What is it about the dregs of society that prompts such intrigue? Thieves, convicts, misfits. Shadowy mob kingpins in their nicely tailored suits; and scrappy street gangs engaging in midnight brawls. Of course, the realities of these figures are often far less glamorous than their fictional counterparts. After all, idealization is an unfortunate and unavoidable consequence of too many doses of the bad-boy-intrigue. But I suppose there is a reason why the good girl always falls for the troublemaker in those cheesy high school romantic movies. People can’t help but crave an answer to the enduring question: why be good when you can be bad? It’s a question that Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows asks and promptly ignores in favour of one the best fantasy heist books to come out in years.
Leigh Bardugo has already struck YA market gold with her bestselling Grisha trilogy about a girl-turned-saint figure in a fantastical land that borrows liberally from Russian culture. Six of Crows is the second serial entry in the Grisha world with Bardugo relocating to the Amsterdam-inspired Ketterdam, a prominent trading port in the country of Kerch and the unofficial center for debauchery. Gambling joints and brothels line the streets, and turf wars stir unrest amongst the myriad gangs. One night after a parley between Kaz “Dirtyhands” Brekker’s gang, the Dregs, and the Black Tips, Kaz is ambushed in an alleyway and taken hostage by one of the town’s wealthy merchants who offers him a chance at a near-impossible heist with a hefty cash incentive. Unable to resist the money, Kaz assembles a ragtag crew of misfits, each with their own talents and personal agendas: a spy better known as the Wraith, a sharpshooter with a gambling addiction, a former soldier carving out a life in the slums, a privileged runaway, a vengeful convict, and Kaz Brekker himself, a thieving mastermind.
Although Six of Crows is set in the same universe as Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, it exudes a markedly different tone. Whereas her previous novels carry more generic markers of high fantasy (epic battles, lost legends), Six of Crows is a fast-paced adventure driven by a most charming band of criminals. It is essentially Ocean’s Eleven twisted to fit a YA fantasy setting. Between the six central characters, the story unfolds through five main points-of-view. It is incredibly intricate with a huge scope, but luckily the novel benefits from a practised writer who allows the plot to unfurl quite eloquently. The perspective changes between chapters work to serve the pacing rather than detract from it. It is why Six of Crows excels where other hefty fantasies have failed. Bardugo doesn’t employ a multi-narrative for the sake of creating the illusion of a large scope, but rather to clearly and effectively unravel an extremely complicated story.
However, the novel’s merits are also, ironically, its downfalls. Bardugo is particularly adept at creating depth—in her characters, her settings, her fictional cultures. The success in her use of point-of-view changes stem from how fleshed out each of her characters are. Their individual backstories give way to shifting motives and passions. Each of their histories carry power in their decisions, so it is necessary to know their pasts to understand their present life of crime. However, the plot tends to suffer when it comes to revealing backstory because Bardugo chooses to relay it all at once instead of peppering flashbacks throughout the novel. In all, the heist takes up a little less than the latter half of the book, while a significant chunk of the first half remains stagnant as the characters endure a prolonged journey at sea to hash out their backstories via flashbacks. Does it detract too much from the book? Not at all. Although those who prefer plot to character will unfortunately have to slog through a few chapters.
Compelling premise aside, the characters are truly the novel’s pinnacle of allure. They are, for lack of a better adjective, so frustratingly cool. If they walked to a soundtrack, it would be the Arctic Monkeys snapping their fingers in a snazzy rhythm. The pages ooze witty banter. Bardugo’s six little miscreants are endlessly charismatic, plucky, dirty, and intelligent. They act like they can take a bite out of the world. When Kaz poses the question, “What’s the easiest way to steal a man’s wallet?” his peers propose poison, a knife, and a gun. But really, the easiest way to steal a man’s wallet, as per Kaz’s boundless wisdom, is to simply tell him you’re going to steal his watch. And it is this exact brand of calculated corruption that compels readers to invest wholeheartedly, and perhaps with just a hint of moral guilt, in a world of wicked bargains.
Together, Bardugo’s cast of miscreants function like a wayward family of sorts. They may be criminals, but they are also imbued with personal passions that reveal the goodness of their characters. Tender moments show they are neither wholly bad nor wholly good, but a delicate balance of both, which is perhaps the most compelling aspect of the novel. Six of Crows is Bardugo at her finest.