Review: SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo

Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
Page Count: 462
Release Date: September 29th, 2015
Series: SIX OF CROWS, Book 1
Rating: 5/5 Stars – LOVED IT

9781780622286_1Kaz Brekker may be 17 years old, but he’s also one of the most feared gang leaders in the port city of Ketterdam.  He took a small, underwhelming group called the Dregs and built it up, collecting uniquely skilled people to his side to guard his turf, spy and steal information and wealth,  and run  his gambling dens.  It’s this collection of people that makes him ideally suited to a task posed to him by the merchant council of Ketterdam: break into an impenetrable prison in the far north nation of Fjerda and help a man named Bo Yul-Bayur escape. Yul-Bayur, it seems, has invented a drug that exponentially enhances the powers of magic wielders (known as Grisha), though at the cost of terrible addiction. The council wants to take this drug off the market, and that means controlling Yul-Bayur. Unfortunately, the anti-magic Fjerda has captured and imprisoned him.  The council offers Kaz and his crew an astronomical amount of money to perform the rescue, money that will allow various members to free themselves from debt or accomplish life-long dreams – but only if they survive to see the payday.

I’ve had a problem on more than one occasion of running across YA books that are all bark and no bite, perhaps as a result of writers and publishers pulling punches to make the material more suitable for its age group.  I’m told on the jacket that the protagonist is the most feared assassin in the land, the most ruthless thief, a survivor.  When I get inside the pages, however, the protagonist doesn’t give anybody so much as a paper cut as they bluster their way through the story, declaring how violently they will eventually destroy their enemies.  You will not encounter that problem here. Kaz Brekker will literally do whatever it takes to accomplish his task, whether it is settling a turf war with a rival gang or breaking into an impenetrable prison. He will maim and he will kill and he will use his crew as pawns. If you like your protagonists to live in the grey zone, Kaz Brekker is your man.

Thankfully, Bardugo balances Kaz out with a wonderful ensemble cast.  Everyone in the crew has a past and a reason for agreeing to fall in with Kaz, and everyone gets a beat in the story to explore those histories.  It’s a bit of a found family, but not one without tension; some characters in the crew have had tumultuous past interactions and only agree to work with each other because of leverage being used against them by Kaz.  But it’s not all bleak and brooding.  You’ll find the gallows humor banter that goes with the territory of a group misfits taking on an impossible heist, and when things go sideways, everyone drops their misgivings and springs into action.

As for the narrative itself, it moves at a brisk pace that makes the book easy to devour.  On more than one occasion, I picked up SIX OF CROWS to read a chapter or two before moving on to some other task for the evening, only to find myself still on the couch 100 pages later. The characters, the world, the plot, it all just comes together in the perfect blend.  If you’re worried about this being a loose sequel to Bardugo’s GRISHA trilogy, you needn’t; aside from a few off handed references to events and people in nearby kingdom of Ravka (where the earlier books were set), this is an entirely self-contained tale.  I did not expect to enjoy this read as much as I did, and I immediately ordered the sequel in the duology to read next month.  To all of those who have been telling me to read this book: I get it now.

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