YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: Low-ish
A few years ago, I picked up Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, the first installment in her Grisha trilogy. Picked it up, read it, and sold it to a used book store with equal parts disappointment and annoyance.
The trilogy has since become popular, and I’ve been considering giving it another go–and then lo, Six of Crows was released, the first in a new series set in the same world as Shadow and Bone, but involving different characters in a different place and a (slightly) different time. Here was my chance to see if Bardugo’s storytelling abilities had improved enough since Shadow and Bone to make it worth my while to read the rest of the original trilogy.
Well, I just finished Six of Crows. Is it perfect? No. Is it awesome? Yes. Definitely yes. Enough “yes” to make me think perhaps I should (eventually) give Bardugo’s earlier books another shot.
Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz 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.
Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.
Ketterdam, in case you can’t spot it, is the northernmost city on the little island of Kerch, located in the very bottom-middle of the map.
The Ice Court is the capital of Fjerda, a country to the north-northeast of Kerch.
Kaz — a.k.a. Dirtyhands. The brilliant, terrifying, near-legendary lieutenant of the Dregs gang (a fast-rising power in the Ketterdam slums). He of the well-tailored suits, the creepy shark-dead eyes, and the willingness to do any violence necessary to see his goals met.
Inej — a.k.a. the Wraith. A supernaturally-gifted Suli acrobat kidnapped from her family’s caravan by slavers and sold to a brothel madam in Ketterdam, but now putting her acrobat’s stealth and agility (as well as her many knives) to work as the Dregs’ intelligence-gatherer.
Matthias — a Fjerdan drüskelle (read: witchhunter), whose past encounter with Nina (a witch) condemned him to the disgusting, brutal prison in Ketterdam. He’s the eldest of the group at eighteen years old, and stiff with both murderous rage and monk-like drüskelle honor.
Nina — a Ravkan soldier from the east, now stranded in Ketterdam, trained to use her magic to kill her enemies without touching them: stop their hearts, snap their necks, collapse their lungs, etc. She’s currently employed by the Dregs to heal gang members’ wounds (as best she can, having been trained to kill rather than heal).
Jesper — a Zemeni farm boy whose gambling addiction doomed him to the gutters of Ketterdam, but whose sniper abilities found him a place amongst the Dregs.
Wylan — a wealthy merchant’s son who ran away from home and was accepted into the Dregs (as a hostage for use against his powerful father). And, hey, his expensive education could come in handy.
Let me tell you, this book has some vivid descriptions–
–that combine to set a good physical and tonal backdrop–
–for its dark, hands-bloody teeth-bared story. Bardugo’s writing style is definitely improving.
Things to love about the characters include:
The crew also includes one (it seems openly) bisexual young man, one potentially bisexual or gay young man (I suspect we’ll find out in the sequel), and a character whose permanent, painful limp is eased somewhat by the use of a cane.
With such a diverse group, you’d expect the characters to harbor some or a lot of prejudices about the others–and hallelujah, they do. It’s not just personalities clashing that makes so many of their interactions interesting to read; it’s seeing their prejudices at work, and watching those prejudices shift over time as they come to understand each other more.
And yes, some of their interactions are of the more romantic variety, but they’re romantic in a way that fits the book’s tone and story: grim, conflicted, wary, almost (almost) hopeless. There’s no place for warm cuddles and, I don’t know, waltzes under the moonlight in the gutters of Ketterdam, and definitely not during the heist itself.
But that doesn’t stop romantic bonds from forming, in their various ways–and that’s something else to praise: the romances are so very different from each other. If this book had ended with identical happily-ever-afters for such vastly different couples in such a grim story, I’d have thrown the book across the room. Or at least written a very long, ranting letter to you about it.
Holy crap do I love the use of rotating narrators in this book.
The story’s told from five viewpoints: Inej, Kaz, Nina, Jesper, and Matthias. No, rich boy Wylan doesn’t narrate.
This is especially neat because we’re shown each narrator’s backstory in bits and pieces that are scattered throughout the heist plot–and each person’s backstory affects not only who they are as people and their interactions with the other characters, but also the heist itself.
I never felt impatient with the (sometimes lengthy) sections of backstory, because I was genuinely interested in learning more about what made these people who they are. Two cheers for that.
In a story that rotates narrators, especially when those narrators have such different personalities and ethnic/religious/economic (etc.) backgrounds, you would hope that each narrator’s voice would be distinct, both in and out of dialogue. I’ll point to Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys as a good example.
But most of the narrators in Six of Crows sounded rather the same to me: ruthless, brave, and quippy.
Matthias and Inej were (usually) the exception to this rule; Matthias was brusque, both in his narrative and in his dialogue, while Inej leaned toward disapproving silence.
But for the most part, if I opened the book at random and read a few paragraphs, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you who was narrating. And if those paragraphs included dialogue without names attached, I probably couldn’t guess who was speaking.
This is a skill that Bardugo will perfect with more practice–and if the improvement in her writing in the last three years is any indication, it won’t take her long.
Okay. I don’t want to spoil anything, so let me cover this complaint as vaguely as possible.
Kaz and his team have to penetrate the impenetrable Ice Court, which (as you can see in the second map I provided above) is a large fortress-like complex.
Kaz, being the criminal genius he is, has a sharp mind (bordering on supernatural gift) for analyzing a situation (or person, or place) and coming up with a plan; he always seems to be a mile ahead of everyone else in both the analyzing and the planning departments.
So why, why was he blindsided when he encountered resistance where there is obviously going to be resistance? He’s not an idiot. No one else on the team is an idiot, either, and at least a couple of them should have realized “Hey, we’re going to encounter serious difficulties when we reach [spoiler censored].”
There’s no reason for this–except, of course, it made for a more interesting climax. To which I say for the thousandth time: authors, stop making your characters dumb for the sake of an interesting climax. Find a better way to do it.
It happens again a very short time later: again, Kaz didn’t expect to meet resistance where, again, I (and surely anyone else with two brain cells to rub together) did expect him to. But this time, the resistance that he should’ve met wasn’t there. At all. Not even a hint of resistance. None.
The utter lack of resistance was grossly unrealistic, and seriously disappointing in a book that seemed to try very hard at realism in all other aspects.
My guess as to why they didn’t meet resistance where they should have: if they had, they very likely would’ve all been slaughtered, and that doesn’t make for a very emotionally satisfying conclusion. But surely there’s a better way to avoid their slaughter than by having them meet no resistance at all?
I’ll admit, Six of Crows wasn’t as emotionally powerful a motley-crew-attempts-daring-heist story as Mistborn was–but that won’t stop it from joining my permanent collection. Probably in hardback, too, because have you seen how gorgeous it is?
And you know, this looks like just the afternoon to raid the bookstore.