SIX OF CROWS
Rating: 5 out of 5
The Short Version: After a weaponized form of magic enhancement is discovered, a young rogue puts together a team to pull off a daring heist – from the most impenetrable fortress on the planet. This, assuming they don’t kill each other first…
The Review: Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy passed me by, to some extent. I knew it was out there and was intrigued by the concept, but it’d gotten some rough marks from friends (specifically re:, as one friend put it, “some appropriation of Russian culture without a full understanding of said culture”) and so I steered clear. But when it was announced that she was writing essentially an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist caper set in the same world, my interest returned. When Christopher and I began to discuss reading some escapist fantasy for So Many Damn Books, we selected this book and its sequel – thinking it would be the sort of big, easy-reading fantasy adventure that we were looking for.
And in this case, we were wonderfully right. This book, although it could be leaner, is a delightful heist caper – a team of misfits, plans that go awry, near-death experiences, and a hero who is too smart for his own good. More than that, though, Bardugo pulls off the impressive feat of writing about several characters and making all of them seem as vivid as anyone else, without relying on their traits to differentiate them. So, yes, there’s the isolated brilliant grifter-hero, the snarky sassy sharpshooter with a gambling problem, the bashful young son running from his well-heeled upbringing, etc etc. But none of these characters are defined by those characteristics, which is impressive. It’s all too easy, in this mode of storytelling, to lean on plot and let sketches of characters move it forward. Instead, Bardugo takes real characters and gives them a plot that they can do with what they will.
I’ll admit that Bardugo’s world of “grisha” remained a little confusing to me throughout the novel; the beginning, especially, is one that would’ve been easier to swallow had I read the first trilogy and been able to rely on a working knowledge of this world from the start. She fills in much of the background in order to keep new readers, but it felt like she was writing for those who needed a refresher and not a full introduction. As such, I was often suspicious of the magic in this universe. I understood it after not too long, but that didn’t mean it made total sense to me. Magic and heists are not incompatible – Jim Butcher’s Ocean’s Eleven attempt, Skin Game, for example – but one definitely changes the other when they’re brought together (like chemistry) and the two compounds don’t totally mix in this book.
But ultimately, that didn’t matter. The cast of characters she brings together are full of instantly memorable anti-heroes and the plot, once the pieces are set in motion, is just about non-stop. As things start to go wrong and our heroes must improvise (or are they?), it’s nearly impossible to put the book down – and when she delivers several rug-pulling moments in the final pages, you’re left with a true cliffhanger; not one that serves only to set up a sequel but rather one that feels like a story cut off midway through.
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Short Version: Double-crossed and facing danger from many corners, Kaz Brekker and his team must come back together and find a way to save one of their own – before setting out on a course of revenge that will either bring down the whole city or that will vault them to the top of the heap.
The Review: It will come as no surprise, then, when I say that I finished Six of Crows and immediately (like, literally) picked up Crooked Kingdom. I was reminded of the days of The Hunger Games and, going much further back, of my childhood and picking up book after book in a series without so much as a pause for breath. But it’s harder to read a series in such a burst these days, partially because of the vagaries of time and work and life… but also because I think I’m a different reader. And Leigh Bardugo, lovely a writer as she might be, isn’t those writers of my childhood.
Part of my problem with Crooked Kingdom was that it sprawls. The first half of the novel, despite some lovely set pieces, has quite a bit of time-killing going on. We know that the Wraith has been kidnapped… but we also know she’s going to be rescued, or that she’ll get out, or that she’ll somehow still be involved in the rest of the novel. While her imprisonment is certainly harrowing, there is an oddly reduced set of stakes – and so, when the back half of the novel kicks in and the heroes really put their full plan into motion, I had a sense of “geez, why did it take so long?”
The plotting here is actually even more intricate than that of Six of Crows and this novel is, in some ways, more similar to something like The Departed than it is to Ocean’s Twelve. This is a home-turf game and perhaps the great discovery for me in reading this duology was the city of Ketterdam. It sits in my mind like the great cities of New Crobuzon and Ankh-Morpork and Ceres Station – because it feels like a city that is real, albeit in another universe. It’s little things, like the smell of the docks or an explosion on a bridge over a canal, little details that bring the city to life as a character as-if-not-more vivid than the flesh-and-bone ones.
Ultimately, I did enjoy this book and the final showdown(s) are even more thrilling than anything in Six of Crows. But they took a while to get to and the ‘world’ of these novels, I realized after immersing myself in them, didn’t have as much potency as I might’ve liked. When they did feel real and wondrous and easily lost-inside-of, they hit the heights of some of the best fantasy literature – but the seams revealed themselves a little too often to be truly classic. I’d like to drop back into this world sometime, and perhaps I’ll pick up the Grisha trilogy – but I still long for something like I used to read as a kid. Maybe I just have to accept that that time has come and gone.
Duology Rating: 4 out of 5.