6 December, 2022

LitStack Review: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of CrowsSix of Crows
Leigh Bardugo
Henry Holt and Company
Release Date:  September 29, 2015
ISBN 978-1-62779-212-7

For many years, I have had a favorite rapscallion literary character of ill repute:  Jack Dawkins, better known as the Artful Dodger in Charles Dickens’ classic, Oliver Twist.  But now, the Dodger has some mighty strong competition:  Kaz Brekker, from Leigh Bardugo’s new novel, Six of Crows.

True, Kaz is not a common pickpocket.  There’s nothing common about Kaz at all, with his dark hair, brooding eyes, crow-handled walking stick and ever present black gloves.  No, Kaz is a sleight-of-hand trickster, a schemer, a shrewd businessman of sorts, and the head of the Dregs, a gang of ruffians, cutthroats and fighters that roam the dark alleyways of Ketterdam – and he’s not a young man to be trifled with (“criminal prodigy, ruthless, amoral”).  But he is surrounded by a carefully honed sense of mystery as well as an air of razor sharp confidence, and he always seems to be a step ahead of everyone else.

In Six of Crows, Kaz has been approached by a wealthy trader to undertake the heist of a lifetime:  abduct a prisoner from the highest security facility of a militaristic Northern power.  If Kaz can pull it off, he and his team will be rich beyond the dreams of avarice.  And yet Kaz has an ulterior motive for taking the offer:  to get back at the man who caused the death of his beloved brother, Jordie.

But while Kaz may be the lynchpin of the job, he won’t be going in alone.  He has a handpicked team of trusted Dregs subordinates ready to follow his every command:  a skilled Grisha who can manipulate physical properties in another’s body; an explosives expert running from his secret past; a sharpshooter with a gambling problem, and an acrobat who can move so quietly that she has been nicknamed the Wraith.  Rounding out the crew is a foreign convict sprung from Ketterdam’s underground prison fighting pits, unjustly convicted and thirsting for revenge.

Six of Crows is Leigh Bardugo’s fourth foray into the fantasy world of the Grisha – a system of elite magicals who can manipulate matter at its most fundamental levels (Corporalki deal with the corporeal – the human body; Etherealki manipulate water and weather; Materialki are fabricators and alchemists).  Her first three works, which comprise the Grisha Trilogy, deal specifically with the Soldiers of the Second Army of the Small Science originating in the country of Ravka.  Six of Crows comes from that same world, but a different locale (the island country of Kerch, off the coast from the mainland) with different players, a vastly different focus, and a very intimate feel.  The politics of the mainland are still in play and drive the motivations of many of the characters, but there is no need to be reticent about jumping into this book without any background – the story belongs almost exclusively to Kaz Brekker and his crew.

The writing in Six of Crows is strong; the action is brisk but not rushed, the details forthright and occasionally quite beautiful.  By keeping the cast small (and the reason for the cast small – the more involved in a scheme, the more chance there is that something will go wrong), author Bardugo is able to spend time with each character, starting with an expected first impression and then filling in backstory and insight from there.  In some books, jumping from one POV chapter to another can be jarring or frenetic, but Ms. Bardugo captures just the right tempo and tenor to make it feel like we are being enveloped in an ever more deeply knit story of many threads rather than needing to hold on to a plot by the edge of our teeth.  And by learning more about each of the characters, our appreciation of the sheer audacity of what they are undertaking – and why – grows along with the stakes and the tension.  It truly is a well written, well imagined, and well realized story.

Highly entertaining.  I’m glad that there is a second excursion for the denizens of Ketterdam:  Crooked Kingdom, the second book the “Six of Crows” series, is due out this September of this year.

~ Sharon Browning