Crooked Kingdomcrooked-kingdom
Leigh Bardugo
Henry Holt and Co.
Release Date:  September 27, 2016
ISBN 978-1-62779-213-4

Back in March, I wrote a review of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, where I admitted that it’s lead character, Kaz Brekker, had become my new favorite anti-hero. In Crooked Kingdom, the one-sided love affair continues.

Picking up where Six of Crows left off, Kaz and his crew of compatriot hoodlums are reeling from both accomplishing their goal and being blindsided by a fellow gang boss who also hails from the darkest, most debauchery-filled alleys of the city of Ketterdam. Now they must not only deal with the fallout of their plan being blown sideways, but also mete out a heavy handed reprisal in order to ensure their own survival in the dog-eat-dog world they live in.

The story line has to do with the drug jurda parem which, when given to a Grisha  (Grishas being elite magicals who can manipulate matter at its most fundamental levels) elevates their powers to an inhuman, almost godlike level, at a huge price to the partaker. Kaz has spirited away the only person who knows how to make jurda parem in order to keep him from falling into the hands of powerful federations, but the gangster’s motivations should not be viewed as solely altruistic. If the formula for jurda parem were to fall into the hand of any existing government, cartel or organization, the drug would allow for a cataclysmic shift in world economies and would make gangs like Kaz and his Dregs moot – or at the very least in thrall to higher masters, something that is untenable to the fiercely independent hustler and his crew. Plus, there is the matter of pay back to the two men – a rich merchant and a rival gang boss – who betrayed Kaz in Six of Crows, and for deep wounds inflicted on him many years earlier.

The story line is well conceived, and the twist and turns of the plot are entertaining. But what really makes this book sing are the characters that fill its pages.

Kaz is not only a master manipulator, but also a schemer and planner, who will build complex cons many steps in advance, covering divergent paths and multiple outcomes. He is nimble and flexible and maddeningly confident (well fitted for the book’s tagline of “when you can’t beat the odds, you change the game”), but he is also cold, distant, and oftentimes cruel even to his supposed friends, well deserving of the nickname “Dirtyhands”. Although he is a young man, he walks with a cane, not for effect but out of necessity. He also is never without his gloves, and he never, ever touches anyone with his bare hands, even when he is beating the crap out of them.

Kaz’s remoteness and aloof posture is offset by an almost – almost – noble sense of fairness, and by the company he keeps – a close knit, generous group of players, including a skilled Grisha who can manipulate physical properties in another’s body, at least before she, in desperation, ingested jurda parem; an explosives expert running from his secret past; a sharpshooter with a gambling problem; an acrobat who can move so quietly that she is known as the Wraith; and a foreign convict sprung from Ketterdam’s underground fighting pits who still struggles to find purchase in unfamiliar territory. They may not always like each other, but they always have each other’s backs, and they follow Kaz without question. They may not have altruistic motivations, either, but at least it seems that their blood flows warmer that of their boss.

Author Leigh Bardugo doesn’t stop there, though. She takes the engaging framework she has crafted, and adds to it by making her characters fuller, deeper, more real. Through rotating POV chapters, she introduces backstories, clashes past with present, gives her readers insights through inner thoughts, fears, hopes, dreams, slowly, without becoming cloying or pretentious. Unlike the tired, old trope of characters messing up because they don’t communicate with each other, Ms. Bardugo’s characters share – and withhold – in realistic, caring, intuitive ways.

And this allows for the finest of touches to be applied at the perfect time to the greatest of affect. Because we come to see characters not as vehicles to drive a plot, but people who are strong yet struggling, the slightest of movements, the faintest of touches, the most flippant of retorts can tantalize, can wound, can heal. The writing, at times, is absolutely sublime in its simplicity and its impact.

If you love well written fantasy, you need to read Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom. Don’t let it throw you that it’s marketed as “young adult” fantasy – it’s well worth experiencing no matter your age and I dare say, no matter your literary preferences. These books are, in a word, magnificent.

~ Sharon Browning

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