Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling Six of Crows had everything from a compelling secondary Victorian world, likeable and unique characters, kickass fight scenes, and a heist that kept me turning pages regardless of the amount of grad school work waiting on my desk. Full disclosure, I’m a sucker for con stories—all the Ocean’s flicks, The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid. Thankfully, Six of Crows gave me inclusivity the genre had been missing for me. Plus magic. Crooked Kingdom continues the fun and thoughtfulness.
(Warning: Mild Spoilers for Six of Crows to follow)
For those who need a refresher, the hefty Six of Crows introduced the crew that Bardugo continues to focus on throughout book two: Kaz Brekker, the scruffy leader who has the brains and the brawling skills to turn himself into a legendary ruffian; Inej, the former acrobatic who now goes by the Wraith and is Kaz’s eyes and ears; Nina, a Grisha (Bardugo’s term for magic users) who loves sweets and has a complicated relationship with the man who tried to kill her; Matthias, a warrior trained to kill Grisha, who fell in love with Nina; Jesper, a sharp-shooter with a gambling addiction; and Wylan, a merchant’s son who ran away after his father tried to kill him. Together, they complete an impossible heist with plenty of flash, as they would call it.
I embarked on the sequel, Crooked Kingdom, with excitement and trepidation. The story centers on the characters we know, but twists their screws, opening them up for the reader. Bardugo swaps point of view in each chapter so we spend nearly equal time with all the characters’ thoughts and experiences, creating compelling backstories that weren’t as evident in the first installment of the series, particularly for Jesper and Wylan, the most two-dimensional characters from the first book.
At it’s heart, Crooked Kingdom is another con story with the location in the Victorian-esque city of Ketterdam rather than the first book’s major Norwegian-esque local. The similar heist structure makes the first half of the book a slow burn as Kaz schemes and cons to save the captured Inej and reclaim their rightful prize stolen from them at the end of the first book. Since most of the cons are successful at the beginning, the story feels too easy—yes, we know Kaz is a brilliant heist man and has the best crew in Ketterdam, et cetera. Bardugo uses these initial chapters to deepen character relationships, particularly between Nina/Matthias and Jesper/Wylan, but even so, Crooked Kingdom lacked that page-turning excitement I so enjoyed in Six of Crows.
At least, until the second half of the novel kicked into gear. I won’t spoil Kaz’s cons for you, but suffice to say Bardugo introduces failure, the type Kaz can’t keep ahead of. Kaz’s failure to imagine all possibilities also touches on his childhood, particularly the death of his brother, so the heists become knit into the fabric of Kaz’s personality, giving the outcome more weight than a simple cash prize.
Bardugo shines in conceiving of machinations for her characters that truly surprise and delight me as a reader. While that trick felt a little heavy-handed in the first book, Bardugo takes advantage of her pacing to fully unfold the city of Ketterdam in the second book. In young adult literature, world-building isn’t always the strongest element with a focus instead, and understandably so, on character and plot. Perhaps because Bardugo has been writing in this fantasy landscape for a while (her other trilogy also focuses on Grisha), the place felt like a character. Zeroing in on Ketterdam and containing the characters in the city allowed her to explore the political systems as well as groups like the Council of Tides, who only have shadowy mentions until the end of Crooked Kingdom, where they have one of the coolest reveals in the book. The plots and ploys explore all of the merchant class with some nice digs at capitalistic systems (I particularly liked the lengthy scenes where a beautiful cathedral is used as an auction block).
There’s much to enjoy in this duology romp, but Bardugo doesn’t only leave the reader with flash, as Kaz might say, but develops ideas of sexuality, abuse, touch, phobia, and disability throughout the plot. Two of my favorite moments deal with Kaz and Inej’s relationship but also their fears of intimacy, particularly physical intimacy. These characters are only seventeen or eighteen—this book could easily be shelved as “new adult”—but their scars do show. Young adult literature has a bad habit of putting characters through terrible situations but never following up on the trauma. The weight of the past haunts these characters and shows as they try to steal all that Ketterdam has to offer.
Baseline Assessment: 6/10
Bonuses: +1 for two how the hell did Bardugo come up with this!? moments, +1 for poking fun at capitalism
Penalties: -1 for playing the con card a few too many times
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 “A mostly enjoyable experience.” Read more about our scoring system here.
Posted by Phoebe Wagner
Bardugo, Leigh. Six of Crows Duology [Henry Holt and Company, 2017]