Titles: Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Genre: YA fantasy
Ratings:★★★★½ and ★★★★¼
Synopsis of the first book:
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.
I loved this duology.
The series is mix of all things. On the one hand, it’s definitely YA when it comes to its tone and characters (to an extent). On the other hand, it’s fantasy in how the magic system is deftly woven into the world. But it is also a whole other animal: a heist movie. All these elements work together almost seamlessly, creating something unique. The books are filled with tightly-plotted cons, schemes, twists, and reveals. Bardugo knows how to use the genre well; the reader is constantly kept in the dark about what is going and often so are the main characters. I found this a little frustrating at times, but I do understand this is a convention of the genre and it works.
The plot of the first book is air-tight. The book-long heist is complex enough that it never gets boring. Each of the turns feels earned and it keeps you on the edge of your seat all the way through. The pacing is also really well done as Bardugo strikes up a perfect balance between action sequences and character moments. However, the second book lags in some sections, partly because it lacks the clear goal that allows the first book to be so focused. The cons are still great, but they feel a bit more disconnected.
One of the things that makes these books greats is that the plot never overtakes the characters. The series is told through the 3rd-person perspectives of the six main characters and they bring a lot to the story. Beyond their specialties which are awesome, the characters are all well-round and interesting in their own way. Their personalities and voices come alive thanks to their characterisation, but Bardugo takes time to develop their backstories which are gradually revealed. Even in the second book, there are still areas explored for each of these characters.
The cast is also refreshingly diverse when it comes to race, sexuality (including a same-gender romance), and body types, and Bardugo handles them well. Also I have to add that, unlike YA fantasy books, I loved that none of the main characters were princes or princess4e, instead most of them have humble backgrounds and become important due to their talents. Each one brings something unique to the story, be it their abilities (acrobatics! incredible aim! scheming!) or their cultural backgrounds. For example, Matthias’s militant faith often clashes with Kaz’s pragmatism or with Inej’s strong moral values in very organic ways. There are no extraneous characters to drag down the books. On top of this, they all get their own character arcs which is a miracle with all the things going on at the time (except this one character in the second book which –my other main problem with the sequel).
For YA, this series is very dark. The characters do terrible things from the very start. I mean one of them is the de-facto leader of a gang. They cheat, they kill, and they’re in it for the money (though for different purposes). So if you enjoy morally grey characters, these are the books for you.
As someone who didn’t enjoy Shadow and Bone that much because of the world building, I had no problems here. The main settings, the Ice Court and Ketterdam, are well-developed and cool in way that only fantasy can be. The cultures all have their own little quirks and details, from attitudes to religions, that are reflected in characterisation enough that it never feels like Bardugo prefers telling to showing. My favourite detail was probably how the proverbs Inej grew up popped up in her chapters. Also despite the fact that we see a lot of the world, there are clearly more stories to be told in this world and I’m really looking forward to them.
I have to say that some of these characters don’t feel like teenagers at times. Beyond their very dark backstories, there is something very mature about the way they act that had me going you can’t possibly be my age. Matthias and Kaz are probably the most clear examples. Yet there is a lot banter, flirting, and funny lines that make the books so fun to read. Plus, waffles.
I was so hesitant to read these books because I hadn’t finished (or liked) the Grisha trilogy, but I had no trouble understanding the world. It’s so different in tone and focus that I’m glad I gave them a shot. It even made want to give the Grisha trilogy another chance because I love Bardugo’s writing.
If you haven’t picked up this series, you definitely should.