Crooked Kingdom: Leigh Bardugo

I had put off the Six of Crows sequel for a really, really long time because I knew my life would have no purpose once the journey of Kaz Brekker & Co. was over. Now it is over. My life is meaningless, as expected.
I’m kidding. ((Sort of.))
Let’s cover this topic meticulously. Crooked Kingdom is a work of art and deserves to be reviewed at the deepest level that I am capable of, though I’m not entirely sure I can actually do that in the time I have. If I wanted to write the in-depth review that is tapping at my fingertips, it would probably take me all of eternity, or at least a long week.

The cover: we see a crow. Its wings are splayed across the page, its throat is tilted back as it glowers upwards. A crow rising from a kingdom of dull gray-gold. Its tail-feathers are tinted with specks of blood. Now, this is symbolism punching you right in the gut. I mean, maybe the cover artist just thought it was a cool concept, but the whole story revolves around Kaz Brekker, the Crow King, rising from the gutter and taking over the country that has tried to crush him under its heel. He’s like a Pheonix reborn, but with much more chaos, blackness, and monstrosity.

You have to remember, when reading the Six of Crows series, that our protagonist, Brekker, is actually a cleverly spun antagonist. He’s mean. He’s cruel. He’s as cold as a glacier and could outwit a fox. But he’s the one we’re rooting for, and why? Because he’s such a badass.
I’m not saying that Brekker is a bad character; exactly the opposite, actually. Kaz is one of my favorite characters of all time. But he’s definitely a bad guy, and I think that in this book, he brushes the depths of his black soul. Kaz is constantly walking the line between evil and unforgivable, and in this adventure, we see him toeing that line. Part of the tension that feeds into the story is the question of whether he can be redeemed, or whether he’s gone way too far.

Here’s the thing about writing characters who are “evil”: in the end, they always have a heart of gold.  The thing that makes Kaz walk the atypical path is that unlike lots of these bad guys, his plot armor is flimsy, and consequently, we’re not always sure what will happen. He is backed into every possible corner of every possible situation, and anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. I personally believe that the thing that makes Kaz a good character is his maturation over the series; at first, he is driven by a single-handed and unquenchable thirst for revenge, and he will let nothing get in the way.  He’s like any other revenge-seeking thug. Over the course of the books, however, Kaz becomes the guy who is still driven by his single-handed and unquenchable thirst for revenge, but also by a deep fear of failing his team. Kaz grows fond of his crew. That’s what makes him different. He has always been the monster, but now he’s a monster with much to lose, regardless of what he claims.
That was the biggest thing I noticed in Book 2, and that was the thing that endeared it to me. The story isn’t totally about Kaz getting his revenge; it’s about a really daunting, possibly indomitable trial that a group of tight-knit friends has to overcome. No mourners, no funerals my ass; these guys will go to the depths of Hell to drag each other out, and they prove it over and over again through the events of Crooked Kingdom. 

Nina, the Heartrender-turned-something-else-entirely. Wylan, the dishonorable son. Jesper, another dishonorable son, and a gambler who can’t afford to lose anything more. Matthias, struggling to reconcile his love for the enemy, and the world he grow up in. Inej. A young woman who had everything torn from her in the worst way possible, but built herself back up with the help of the bastard of the barrel. The focus isn’t just on Kaz and the blood he’s tasted in the cold waters of Ketterdam; each character has their personal struggles, and each struggle is resolved in the most satisfying way. Nina must come to terms with the aftereffects of her fight against jurda parem. Wylan must face his past, his father, his failures, and come to terms with the person he believes himself to be and the person he really is. Jesper’s gambling habit catches up to him in the form of Colm Fahey, the honest farmer, come to fetch his wayward-but-adored eldest son; he must learn how to absolve his sins. Matthias, still deep in the throes of love, must acknowledge that his relationship with Nina is still affected by the remnants of his druskelle background. Inej learns to take power back from the people who wronged and underestimated her and reconciles her pious background with the creature of destruction, fear, and darkness that she has become.

We see hints of these battles in Six of Crows, but Ms. Bardugo lets each one simmer and cook until the events of Crooked Kingdom, giving the characters adequate time to learn from their experiences and mature into wiser people. Not good ones, but ones with more understanding of themselves, their potential, their goals and desires.

The whole world works against the crew– literally the whole world. The Shu, the Kaelish, the Ravkans, the Fjerdans, all of the Barrel and all of the merch. All of Ketterdam. The city that Kaz has poured his blood, sweat, and the occasional tear into, has turned against him. It’s the team’s worst nightmare, but Kaz is undeterred. This is just one more trial on his path to avenging Jordie, putting Rollins further in his self-made grave. The thing that changes, as I stated earlier, is the fact that he seems to realize that his crew is mortal and that everyone has stakes in this game. It affects him through the novel, especially concerning Inej:
“And then,” said Inej, “I’m going to walk a high wire from one silo to the next.”
Nina threw her hands in the air. “And all of it without a net, I suppose?”

“A Ghafa never performs with a net,” Inej said indignantly.
“Does a Ghafa frequently perform twenty stories above cobblestones after being held prisoner for a week?”
“There will be a net,” said Kaz… The silence in the tomb was sudden and complete. Inej couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
~
“Why the net, Kaz?”
Yes, why the net? Why something that would complicate the assault he’d planned on the silos and leave them twice as open to exposure. I couldn’t bear to watch you fall.

The monstrosity of Kaz Brekker has one Achilles’ heel: his love for the Wraith, his spider, the stubborn, quietly determined Inej Ghafa.  I’m not going to say anything more on that; you’ll have to read it yourself. Will they or won’t they? You’ll find out if you pick up Crooked Kingdom.

Speaking of romance: a lot of relationships, like the Kaz/Inej coupling, are tested in the waters of this novel. Inej, a victim of kidnapping in the beginning, is forced to reexamine her relationship with the meanest, sharpest skiv in Ketterdam and Kerch, maybe all of the Grisha universe:
Kaz had been clear about his arrangement with her from the beginning. Inej was an investment, an asset worthy of protection. She had wanted to believe that they’d become more to each other. Jan Van Eck had robbed her of that illusion.
She’s always been Kaz’s right-hand man. She’s closer to him than anyone else, but how much does that matter in the long-run? If she were broken and useless, would Kaz still need her? Or would he discard her as he would any old relic of the past?

Nina and Matthias need to deal with the question of their future together. Waylan and Jesper’s feelings come to culmination, though I will say that a love-triangle is hinted at, but quickly averted (thank GOD). Oh, I forgot to mention this in my earlier post about Six of Crows, but in regards to LGBTQ+ relationships: I think Wylan and Jasper are the best couple I’ve observed so far. Their relationship is understandable (meaning they actually build up a relationship rather than just falling into arbitrary love), neither of them is typecast as the “flamboyant gay” or the “suppressed gay,” and rather than being treated as a means to an end, they have their own stories. Their own struggles. Their own salvations. The thing I hated about Dorian and whatever-his-name-was in Girl at Midnight or most of the other queer couples that have been featured in YA fiction is that they don’t seem like they are their own individuals. They seem like they were written in solely for the purpose of falling in love with another a person of the same sex, which meant that their whole role in the story was “the gay guy/girl/person.” This goes both ways, though. I also hate when a heterosexual character is written in solely for the purpose of falling in love with this specific other person, but the problem is that gay couples are already underrepresented, and when they’re written so lazily, it makes their representation feel more like something the author was checking off a list rather than actually putting time and effort into.

Okay, well, I don’t want to argue about the dynamics of queer relationships because I’m a straight person, but… a relationship is a relationship, you know? All story romances should feel organic and have thought put into them, whether they be heterosexual or homosexual or whatever they are. I think that as a person who reads books and understands romantic relationships, my opinion should have some weight… but I don’t want to be labeled a “straight cisgendered” something or the other. 😦
It sucks to feel like you’re being censored, though I will admit that I’m censoring myself due to an unwillingness to be cast into the imperiously angry flames of well-meaning Twitter activists.

So. Wylan and Jesper. Their problem is that so many bad things are happening so fast, and in such consecutive order, that they don’t have time to talk about what’s going on between them. Ms. Bardugo was able to build a relationship between the two while also avoiding what Ms. Tahir did in A Torch Against the Night with Laia and Elias, a la why are they being so romantic while the world is falling apart around them, what is wrong with these two. And if you want to find out what happens… read the book, yo.

This is running SO LONG but I feel like there’s so much to talk about. The main storyline for example: Jan Van Eck is getting one over on those dirty sewer rats in the Barrel. Kaz, Inej, Wylan, Jesper, Nina and Matthias are going to pull the biggest con of their life (right after breaking Kuwei out of the Ice Prison, lol). The international community is swarming Kerch– the Shu to kidnap Grisha, the Kaelish, Fjordans, Ravkans, and everybody else to find the secret to jurda parem, which Kaz holds right in his gloved hands. It’s going to take a lot more than a lucky break to get them out this time, and the crew just might be bested by the world that they unwittingly took on.
Haha. JK. This is Kaz Brekker and he’s always got a plan, and even if that means half of or all of the city is going to be razed, he’s going to go through with it. Jan Van Eck will bleed whatever tar runs through his body for trying to double-cross the most dangerous character alive, for trying to harm this character’s friends, and for thinking that he could get one over on the sinful disgraces of Ketterdam. Pekka Rollins will get what’s coming to him for all the pigeons he’s fleeced, especially for what he did to two young boys from the quiet countryside. All of Kerch is going to bow down to a new Barrel boss, one more ruthless and cunning than anything it’s ever dealt with; one that was borne from the misery and terror that the old bosses raised, and reveled in a chaos he spread afterwards.

The plot is amazing. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, and there were several points where I thought, “this is it. There’s actually no way to get out of this one; he screwed himself over.” and what really delighted me was that there were parts of the book where I made a guess at what would happen (I consider myself to be a fairly good guesser. I think it comes with having read a lot of varied YA fiction.) and found that I had only gotten maybe 1/15th of the plan right. It’s not like Sherlock Holmes, where all the clues are hidden to you and you only figure out what’s going to happen because Sherlock comes up with some information that was never divulged to the reader; Ms. Bardugo lays everything out in the open, and leaves the reader to their rumination. But Kaz is always one step ahead of everybody, including his audience.

Six of Crows was one of my favorite books of all time and Crooked Kingdom wrapped up the series beautifully. I hope that this cast will be featured in future stories set in the Grisha-verse, but only time will tell. For now, though, I would highly highly highly recommend this book to anyone that likes a good story; anyone who likes reading. Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom are staples of YA literature, and you’d be doing a disservice to yourself not to give them a try. HAPPY READING!! ❤

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