Six of Crows
by Leigh Bardugo
Rating: 5+ Stars
‘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.’
This was another one that was all over the blogs, a lot of people whose views I respect were saying good things and – despite previously being put off Bardugo thanks to some iffy reviews of the Grisha trilogy – I nabbed a library copy and gave it a shot. I absolutely adored it. Then, riding the wave of appreciation for Bardugo’s writing, I made the mistake of reading the first book in the Grisha trilogy. Considering how much I loved this book I was sure to love her previous work yes?
Actually, no. I was hugely disappointed. If I hadn’t known in advance I would never have believed they were by the same writer. You can find my review in full here, but needless to say it was the complete antithesis of Six of Crows. Low on plot, negligible character development and in no way gripping. I kept reading in a state of astonishment – hoping desperately that it would get better. It didn’t and I began to wonder if my love of Six of Crows was actually some fever dream induced by the amount of paracetamols I was on for Glandular Fever by the end of 2015. Hoping I was wrong, that it really was a brilliant book, I did a very speedy reread in the middle of March.
It’s ok guys, I was right the first time! It’s a brilliant book. I seem to be on a run of good heist books based in a fantasy setting at the moment, but this is definitely at the top of that pile. I still honestly can’t believe that this was written by the same person as The Gathering Dark/Shadow and Bone. It’s on a completely different level and an excellent example for why you shouldn’t write off an author based on one book. If I’d read the first Grisha book before Six of Crows I would have missed out on an absolute masterpiece.
I loved this book right from it’s opening line. Bardugo’s sense of fun, the humour in her language, is evident from the outset ‘Joot had two problems: the moon and his moustache…’ Of course events take a dark turn, but that opening chapter sets us up perfectly for the rest of the novel. Humour and action threaded through with a lot of important undercurrents: the enslavement of the Grisha, the merchants monopoly on trade in Ketterdam and – of course – Bardugo’s talent for dramatic plot twists.
First of all, the world building. I have to admit I don’t actually find the concept of the Grisha all that interesting. There’s a lot of similar work out there – the mistborn, mutants, multiple secret races of magic users = the whole ball of wax. So I much preferred this book’s take on the Grisha where they are predominantly viewed from the outside by ‘normal people’ or in the case of some – Grishas who are outside of their homeland. The world building that really interested me was the portrayal of different cultures and the intricacies of Ketterdam and The Barrel itself.
Some writers manage to create cities that feel real, almost as if you’re walking the streets, and Bardugo does that here. The Barrel and it’s infestation of gangs are so wonderfully realised that, even if we spent a large amount of the book travelling outside of it, it stayed very strong in my memory. Hopefully we’ll get to see more of it in the next instalment…
‘No mourners. No funerals’
The gang culture is brilliantly detailed. Small, sprawling empires of trade, black market goods, gambling, prostitution juxtaposed against the legal but equally murky dealings of the merchant class. The Dregs in particular are an interesting crew and I hope that we see more of them in the next book. I loved the details of all the cons and schemes they’d run previously and I hope we get to see some different types of con in The Crooked Kingdom.
Now for the characters. No matter how beautifully built the world is it won’t work without the people to populate it and get us invested in the story. The banter between this group really brings the scenes to life. They’re an unlikely bunch but hugely compelling – you’ll be rooting for them by the end!
Kaz -a twisty criminal with motives of his own, he’s deliberately constructed his own character – Dirtyhands – to give himself some distance between what he does and who he is. His issues with touch, his broken leg, his cane, his suits. A character so brilliantly and deliberately built he’s changed almost everything about himself. Well almost everything.
Inej – The Wraith. similarly to Kaz she has created her own identity, a shield to hide behind whilst she recovers. Possibly my favourite character. She’s a survivor. An aerialist who was kidnapped from her family’s caravan and trafficked into prostitution she is now at a turning point in her story. She has recovered some sense of self during her time with the Dregs. But now she is considering moving on, going home, getting peace or becoming proactive in stopping the slave trade that ruined her life. She has an incredibly strong character voice, blending Suli mysticism with Barrel-learnt wisdom.
Jesper – A gambler with a lose tongue and a few secrets of his own. Desperate for adrenaline and even more desperate for validation from his friends. He is the most precariously balanced of the characters. Full of good humour but also a sceptic.
Wylan – ‘a flautist who fell in with bad company’ a runaway with more secrets than Kaz has lock-picks. I don’t want to say too much about him as we learn a great deal as the novel progresses. He really grows as a character and I hope he gets more of a starring role in the next book!
Nina – incredibly sassy, a very interesting character who has both the sense of duty of a soldier and the compassion of someone more like a doctor. I loved her friendship with Inej, it wasn’t competitive in any way and Nina is incredibly supportive of Inej’s decisions.
Matthias – emotionally crippled by the destructive nature of his former calling as a druskelle or witchhunter. He’s actually a really interesting character, both incredibly naive and a very old soul. Acutely aware of the fear that is generated by the otherness of the Grisha but drawn to Nina all the same after she saves his life. He’s also a brilliant ‘straight man’ to the hilarious set pieces and back and forths of the rest of the gang.
I loved the idea that all the characters are struggling in different ways: Jesper has his gambling addiction, Nina has grown up as a child soldier in the aftermath of civil war, Matthias’ past as a Druskelle has damaged his perspective on life, Weylan is a runaway with plenty of secrets, Inej is a survivor of human trafficking and abuse… Then there’s Kaz, I absolutely loved Kaz. He’s incredibly broken, both physically and mentally, but he’s not backed down, he’s turned the brokenness to his advantage. As much as it’s a heist novel it’s also a story about this group of people coming together and growing.
This book may be a funny, action packed romp about her world, but Bardugo deals with a lot of hard-hitting themes. To name but a few Bardugo tackles human trafficking, slavery, prostitution, corruption in business, the dangers of exoticism, importance of information, justice, otherness, monsters… A lot of authors touch on the larger concerns of their invented worlds, but here they are seamlessly integrated into the plot through Bardugo’s interest in the power of stories in the creation of monsters/adversaries. Whether that was the Grisha or the Druskelle. Or Dirtyhands and the Wraith.
All this aside, I think my favourite thing about the book and, indeed, what was missing from The Final Empire. Is that right from the beginning things keep going wrong. Some Kaz has already foreseen and adjusted for, some he manages to drag the gang through on a wing and a prayer. It’s this constantly twisting plot that’s so much fun to read.