Review: Six of Crows & Crooked Kingdom
A few years ago I was introduced to author Leigh Bardugo with the novel "Shadow and Bone". This was an introductory novel to a fantasy world based on Russian/Eastern European culture, and was one of the more popular Young Adult novels I had heard. Admittedly, I was unimpressed by this novel, so much that I did not continue the trilogy and sort of left the author behind. This was a mistake on my part.
Lately, two novels have been circulating around the bookish community, particularly on YouTube: "Six of Crows" and "Crooked Kingdom". The set is a duology, a rarity in the literary universe, and thus piqued my interest. Furthermore, there seemed to be not a SINGLE bad review of this book. With a large amount of skepticism, I decided to get the audiobooks and listen to them whenever I got around to it. Again, this was a mistake.
I cannot stress ENOUGH how much I love these two books. They are easily in my Top 3 books of the year, and possibly also my Top 3 books I've ever read. This is the kind of YA I love to read, the kind where there is adventure, magic, danger, drive, found families, broken yet strong characters, and all kinds of diversity interacting with one another. Of the six main characters we follow, not one of them is similar to the other. All of them have seen their share of shit and have survived the harsh realities of the world. They are all driven by different motivations, different strengths and weaknesses, and their desires vary drastically. They've all lost family, but none of them in the same way. The world is complex and intricate, yet it is simple enough where the social and international politics are easy to follow.
This is not your typical, trope-ridden YA novel, either. There is no world to save, no kingdom, no "strong female lead" character who falls helplessly in love with the "strong male" character. This is about an extremely dangerous job in order to get rich, and then another extremely dangerous job in order to get revenge. Everyone pulls their weight, even the weakest characters, and they work cohesively as a team even when they can't trust each other. The relationships feel genuine, and there are no excuses made for unacceptable behavior. The world feels real, even the magic and its rules. Even if you're not a fan of YA or fantasy, this duology is something I'd highly recommend you read.
Now for the actual review, which will contain spoilers. Please, for your own sake, if you haven't read these and plan to, read no further. There are some honest to goodness moments you have to experience for yourself.
That being that, on with the review...
Starting with the characters in "Six of Crows", I have to say I found Kaz, Inej, and Nina to be the most compelling. Matthias needed a little more fleshing out, but seemed like a whole person by the end of the novel. I was not convinced of Jesper and Wylan. While they were definitely needed to pull of the job at the Ice Court, they seemed more like accessories than actual people (particularly Wylan as he never had POV sway). Kaz and Inej were my favorite in this novel, as their stories and characterizations were compelling and consistent throughout the story. Kaz in particular made sense by the end of the novel, as his revenge motivation seemed flimsy before we understood how he lost his brother to the Barrel.
In "Crooked Kingdom", I'm glad to say that Wylan and Jesper's characters really step it up. I think they're so friggin' cute together and besides that we really get to see where each of them shines. Wylan's insecurity is overshadowed by how brilliant he is in crafting the exact weapons they need and how in tune he is with emotions. He is really the "heart" of the group, though that role is shared by Inej a little. I'm glad to see that Wylan got a kind of revenge, and was given back what belonged to him. Jesper, for all his flaws, was fun to listen to and more complex than he first appears in "Six of Crows". The relationship he has with his father is touching but not without bumps, and the memories he has of his mother and magic feel genuine. Though Jesper fits in well with the slums and the gangsters of Ketterdam, Bardugo managed to make him feel just as at home in a farmhouse.
I loved Matthias by the end, and his self-aware transformation was one I wished could have been seen through. I wanted so badly for him to run off with Nina, to try and change a people and system that hated Grisha solely on the fact that they were different. He was someone who could and DID see both sides to the fight, and someone who could understand why he had been on the wrong end of the war for so long. I suppose the only thing that comforted me about his death was that Matthias was killed by himself, or rather the image of himself when he joined the military. The message is not an unreasonable one, but it is harsh and not the one I wanted for his character: you can't change something just because you will it, and you can't take on a system alone.
Lastly, Kaz and Inej were brilliant, as they were in the first novel. Kaz is the brains and yet shows physical strength. The "image" of Kaz is something that particularly intrigues me. At one point, he's essentially given the chance to heal his crippled leg and all his scars, and yet he keeps them. I'm sure that some of it has to do with his brother's death, for the trauma he endured as a child, but...There's something more to it. It's almost a challenge to others, or perhaps an insult, that he refuses to let go: I'll beat you to the ground, and you'll have lost to a cripple. It's the source of his anger and revenge, and I'm not sure he knows how to let that go, even at the end.
Inej is the reminder that they're all just young people. Her memories are full of family and childlike glee while her current reality is full of vengeance, death, and deception. She tries to reconcile these things with limited success, and her journey through the novels are akin to a spiritual one. She calls her would-be assassin her Shadow, as if this conflict was inevitable or it's justice seeking to get her. She tries to highlight the best qualities of Kaz, but refuses to accept him when he's that "image" I spoke of earlier. The reason their relationship feels genuine is because Inej sees Kaz as a human, not as a caricature. Yet, she is not his accessory, and that's important. She is ready to leave him behind if he doesn't meet her terms or if their goals do not align. No matter the gifts he gives her, she is unrelenting in her expectations of him. In turn, Kaz doesn't bend to her; he buys and gives Inej her indenture, a ship, and finds her parents because he wants to give her freedom to leave. He knows he's staying in Ketterdam, but he won't make her stay even though that's what he wants.
Sorry, I just really love their love story. As complicated and broken as they are, they love each other. And they are broken. Inej's time as a sex worker is not without consequence, and she is fully aware of that. Though it's not expanded upon in "Six of Crows", "Crooked Kingdom" gives that part of her history light in a way that blends with her memories of her family's travelling act. It's so painful for her that she lets her mind go blank, an escape from the violence that happens to her. Touch brings back those horrible memories. Kaz, as well, can't bear to touch, though for vastly different reasons. There's an understanding between them by the end, and I think they're both willing to face their demons by the end. So long as it's together :)
Plot and Style! Finally! I'm sorry, I just love the characters too much...
In "Six of Crows", I felt that the flashbacks to the characters' histories were a bit rocky, particularly at the beginning. The memories were well timed and appropriate, but their transitions in and out of the current timeline felt rough. I listened to the audiobook, so perhaps it was more clear in the print version. Still, it seemed as though these back stories had been written, then the Ice Court job, and then they were stitched together without too much attention to the seams. It did get better as the book progressed, and it was perfectly fine in "Crooked Kingdom". I didn't see any glaring plot holes that weren't plugged up by the time "Crooked Kingdom" came around.
The biggest gripe I have with the plot in "Crooked Kingdom" was one detail that seemed to be a red herring, but also totally unnecessary. When Nina and Matthias are with the leaders of the Second Army, Nina receives a poison pill to take her own life. It's a very pointed gesture, and I'm not sure what it's there. Everything else seems to have a purpose, even if we don't find it out until the end. The pill, though... was Bardugo trying to imply that Nina might have to kill herself? Throw us off until it was time to kill off Matthias? If so, it was unnecessary. Honestly, I don't think anyone saw his death coming, and there are a million other ways these characters could have died in the meantime. Inej had an assassin on her tail, the whole city was going after Kaz, Wylan was beat nearly to death by his own father, Nina was suffering from jurda parem withdrawls and couldn't use her powers for a time, and Jesper's love of a fight could have gotten him killed at any time! Why was the pill necessary??
I also don't quite see how Kaz could have orchestrated what he needed to do in the little time he had. I'm not mad at it, but looking back at the story I do question how he managed it all. Perhaps that was the point: Kaz is just that brilliant and clever, and we're not to look too closely at it.
Lastly, I wish we had gotten to see a little more of the Shu Han empire and people in the two novels. Just a little more...
Overall, I really don't have much to critique about the books. I really enjoyed them and I was pleasantly elated at what these novels ended up being. I'm hungry for more and hope great and terrible things for the future of this series! While I understand that this duology stands as finished, I sincerely hope that this isn't the last we've seen of Kaz and Inej at least. I'm happy to keep Jesper and Wylan happy in their comfortable life and leave them alone, and I know there are plans to include Nina's story elsewhere. Simply, I just want more ❤