Note: This review contains spoilers for Six of Crows, the first book in this duology.
Crooked Kingdom (2016) picks up the story begun in Six of Crows and takes off like ― well, there are no freight trains in this world, so ― a runaway Grisha on jurda parem. In Six of Crows, teenage crime lord Kaz Brekker and his handpicked group of five pulled off a near-impossible heist, rescuing a young boy, Kuwei, from the impenetrable Ice Court of Fjerda and returning to Ketterdam with him and, more importantly, his knowledge of his father’s research into how to turn the ordinary jurda plant into jurda parem, a drug that instantly amps up Grishas’ magical powers to unbelievable heights, but leaves them as hopeless junkies when the effects of the drug wear off. Rather than receiving a payoff of thirty million kruge from their merchant partner, Jan Van Eck, for turning over Kuwei, they are double-crossed. Van Eck kidnaps Inej, one of Kaz’s crew and the nearest to his stony heart, promising to kill her if they don’t hand Kuwei over to him within seven days.
Kaz and the rest of his crew now face obstacles that are, once again, nearly insurmountable: first, attempting to rescue Inej from an enemy who is more powerful, connected and well-funded than they are, and then to try to get revenge and, if possible, the amount of the originally promised thirty million payout. At the same time, they want to neutralize the threat that jurda parem creates, and try to save Kuwei from those who would abuse him and his knowledge of the drug. The plot is exciting and frequently surprising, as wheels turn within wheels, misdirection and tricks abound, and the layered plans of Kaz and his opponents are gradually revealed.
Crooked Kingdom leaps back into the underworld of Ketterdam with barely a breath to spare for recapping the events of Six of Crows, so readers may want to refresh their memory of the events and main characters in that story. In Kaz’s crew of six, three potential romantic relationships have been forming: between Kaz (the ringleader) and Inej (the former gymnast known as the Wraith), Nina (the Grisha Heartrender) and Matthias (the disgraced soldier of Fjerda, who are sworn enemies of the Grisha), and Jesper (the sharpshooter addicted to gambling, with Grisha powers that he denies) and Wylan (Van Eck’s estranged son and an explosives expert). In addition to all of their external difficulties, there are internal ones: Kaz is unable to bear skin-to-skin touch because of his past trauma, Nina is addicted to jurda parem, Jesper is addicted to gambling, and Wylan is unable to read … not to mention his own father wants to kill him and the rest of Kaz’s crew. In between all of the exciting and twisted, layered plotting, Leigh Bardugo finds time to thoughtfully and realistically explore each of these relationships, as well as their individual strengths and weaknesses. It’s a monumental achievement.
Like Six of Crows, Crooked Kingdom is an enthralling but gritty fantasy, pushing the boundaries of YA fiction with its violence, death, torture, discussion of slavery and prostitution, and addictions. The effects of past abuse and trauma are widespread among the main characters, often explained in flashbacks that shed light on their personalities, struggles and deepest desires.
“Do you know what Van Eck’s problem is?”
“No honor?” said Matthias.
“Rotten parenting skills?” said Nina.
“Receding hairline?” offered Jesper.
“No,” said Kaz. “Too much to lose. And he gave us a map to what to steal first.”
For those mature enough to handle the darker subject matter, this duology is gripping reading, with impressive world-building, a gradually broadening plot that pulls in players from other countries (including some old familiar friends from the GRISHA trilogy!), and intricately planned schemes of the grand heist and con game variety. Very highly recommended.
Crooked Kingdom is the sequel to Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology, though it could just as easily be described as the second half of the story began that that previous novel. Though it didn’t end on a cliff-hanger per se, it was clearly not the end of the tale, with the central mission and the character arcs still a long way from being resolved.
As such, it’s definitely not a story you can jump into without having first read its predecessor – in fact, you’d probably be better off going back to the original GRISHA trilogy (starting with Shadow and Bone) that introduced us to this world in the first place. Once caught up, you can dive into Crooked Kingdom and the conclusion of Kaz Brekker’s multi-layered, many-faceted, wonderfully clever scheming against his enemies.
Kaz Brekker and his ragtag team of refugees, criminals, outlaws and black sheep are on the back foot. After being hired for an elaborate extraction job and then promptly betrayed, they’ve gone to ground and are currently reassessing their options, pooling their resources, and grieving the loss of one of their teammates. But Kaz is never without a plan for long, and what started as a rescue mission soon expands into one of vengeance and political subversion.
To say much more would give away the twists and turns of the ensuing story, which has our motley band of heroes – nicknamed the Dregs because they are quite literally the dregs of society – use every skill, resource and trick at their disposal to outwit their enemies and (hopefully) come out on top.
There are five key members of Kaz’s team, each with their own point-of-view chapters – Nina, Jesper, Inej, Matthias and Kaz himself, and in Crooked Kingdom Bardugo expands this core group to include sixth member Wylan van Eck, giving us the belated chance to learn his backstory (which ends up being the most poignant and heartrending of the lot). The crux of this duology has absolutely been the characters that took on this seemingly-impossible, against-all-the-odds undertaking, and by this book it’s clear that the very cynicism which initially drove them is what ultimately keeps them alive, even as they start letting down their guard around each other.
One of the most interesting aspects of this story, at least for me, is that there hasn’t really been a singular villain for our protagonists to defeat (in direct contrast to the prior trilogy). Sure, there’s a corrupt businessman with whom Kaz has a longstanding vendetta, but Bardugo makes it clear that the real enemy is the system in which these characters are forced to live, one that values profit over lives, and the permanent emotional/psychological scars that they’ve all been left with as a result. They’ve come together not just to earn a payload, but to start healing from their bitter pasts, and this angle ends up being one of the most rewarding aspects of the story.
Kaz’s PTSD, Jesper’s gambling addiction, Wylan’s dyslexia, Nina’s self-hatred, Matthias’s fundamentalist upbringing, and the horrific abuse that Inej endured – Bardugo doesn’t shy away from the darkness of it all, but neither does she give up on the hope that gradually rekindles itself in all of them. Watching them seize it was enough to bring a tear to my eye.
If I have one complaint it’s that it was incredibly difficult to buy that any of these characters were (at most) in their late teens. I realize this is a YA book, but readers of that age are capable of enjoying stories about older people, and that every character was a prodigy in their field of expertise at such a young age was a bit hard to swallow. There’s also a fatality towards the end of the book that – though sad – isn’t really given enough time to sink in with readers before the story concludes. No one really gets to react to it, so it doesn’t hit home the way it should.
But the Six of Crows duology has been a wild ride from start to finish. Vivid characterization, beautiful prose, solid world-building, and deeper themes that touch on social responsibility and the evils of systematic corruption. Even the drug-use metaphor worked well within the context of the story. I can’t wait to see what Leigh Bardugo does next.
I don’t recommend the audiobook because each character’s POV is narrated by a different reader. Therefore, in dialogue, there are several different voices for each character — the reader who does Inej’s POV has a different voice for Kaz than the reader who does Kaz’s POV or the reader who does Nina’s POV. It’s confusing and unpleasant.