Title: Six of Crows (2016)
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Hachette Children’s Group/Orion
Read: 2nd – 6th June 2018
Genre: young-adult; fantasy
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“Criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams – but he can’t pull it off alone. A convict with a thirst for revenge. A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager. A runaway with a privileged past. A spy known as the Wraith. A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums. A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes. Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction – if they don’t kill each other first.”
(Synopsis from the publisher)
Before I get into it, here’s the thing: I ADORE Six of Crows and I’ve re-read it multiple times. However, because I love it so much, I struggle to review it in any kind of constructive way that isn’t just enthusiastic, unintelligible gushing. Being incapable of reviewing it part inspired a post I did recently on The Struggle of Reviewing Favourite Books. and I still stand by everything I said in there. However, I am going to try my damnedest to review it here so here goes nothing…
“Kaz leaned back. ‘What’s the easiest way to steal a man’s wallet?’
‘Knife to the throat?’ asked Inej.
‘Gun to the back?’ said Jesper.
‘Poison in his cup?’ suggested Nina.
‘You’re all horrible,’ said Matthias.”
Six of Crows is a young-adult fantasy novel set in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, a world where a special group of people (grisha) have deadly and dangerous powers, from tailoring your face to change your entire appearance, to controlling heart rates and being capable of squeezing the life out of you. It is a world, magic system, and history which was established in her previous Grisha trilogy but it’s really in the Six of Crows duology that we see Bardugo’s world really sing and feel extraordinarily real. Through the eyes of the various members of the gang called the Dregs we become acquainted with the criminal underbelly of Ketterdam, an Amsterdam-like city in which trade is king and criminals stand in opposition to the city’s respectable merchers and Merchant Council by instead offering every sort of vice to Ketterdam’s inhabitants, from gambling dens to brothels. The system of gangs, territories, and dens helps Bardugo to build up the evocative image of a bustling city which would easily eat you alive and spit you back out if you don’t have your wits about you.
“No mourners. No funerals. Among them, it passed for ‘good luck.’ “
The novel’s premise is simple – a gang of extremely capable young criminals is employed to pull off the ultimate heist, breaking into the impenetrable Ice Court in Fjerda in order to rescue a scientist who has been kidnapped by the Fjerdans because of his dangerous discovery called jurda parem, an addictive drug which enhances Grisha magical abilities. In the wrong hands, the secret to jurda parem could be deadly, and the person who holds the key to unlocking its power could very well control the Grisha themselves, so it’s no surprise that everyone wants a piece of the action. Leading the gang of criminals is the incomparable Kaz Brekker, aka Dirtyhands, a barrel rat who has clawed his way to the top and will stop at nothing to put together a team capable of pulling off the job, and earning him his reward. His gang of merry miscreants consists of people of all races, cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds, and each character’s narrative voice is strong and distinct. I’ve never felt as connected to characters as I do to those in Six of Crows.
” ‘I’m a business man,’ he’d told her. ‘No more, no less.’
‘You’re a thief, Kaz.’
‘Isn’t that what I just said?’ “
Despite the darkness and criminality, there is also light – the interactions between these characters and the humour is something that has won every single member of this story a place in my heart. From the cut-throat Kaz to straight-shooting mischievous Jesper, from surefooted acrobat Inej to confident flirty Nina, and from criminally naive Wylan to uptight conditioned Matthias, there is definitely a culture and personality clash between the members of the gang, but the moments of quick wit are what’s needed to help leaven some of the more brutal and visceral scenes. My personal favourites remain Nina and Matthias, largely because I do so love a tortured ‘we can’t be together, it’s forbidden’ sort of romance, but Nina is quite possibly one of my favourite characters in literature as I would kill for even an atom of her confidence.
” ‘It’s not natural for women to fight.’
‘It’s not natural for someone to be as stupid as he is tall, and yet there you stand.’ “
One of Six of Crows biggest selling points is that it is about a criminal gang, and it’s very fulfilling to see a criminal gang that actually does criminal things in front of your very eyes. Every single character is morally grey and makes questionable decisions, and their leader Kaz is transparent in telling everyone (including the reader) that he will absolutely sacrifice any single one of his gang if he has to. That strange sense of ruthlessness in a weird way shows a principle and criminal code which each of the Dregs respects and must abide by. It’s this kind of understanding that makes the Dregs deadly, and is also the driving force of the story – you know that, at any point, betrayals could happen, at which point the Dregs would not hesitate to throw a member under the proverbial bus if it meant securing the success of the mission and the payout at the end of it. Not only do these criminals talk the talk, they walk the walk, and it’s surprisingly rare to find that actually proven in novels with claims to such ruthlessness and criminality.
“When everyone knows you’re a monster, you needn’t waste time doing every monstrous thing.”
In conclusion, I am completely and irrevocably biased when it comes to Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows and with every re-read of this book (and its sequel Crooked Kingdom) I fall more and more in love with Kaz and his gang of (not so) merry misfits, Ketterdam’s finest and genuinely a rag tag team that you end up rooting for over the course of their seemingly impossible mission into the icy heart of Fjerda. Bardugo’s Grishaverse is deeply indebted to this book which, I think, has helped to further flesh out the complicated social and personal politics hinted at in the opening Grisha trilogy, and also has created a group of characters whose personal journeys and problems are perhaps more rooted in a tangible and understandable reality than those found in Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising.
“Greed may do your bidding, but death serves no man.”