All of you should know by now that heist novels are my jam, and a fantasy heist novel? Bring me the fainting couch and smelling salts, for surely, I swoon! Suffice it to say that when I discovered this hidden gem, the highly underrated Six of Crows by unknown author Leigh Bardugo, I was anticipating a good time.
Kaz Brekker runs with the Dregs, a group of street criminals in the slums of Ketterdam. Kaz has a reputation as being tough but fair: if you cross him, he’s going to make you pay, but if you work with him, he will deliver. This has allowed him to rise from street urchin to the leader of a small gang, but it has also drawn the attention of the trading city’s rich and powerful. When one of these contacts Kaz and contracts him to extract a foreign scientist from the world’s most impenetrable fortress … Kaz says yes. For a hefty price.
The elements that you look for in a good heist story are all here. There’s the “assembling the team” part of the story, followed by the plan and walkthrough stage. There are inevitable betrayals—double-crosses, and double-crosses that actually turn out to be triple-crosses! And a fair number of mistakes too, don’t worry. The actual stakes are high enough to make the heist interesting and require Kaz to assemble a crew with a diverse set of skills.
It’s these characters who are the backbone of the story and who will determine how much you love Six of Crows. Kaz himself is not a particularly lovable fellow, or so we are told by others. He has a hardness to him, worn into him by his childhood being stripped away on the streets of Ketterdam. He is not a mischievous rogue or criminal with a heart of gold, and he seldom cracks jokes. I appreciate this choice on Bardugo’s part; it feels like a departure. Sometimes authors are a little too precious with their protagonists, especially when they are criminals. Bardugo is like, “Nope, he’s a bad guy. He’s not sick, evil, or twisted, but he is a bad guy.” I respect that.
The same goes for Inej and the rest. This isn’t a crew steeped in loyalty to the end. It’s a group of people loosely joined together based on self-interest. In Inej’s case, perhaps there is something more—but it’s a dangled hint of a something that Bardugo teases out over the course of the book. The people Kaz surrounds himself with are loyal more to the money and rewards of the job, not Kaz himself, and again, I like this choice.
The magic system is … fine. Having magic users be an oppressed class of people is not particularly original in fantasy. Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean to hold Bardugo to any kind of false standard of originality at all. But it would have been nice to see any kind of attempt to build on top of this trope rather than play it so straight. As it is, there is an implicit promise baked into this first book of a duology that we will learn more about the drug that amplifies Grisha powers in exchange for killing/addicting them to it. I hope that’s fulfilled. As it is, the presence of magic in this story is a layer that works well with the rest, but on its own didn’t hold a lot of interest for me.
What stopped me from loving Six of Crows was how elements of the plot and how the characters fit into it felt predictable at times. This is particularly true of the ending; I feel like even the most inattentive reader could have seen it coming from a mile away.
But you know what? Bardugo hooked me. I’ll admit it. I really want to read Crooked Kingdom now. I just hope my library has a copy; I don’t think this series has received nearly enough recognition as it deserves….