Spoiler alert: I bought Leigh Bardugo’s new book of short stories, The Language of Thorns. I found a signed copy on sale and it looked good, so I bought it even though I knew I wanted to read the Six of Crows duology first. I almost started reading Thorns immediately, but instead I channeled that interest into finally (finally) picking up Bardugo’s Six of Crows, which has been officially and unofficially on my TBRs since about March. And now I’ve read Six of Crows! What. A. Story.
About the book: Six resourceful teens set out together from Ketterdam to earn a fortune by stealing someone from the most secure prison in the world. One of them is a Grisha with a debt, another of them is a professional Grisha hunter. One is a sharpshooter with certain vices, and one is a high-born hostage with knowledge of maps and explosives. One is a deadly former slave who uses her acrobat training to act as the perfect spy, and the sixth, the leader and mastermind of this scheme, is an orphaned cripple with a long con of vengeance on his mind. They’re an unlikely group, and not entirely friendly, but they may be just the crew to pull off a break-in to the Ice Court prison. Even before they begin though, they know the bigger problem will be escaping again once they’ve succeeded in getting themselves locked inside.
“A gambler, a convict, a wayward son, a lost Grisha, a Suli girl who had become a killer, a boy from the Barrel who had become something worse.”
“The mood was jittery, and their laughter had the frantic serration that came with near disaster.”
It’s almost sad to call a book with a plot this strong and intricate a character-driven book, but Six of Crows is definitely that. The reader is hooked long before the heist begins because each of the characters is infinitely intriguing and could carry an entire novel on his/her own merit. But Six of Crows is a masterpiece of perspectives with each of the six main characters leading alternating chapters. The only scene that doesn’t fit this structure is the first scene, in the first chapter, which is told from Joost’s perspective. This is not the only chapter told from outside the POVs of the six main characters, and the relevance of its events does later become clear, but this first chapter is the only one that seems superfluous to me. Joost doesn’t seem as unique and captivating as the other characters and I didn’t care about him as much as I think the book wanted me to. Everyone else is pure perfection.
“Here’s the secret to popularity: risk death to save your compatriots from being blown to bits in an ambush. Great way to make friends.”
One of the best things about these characters (and the book as a whole) is their criminality. Several of the main characters are part of a Ketterdam gang, and all of them are morally suspect. The reader is allowed to view them as good people worth rooting for, but at the same time is exposed to the grit of their lives. They are thieves– some of money, some of secrets. They are soldiers. They are selfish. Although there is a bit of romance involved (very little, wonderfully subtle), these characters are not romanticized. They are willing to do bad things to survive, and that’s not passed off as an admirable lifestyle. They may may be thieves worth loving, but the narration does not condone or encourage thievery. These are not heroes. They’re not anti-heroes either, but there is no misplaced glamour coating the destruction they leave in their wake. It’s a delicate balance written exceedingly well.
“They were like anyone else– full of the potential to do great good, and also great harm.”
“There could be no judgment from a boy known as Dirtyhands.”
We’ve covered the greatness of the characters; let’s take a closer look at the plot. First of all, a heist is a perfect outline for an adventure book. I picked up this book without knowing anything more about it than I could glean from the blurb on the cover: “Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist.” It the word, “heist” that drew me in. But there’s so much more to the narration than that. Kaz (Dirtyhands, as referenced in the quote above) is the ringleader. The mastermind. The schemer. He’s great at performing tricks and scams because he knows people– he can see what drives them, and how far they’ll go. Most importantly, he knows which parts of the plan not to reveal, to avoid leaked secrets and betrayals. He tells each member of the team only what they need to know to carry out their own parts. This is a factor that works perfectly with the narration of the book overall because it allows the reader to follow each of the characters’ perspectives and still be surprised by the plan they’re all a part of. I did wonder how Kaz could have risked all five of the others’ lives by keeping the plans to himself that way when he could have been killed or separated from them, but otherwise Kaz’s methods and the timing of the book’s big reveals work seamlessly together. Many chapters end on little cliffhangers to keep the reader going, providing just enough information for the reader to keep guessing what will happen next. But even when you guess one part right, something you never expected is waiting in the wings. This is a book that’s fun to read the first time through all the surprises, but would be equally entertaining on subsequent reads, when you know which characters are secretly scheming and where their loyalties truly lie.
The true strength of the book, however, lies not in any one of these details alone, but in the way they’re all brought together with Bardugo’s writing. I’ve read and enjoyed the Grisha trilogy, but Bardugo’s writing in Six of Crows shines with a whole new light. She knows exactly how much to say, and how much to let the reader piece together for him-/herself. There are understated subplots and backstories, enmities and friendships within the group. The fact that these six people are working together, despite all of them hoping for different outcomes from the adventure, keeps the reader on his/her toes. Anyone could be capable of anything, and Bardugo uses every detail in every sentence to her advantage, leaving clues that are faultlessly woven into the fabric of the story. It’s a masterpiece. It’s YA for all ages, my very favorite kind. It’s completely fantastical, and yet utterly believable.
“Facts are for the unimaginative.”
Bardugo isn’t just telling a good story, though. She’s also using her book to talk about real-life problems like prejudice and misuse of power. Lots of books aim for big themes like these, but Bardugo does them well. The reader is guided gently to universal truths without being hit over the head with lessons that are easier heard than carried out. Six of Crows is inspiring. It makes me want to work harder at making the world a better place.
“We are all someone’s monster.”
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I started reading Six of Crows for the sake of wanting to read The Language of Thorns, which I still want to do, but I didn’t expect to find a new favorite book of the year (it definitely makes the list, at least). I absolutely loved it. I must read Crooked Kingdom, the sequel in this duology, ASAP. Bonus points for Six of Crows with its black page edges. Red pages don’t excite me (sorry, Crooked Kingdom), but I loved the black. It’s a beautiful book, inside and out.
“No mourners. No funerals.”
- Shadow and Bone is the first book in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy. If you’ve read the Six of Crows duology and want more from the Grishaverse, this is where to go. The first book is my favorite of the trilogy, and if you (like many others) have heard that the Grisha trilogy is not as good as the Six of Crows duology, I do recommend giving at least the first book a try. The Darkling is worth reading about.
- Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy is a fantastic next choice for fans of Six of Crows. It follows another set of characters that rank somewhere between heroes and anti-heroes, the dregs of the planet uniting to make a big change. Main character Darrow must infiltrate the elites of the social hierarchy, which involves a sort of schooling system that sets the top students against each other in deadly ways. He’ll find unexpected friends (that he may need to betray) and dangerous enemies (who may find out he’s no more than a Helldiver) at the Institute, but will he make it out alive?
Coming up next: I’m reading several books at once again, and I’ve been extremely busy with work, but I should be finishing and reviewing Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane within a day or two. It’s a fantasy story about a couple of children who see things that the adults don’t, set around a pond that the girl calls her ocean.
The Literary Elephant
Update: Want to check out my review for the next book in this series, Crooked Kingdom? You can do that now!