Six of Crows: An exciting fantasy heist

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSix of Crows by Leigh Bardugo YA fantasy book reviewsSix of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Leigh Bardugo, best known for her GRISHA young adult magical fantasy trilogy, explores a different corner of the Grisha world in her new young adult novel, Six of Crows. In the city of Ketterdam, an analog for Amsterdam, criminal gangs control the waterfront, and the surrounding area is a den of iniquity where everything can be bought and sold, including people. One of the gangs, appropriately called the Dregs, is led by 17 year old Kaz Brekker, nicknamed “Dirtyhands” because of his willingness to stoop to any level to maintain and grow his power and control. His young crew has been gaining in power and influence during the few years he’s been in charge of it.

One day a wealthy merchant abducts Kaz and tells him an incredible story: a scientist, who is being held in an impenetrable fortress in the northern icebound country of Fjerda, has discovered a method of turning jurda, a harmless plant-based stimulant, into another compound called jurda parem. It’s like crack cocaine, but worse. Jurda parem enables Grisha, people who have the magical power to manipulate different types of matter, to do unheard of feats of magic ― controlling others’ minds, walking through walls, turning lead into gold, etc. Aside from the chaos these powers could cause if used unscrupulously, jurda parem is extremely addictive and its effect on the body is debilitating.

The merchants and councilmen of Ketterdam want Kaz to break this scientist out of the “Ice Court” fortress in Fjerda and bring him to them in Ketterdam, and they are willing to pay Kaz a huge fortune if he is successful. There is one seemingly insurmountable problem with this plan: the Ice Court has never been breached. It’s a suicide mission. But Kaz, unable to resist the challenge and the freedom which that amount of money would bring him, begins to assemble a motley team from the Dregs to take on this impossible task. The group of six includes Inej, an acrobat and spy known as the Wraith for her ability to hide from notice and climb impossible heights; Jesper, a sharpshooter with a weakness for gambling; Nina, a Grisha Heartrender; Matthias, a Fjerdan escaped convict who knows the Ice Court intimately and can’t decide if he loves Nina or wants to kill her; and Wylan, a runaway with a gift for creating explosive devices. Each of these characters has his or her own personal agenda, strengths and weaknesses. Not only that, but there are other groups of ruthless people equally intent on breaking the scientist out of the Ice Court for their own purposes, and willing to kill anyone who gets in their way. This heist can go wrong in so very many different ways!

Six of Crows can be enjoyed without having previously read the GRISHA trilogy, but it’s helpful to have some prior familiarity with the magical system in this world. Grisha can manipulate matter at the molecular level (their abilities are often called the “Small Science”). They are generally divided into three orders and seven types:

  • Corporalki: Heartrenders destroy living bodies (crush hearts, slow or stop pulses, etc.); Healers heal.
  • Etherealki: Squallers control air and wind and can raise storms; Inferni control fire; Tidemakers control water.
  • Materialki: Durasts magically manipulate solids, like cloth, glass and metal; Alkemi manipulate chemicals like poisons and explosive materials.

In Ravka (the equivalent of Russia, and the setting for the GRISHA trilogy) and in some other countries, Grisha are highly valued and sometimes enslaved for their talents. In the northern country of Fjerda, however, they are viewed as witches and are hunted down and murdered. Since Matthias is not only from Fjerda but was previously a soldier whose job was to pursue and apprehend Grisha, he’s understandably deeply conflicted about his feelings for Nina, whom he had captured prior to being imprisoned in Ketterdam. Their backstory, along with the personal histories of the other crew members, are gradually disclosed in Six of Crows as the group prepares for and embarks on their mission. It’s a diverse group, and the story is told from the points of view of almost all of the crew members, but their personalities are so distinctive and well-drawn that the frequent changes in point of view don’t ever become confusing or irritating. Although most of the characters are damaged and morally questionable characters, they are nevertheless sympathetic and even likeable.

Six of Crows is much darker than the GRISHA trilogy and is aimed at an older young adult audience. It begins with the dregs of society, people who live on the fringes and have a very tenuous moral code, if any at all, and it doesn’t get any lighter from there, with incessant betrayal, violence and death (although as a young adult novel, the details aren’t too graphic). But I also found it a more compelling read than that previous trilogy, and the world-building here is much more fleshed out. It’s an exciting story rather than a deeply profound one, but it has fascinating characters, solid world-building and a nail-biter of a plot, with several unexpected twists.

Six of Crows ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger, with one more forthcoming novel to complete the tale. I’ll be anxiously awaiting it.

Six of Crows — (2015- ) 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. Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction―if they don’t kill each other first.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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One comment

  1. Even though the “gang” sounds like a collection of very familiar types (and I guess they are the kind of people you’d need for a break in), the title and the idea of a heist had me sold before I started reading the review — then I got your great description of this world! Sounds like a good one, and I know just the person to pass it on to once I’ve read it.

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