Six of Crows | Six of Crows #1 | ISBN 9781627792127 | Henry Holt and Company, 2015 | 5 out of 5 Points
“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.”
By now everyone and their grandmother have read Leigh Bardugo’s „Six of Crows“ so I’ll try to make this sweet and short. I’ve been a fan of Bardugo’s books since “Shadow and Bone”, I just love her fresh take on the High Fantasy genre and her unusual world building based on European countries during the early 1900s (I think) instead of the Middle Ages. “Six of Crows” is a spin-off companion to the author’s “Grisha” trilogy and even though I love the Grisha, I love “Six of Crows” more. I adore it. I’ve read it twice now and I think I’m going to read it many times more.
This first instalment in the “Six of Crows” duology is a classical heist story which is something we haven’t seen a lot of in recent YA. What we also usually don’t see are High Fantasy worlds as detailed and believable as Ketterdam, the bustling city “Six of Crows” is set in. It’s not hard to trace Ketterdam and Kerch, the island it’s located on, back to their inspiration, the Netherlands. But here’s the extraordinary thing: Usually when I read books based on the Netherlands, Germany or another country whose language and culture I know fairly well, it’s ridiculous. Names are used wrongly, the language is off, the setting doesn’t feel right. Leigh Bardugo managed to dodge all these bullets. With ease. I can’t imagine the amount of research that must’ve gone into this setting.
Ketterdam is so vibrant and detailed I had no trouble picturing what it looks like at all. And that’s not because I know Amsterdam and Den Haag, because even though Ketterdam is inspired by the Netherlands, it’s different and creative enough to be a world in itself with it’s own quirks and depths and culture. I admire this about “Six of Crows”, as a reader and as a writer as well. As a reader this dark city just drew me in instantly and wouldn’t let me go. As a writer I’m extremely jealous of Bardugo’s world building skills. It’s one thing reading about a world inspired by a culture you don’t really know. I also loved the world building in the “Grisha” trilogy (based on Russia) but I couldn’t tell you if it was well done or ridiculous to Russian readers. With “Six of Crows” I can tell you it works. There are some things I raised my eyebrows at just so slightly (like when I found out all the rich people lived on Geldstraat. That’s literally the Dutch for Money Street) but overall it works fabulously.
HOW OLD DID YOU SAY YOU WERE?
I’m going to deal with the single thing that bothered me slightly about “Six of Crows” right now just to be done with it so we can all move on and listen to me raving for about six more paragraphs. Here goes nothing: I had a bit of a problem with the “heroes” being teenagers. Kaz is seventeen, Inej is only sixteen and the other four are also not much older. Why was this a problem for me, you might ask, why am I complaining about YA characters being teenagers? I like YA and I don’t mind younger protagonists at all even though I’m about ten years older than most of them and can’t relate to all their problems anymore. My problem with “Six of Crows” was that it didn’t feel like YA at all. It’s not a typical Young Adult novel by any means and these seventeen-year-old characters felt like they should be around 20 to me.
This isn’t really about the way these teens behave, talk and interact. They’re all very mature but that’s to be expected. These kids grew up among thieves, poverty and corruption. They all had to grow up fast for different reasons and all of them are believable. It’s mostly about what they have achieved in a very short amount of time. Kaz is one of the most feared people in Ketterdam at seventeen, sixteen-year-old Inej was forced into prostitution, freed by Kaz and is now his best spy. I kept wondering how they managed to go from scared kids to the most dangerous people in the city in such a short amount of time (just two years in Inej’s case). It felt off to me at times, especially Inej’s transformation but also Jesper’s. He can’t have been in Ketterdam for all too long. He’s seventeen and came to the city to study at the university. So he must have gone from farm boy who is good with a gun to Kaz Brekker’s feared sharp shooter in the matter of months. At seventeen. I just don’t know.
But that’s not all. As I’ve said this book really doesn’t read like YA. It deals with topics YA usually doesn’t deal with, it’s ruthless and brutal at times. I don’t really see why it was labelled YA in the first place other than the heroes being the right age. I think aging the characters up just a bit would have done the book good. I know teenagers can do extraordinary things and it’s important to highlight that in YA. But “Six of Crows” just doesn’t read like a YA book. Teenagers having to grow up fast and achieving extraordinary things at a very young age is one thing. Teenagers being the most feared people in a city full of feared people, killing, scheming and generally being badass every minute of the day is a bit too much. I feel like if the author had given these kids a few years more time to achieve all the awesome things they’ve already achieved, it would have been more believable.
TAKE ME TO KETTERDAM NOW
Okay, this is really long now but I felt I had to explain this thoroughly because it kept coming back to hit me in the face. I wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief completely even though this book is so absolutely breathtakingly AMAZING that I kept forgetting about it all the time until the character’s ages were mentioned again. Let me be clear: I’m nagging but the age thing might have ruined a different book for me. Not this one though. I had to mention it because I was bothered by it but in the end? I didn’t fucking care anymore. “Six of Crows” is easily one of the best Young Adult books out there right now and Leigh Bardugo is one of the best writers YA has to offer at the moment. Everything about “Six of Crows” is so fantastically well done that I’ll still be gushing about it to everyone who will listen in ten years time, despite something bothering me all throughout the book. That’s how good the rest of it was.
This book is about criminals. There are no heroes. The main characters are thieves, killers, conmen and soldiers. This could have gone horribly wrong because when writing a YA book about bad people you tread a very fine line. It went amazingly right though. Kaz is a ruthless killer, he doesn’t really have any redeeming qualities, he’s a bad mofo from start to finish. What makes you care about him is not some unrealistic good side hidden away and shining through when convenient, it’s the backstory. It’s the story of how he became this way and what made a child turn into a monster that grabs you right by the heartstrings and make you care about this wretched thieving killer. This is true for all the characters. They don’t do what they do because it’s fun, they do it because they have to, because something broke them. This is so incredibly well done too.
THIS IS HOW IT’S DONE
What really makes “Six of Crows” special is that there is no sugar coating at any times. YA has a tendency to gloss over the bad parts. Killers don’t actually kill, assassins don’t murder people unless they really have to, the anti-hero protagonists are secretly good people and violence never leaves more than a scratch. Leigh Bardugo doesn’t go down this route and I couldn’t thank her enough. These kids kill. They hurt people, they do real damage. Because they’re criminals and that’s what criminals do. Bardugo doesn’t sugar coat once. These people are broken. Inej is sold into prostitution at fourteen and it breaks her. For real. Not in the cutesy way a lot of other YA books (or books in general, it’s not just YA) portray heavy topics and traumas like this. Leigh Bardugo’s treatment of dark realities is so rare but also so important. If you’re going to write about bad things, don’t gloss them over. It might be hard to digest sometimes but it makes for an honest, incredible story.
It’s extremely entertaining to read about the Six of Crows’ exploits though, despite the heavy topics and violence. Leigh Bardugo writes heist fiction like she was born to do it. The heists are believable, Kaz’s plans are very well thought out and make so much sense that I think Leigh might actually get away with a heist or two herself if she wanted to since she clearly knows how to plan one. “Six of Crows” is an extremely clever book. There’s murder and gory violence too but the book doesn’t depend on shock or even on the well-written action scenes. It depends on Leigh Bardugo’s amazing writing style, her knack for creating well-rounded characters and the witty dialogue. “Six of Crows” is basically 500+ pages of non-stop tension, epic characters and subtle, heart wrenching romance. It’s brilliance.
Another thing I’d like to point out is the diversity. Ketterdam is multicultural and diverse in the way all YA Fantasy should be. Leigh Bardugo has created amazing cultural backgrounds for all of her characters and it all just feels amazingly real. Not only did she include characters of colour, there are also LGBTQ characters and then there’s Nina. I’m going to focus on her for a bit because I have never ever read about a character like her before. The thing is, Nina is pretty chubby. This is something that is made very clear throughout the book. Nina likes to eat too. Wow, you might think, what kind of stereotype is that? But it isn’t. Nina just happens to be a chubby girl who likes to eat and who is fat (I hate using that word to label someone else but I can’t really think of a better one) and badass and capable.
Fat characters usually have to lose weight before they are of any use. Or they’re designated to be bumbling idiots hindering everyone else with their fatness. I remember a children’s book I had when I was a kid about a group of teenage investigators who frequently told their fat friend not to come because he couldn’t run very fast, couldn’t climb fences and ruined all the jobs. THAT’S the kind of role fat teenagers usually play in children’s and YA fiction. Not Nina though. She’s chubby and gorgeous and clever and powerful. She slays. She is exactly the kind of character I want to see more of in YA. This of course also goes for the characters of colour and LGBTQ characters. And of course Kaz, who managed to become one of the most feared people in Ketterdam whilst depending on a cane to walk because his leg didn’t heal right after being broken. THIS is how you do it, YA writers. This is how you do it.
“Six of Crows” is easily the best YA book I have read in a long, long time. If not the best book I’ve read in a long time overall. There was one thing that bothered me but there also were a million awesome things that more than made up for it. Let’s look at it this way: If a book can make me fall in love with it completely despite something bothering me like this, it must be amazing, right? It is. Finding a book that’s truly perfect for you is rare and might never happen. So what if “Six of Crows” wasn’t perfect. It was pretty damn close.
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