Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Leigh Bardugo, best known for her GRISHA young adult magical fantasy trilogy, explores a different corner of the Grisha world in her new young adult novel, Six of Crows. In the city of Ketterdam, an analog for Amsterdam, criminal gangs control the waterfront, and the surrounding area is a den of iniquity where everything can be bought and sold, including people. One of the gangs, appropriately called the Dregs, is led by 17 year old Kaz Brekker, nicknamed “Dirtyhands” because of his willingness to stoop to any level to maintain and grow his power and control. His young crew has been gaining in power and influence during the few years he’s been in charge of it.
One day a wealthy merchant abducts Kaz and tells him an incredible story: a scientist, who is being held in an impenetrable fortress in the northern icebound country of Fjerda, has discovered a method of turning jurda, a harmless plant-based stimulant, into another compound called jurda parem. It’s like crack cocaine, but worse. Jurda parem enables Grisha, people who have the magical power to manipulate different types of matter, to do unheard of feats of magic ― controlling others’ minds, walking through walls, turning lead into gold, etc. Aside from the chaos these powers could cause if used unscrupulously, jurda parem is extremely addictive and its effect on the body is debilitating.
The merchants and councilmen of Ketterdam want Kaz to break this scientist out of the “Ice Court” fortress in Fjerda and bring him to them in Ketterdam, and they are willing to pay Kaz a huge fortune if he is successful. There is one seemingly insurmountable problem with this plan: the Ice Court has never been breached. It’s a suicide mission. But Kaz, unable to resist the challenge and the freedom which that amount of money would bring him, begins to assemble a motley team from the Dregs to take on this impossible task. The group of six includes Inej, an acrobat and spy known as the Wraith for her ability to hide from notice and climb impossible heights; Jesper, a sharpshooter with a weakness for gambling; Nina, a Grisha Heartrender; Matthias, a Fjerdan escaped convict who knows the Ice Court intimately and can’t decide if he loves Nina or wants to kill her; and Wylan, a runaway with a gift for creating explosive devices. Each of these characters has his or her own personal agenda, strengths and weaknesses. Not only that, but there are other groups of ruthless people equally intent on breaking the scientist out of the Ice Court for their own purposes, and willing to kill anyone who gets in their way. This heist can go wrong in so very many different ways!
Six of Crows can be enjoyed without having previously read the GRISHA trilogy, but it’s helpful to have some prior familiarity with the magical system in this world. Grisha can manipulate matter at the molecular level (their abilities are often called the “Small Science”). They are generally divided into three orders and seven types:
- Corporalki: Heartrenders destroy living bodies (crush hearts, slow or stop pulses, etc.); Healers heal.
- Etherealki: Squallers control air and wind and can raise storms; Inferni control fire; Tidemakers control water.
- Materialki: Durasts magically manipulate solids, like cloth, glass and metal; Alkemi manipulate chemicals like poisons and explosive materials.
In Ravka (the equivalent of Russia, and the setting for the GRISHA trilogy) and in some other countries, Grisha are highly valued and sometimes enslaved for their talents. In the northern country of Fjerda, however, they are viewed as witches and are hunted down and murdered. Since Matthias is not only from Fjerda but was previously a soldier whose job was to pursue and apprehend Grisha, he’s understandably deeply conflicted about his feelings for Nina, whom he had captured prior to being imprisoned in Ketterdam. Their backstory, along with the personal histories of the other crew members, are gradually disclosed in Six of Crows as the group prepares for and embarks on their mission. It’s a diverse group, and the story is told from the points of view of almost all of the crew members, but their personalities are so distinctive and well-drawn that the frequent changes in point of view don’t ever become confusing or irritating. Although most of the characters are damaged and morally questionable characters, they are nevertheless sympathetic and even likeable.
Six of Crows is much darker than the GRISHA trilogy and is aimed at an older young adult audience. It begins with the dregs of society, people who live on the fringes and have a very tenuous moral code, if any at all, and it doesn’t get any lighter from there, with incessant betrayal, violence and death (although as a young adult novel, the details aren’t too graphic). But I also found it a more compelling read than that previous trilogy, and the world-building here is much more fleshed out. It’s an exciting story rather than a deeply profound one, but it has fascinating characters, solid world-building and a nail-biter of a plot, with several unexpected twists.
Six of Crows ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger, with one more forthcoming novel to complete the tale. I’ll be anxiously awaiting it.
Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology is better described as a follow-up rather than a sequel to her GRISHA trilogy. Though they are set in the same world and contain some of the same characters in supporting roles, they are vastly different types of stories. The GRISHA trilogy (made up of Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising) is a traditional YA coming-of-age story about a teenage Chosen One who has to save the world.
Six of Crows and its sequel Crooked Kingdom is first and foremost a heist. Kaz Brekker is a young criminal prodigy living in the slums of Ketterdam, with a mysterious past and a pair of gloves he never removes, who has just been offered a chance at a staggering windfall – if he can pull off the job. A businessman called Jan Van Eck has approached him, aware of his reputation, and promised him a fortune if he can break a man called Yul-Bayur out of prison.
The catch? Yul-Bayur is in the Ice Court, which is in Fjerda, the northernmost nation of this world: brutal, unforgiving, and technologically advanced. The man is a scientist who has helped develop a dangerous variation of the drug known as jurda parem, which (when taken in small doses) is merely an enjoyable stimulant – a bit like coffee – but in its enhanced form can increase a Grisha’s power a hundredfold, and is highly addictive to boot.
Those who are already familiar with the nature and abilities of Grisha, as explored in the preceding trilogy, will know why this is such a big deal. Grisha come with a variety of talents, from healing injuries to manipulating fire to altering one’s physical appearance. (Ever seen Avatar: The Last Airbender? It’s a bit like how bending worked in that show, though with a few more variations). If Yul-Bayur is permitted to continue his experimentation and commit the formula of jurda parem to paper, then their entire civilization will undergo devastating social-economic upheaval.
Facing the possibility of Grisha being force-fed the drug to serve as slaves to their addictions, or being hunted down by fundamentalist religious groups that already see them as unnatural monsters, the stakes couldn’t be higher for Yul-Bayur’s successful retrieval – though for Kaz Brekker, it’s more about the money.
Obviously the setup is a little complicated, and it takes a few chapters before all the pieces fall into place. Kaz must assemble a team of experts, each with their own distinct skills and loyalties: Inej Ghafa, a Suli girl trained in gymnastics who serves as a spy for Brekker’s crime network, Jesper Fahey, a talented sharpshooter with a gambling habit, Nina Zenik, a dispossessed Grisha healer who narrowly escaped death at the hands of Fjerdan witchhunters, Wylan Van Eck, a demolitions expert and wealthy son of the team’s employer, and finally Matthias Helvar, an exiled Fjerdan witchhunter who is imprisoned on charges of slavery, has a fraught history with Nina, and can provide crucial intel on the layout and management of the Ice Court… if they can convince him to come onboard.
As you might expect, the team have to learn to trust each other if they’re to pull off this impossible heist, not to mention grapple with their own sordid backgrounds and complicated hang-ups. Each one of them carries a dark secret, one that is gradually revealed across the course of the story via the switching point-of-view chapters – so by the time the heist gets underway the reader knows their personal issues pose just as much of a threat to the success of their mission as any external obstacles.
Whereas the original trilogy follows a fairly standard fantasy narrative, Leigh Bardugo pulls out all the stops to craft a twisty-turny plot that perfectly balances the stress and suspense of a heist with the emotional and psychological neurosis of its characters. They’re not only delving into the depths of the Ice Court to prevent the certainty of terrible injustices from happening, but just as surely into their own hearts and minds, grappling for a semblance of peace in a world that’s done its best to destroy them all.
I very recently learned that the upcoming Netflix series will be combining the plot of the first trilogy with the Six of Crows duology, which seems an odd choice since the genres and tone are so profoundly different. I’m not entirely sure Netflix understands what it’s got with Six of Crows – a deeply subversive set of character archetypes, a plot that deliberately tackles the facets of systemic injustice, and a truly terrifying premise (the threat of the jurda parem), all wrapped up in witty dialogue and fascinating world-building. I hope any adaptation can do it justice.
This duology is very much that: a duology. You’ll need Crooked Kingdom on hand to finish up the story started here, though this book at least ends on a natural stopping point that isn’t too much of a cliff-hanger. Perhaps you’ve already read the original GRISHA trilogy and weren’t too keen on it – but if you enjoyed its world-building and imaginative concepts, then I would still recommend giving Six of Crows a try, as they really are profoundly different in so many ways, and a vast improvement on Bardugo’s first offering.
But if you did enjoy Alina’s story, then Six of Crows presents a deeper, richer, more rewarding story that’s less fantastical and more character-driven. Yes, several of the characters have preternatural powers, but most of the time they must remain secret, or are rendered null in situations that require quick-thinking and fast-talking instead. It’s never a matter of just having “more power” – and on the one occasion it does, there are devastating consequences.
Even as someone who truly enjoyed the GRISHA trilogy, I found this to be an incredible leap in quality from Leigh Bardugo, and immediately got cracking on Crooked Kingdom.
Even though the “gang” sounds like a collection of very familiar types (and I guess they are the kind of people you’d need for a break in), the title and the idea of a heist had me sold before I started reading the review — then I got your great description of this world! Sounds like a good one, and I know just the person to pass it on to once I’ve read it.