and personally think it is a much stronger introduction to her work than Shadow and Bone. The heist setup and Ocean’s 11 vibe of the Six of Crows duology will appeal to a broader audience than the more traditional fantasy world of the Grisha trilogy. Anyone with a passing familiarity with standard fantasy magic will be able to easily track with the different Grisha (i.e. magic user*) powers, which essentially center around manipulating either non-living matter, natural elements, or the human body. Plus, there’s a helpful list around the cover page that breaks down what they call the different powers.
Nothing that follows is a spoiler for either book, but Crooked Kingdom is a strong follow-up that picks up in the aftermath of the Ice Court job. The drug unveiled in Six of Crows is still at large – it takes regular Grisha and turns them into insanely powerful living weapons before destroying their bodies through addiction. Whoever controls the drug controls the Grisha, which brings a whole schlep of unfriendly forces crashing down on Ketterdam. There are a dozen different scores to be settled in Crooked Kingdom, and Bardugo does a masterful job of tying the threads together. She is an author that has clearly planned out every detail with meticulous attention. Her characters are smart, clever, and always ten steps ahead of you (well, Kaz is). The heists, plots, betrayals and schemes have so many layers that details mentioned 200 pages earlier come roaring back with a vengeance that will leave your head spinning.
But beyond the grand adventure and madcap capers of the mismatched gang of miscreants, the Six of Crows duology folds real issues into its pages with great success. Kaz struggles with an old leg injury and walks with a cane, albeit one that he wields as a hefty weapon as well as a physical aid. Weakness of any kind is abhorrent to him, though his own pain constantly ranges from a low ache to a debilitating throb and hampers his ability to carry out certain tasks. Watching Kaz present himself as a fearsome opponent despite his past trauma speaks volumes about his survival mindset and controlling nature. In the acknowledgements of Six of Crows, Bardugo touches on how she lives with osteonecrosis (“bone death”), which inspired aspects of Kaz’s character.
“When everyone knows you’re a monster, you needn’t waste time doing every monstrous thing.”
Prior to joining Kaz’s gang, Inej was manipulated into signing an impossible contract with a brothel. Her year spent there is chronologically in the past (and there is no explicit sexual content in either book), but we clearly see the aftereffects of it. I read a good article that explains the importance of Inej’s character from the perspective of a sexual violence survivor. It highlights how Inej is shown not just as a rape survivor, but as a whole person. Her horrible experiences certainly color her – she is very protective of her body, and has trouble walking past the brothel, to name the most obvious – but they do not overwhelm other aspects of her complex character. If I were making a list of her traits, things like a) she’s an acrobat, b) Kaz’s right-hand woman, and c) easily has the strongest moral compass of the gang, would come in equally as important as her abuse survival. The contrast between how she and Kaz deal with their trauma is striking – one came out of it harder than stone, the other maintaining a sense of goodness and faith.
Those two clock in with the most page time, but the others bring further dimension to the world of this duology. Jesper loves to gamble, but where is the line between a good time and an addiction? Matthias struggles with his lifelong indoctrination that Grisha are not worthy of being recognized as human. There is mention of a character struggling with a learning challenge that I took to be dyslexia. Characters work through with loving people of a different race, the same sex, or even loving at all. There is loss, love, betrayal, greed, revenge and the simple question of what it takes to be happy. Money? Family? Enemies dead and defeated?
But don’t let the fact that there are hefty topics in these books get you down – the balance between the light and the dark is always well-maintained. For every deep confession, there’s a hilarious exchange full of razor-sharp wit right behind it, not downplaying any of life’s harsh realities but showing that it’s possible to experience life even among dire circumstances.
Friends will become family, eyes rolled and insults swapped, shots fired and waffles consumed. Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom are worth every ounce of praise they get. And if the story isn’t enough, will you just LOOK AT THAT COVER ART?!?! AND THE TINTED PAGE EDGES?!?!?! They look awesome, and they are awesome.
*Before anyone nitpicks, it’s not technically magic, but manipulating matter at its most basic level. They call it the Small Science, but that’s a bit much for a basic introduction. If you want the nitty-gritty, read the Grisha trilogy.