Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo
Seeing that Season Two of Shadow and Bone—the Netflix show based on Leigh Bardugo’s wonderful fantasy series—just dropped, I thought I would share my favorite novel from those books, and my favorite rogue since Charles Dicken’s Artful Dodger.
Kaz Brekker is a sleight-of-hand trickster, a schemer, a shrewd business person 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 a carefully honed sense of mystery and an air of razor-sharp confidence surrounds him, and he always seems to be a step ahead of everyone else.
In Six of Crows, a wealthy trader has approached Kaz 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 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 they have nicknamed her 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. 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 (the focus of the Netflix show, although it contains an element of Kaz and his team). 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 concern about jumping into this book with no 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.
And if you like Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo followed it up with the also well-done Crooked Kingdom. But there’s nothing like a first impression—and Six of Crows leaves a pretty darned wonderful one.