When I first came across Six of Crows I filed it under “potentially interesting” in my TBR. I then got a copy for my daughter (who’s obsessed with Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass), and it seems I matched her tastes well. I decided to give it a read too.
What to expect
A tale of six teenagers in the wonderfully crafted “Grisha-verse” by Bardugo. The story proceeds on classic thriller themes of an impossible mission (prison break more than heist). Point of view shifts mainly between those six, as events slowly build up to the grand finale.
What I liked
I loved the world the Bardugo built. The gritty city of Ketterdam has a nineteenth-century Amsterdam feel to it, a bustling centre of commerce and shady dealings. There’s a rich culture all around, with nations symbolising other powers loosely based on northern Europe and Asia at the time, with well balanced magic that is woven well into society. It’s wonderfully done, and provides a fresh setting for fantasy.
The character too, are well drawn. Each is a definite, fully-fleshed individual, with their own voice, needs, and desires. Bardugo starts the book moving, and weaves in back-stories just as needed. She does so masterfully, both tantalising the reader and increasing desire for more details, and revealing things from the past at the right time to cast powerful light on actions in the present.
What to be aware of
There were a few issues that bothered me. Two I think are a product of my age and experience, and one I think is more generic.
First, I find that the characters are exceedingly mature and experienced for their age. Yes, I realise that our modern teens lead a somewhat sheltered life, but I still feel that they have learnt and achieved more than can be warranted within the short years they had.
The other issue that bothers me are the action sequences. Perhaps it’s my own obsession after decades of martial arts, but I’d say that this goes beyond fighting to a few high-action scenes. There’s just a certain sense of disconnect between all the individual actions happening, to the point that it feels like people have either too many hands or move at an inhuman speed and levelheadedness. The flow of one movement to the next is missing or broken.
The most jarring problem, though, and the one I think is not with my tastes but with the writing style, is that in some cases Bardugo springs a “previously arranged” device at just the right time — and that feels like a deus ex machina. There’s a fine line between not revealing plans and having a secret ace up the sleeve, to having (in continuation of the analogy rather than alluding to the plot) a whole pack of cards made of nitroglycerin lining your sleeves that nobody seems to have noticed and miraculously didn’t explode till now. Writing your protagonists into an impossible situation is a thriller standard practice as is hiding the protagonist plans to maintain suspense. However, getting them out by a suddenly revealing item which no one noticed before despite it being physically impossible to hide in close quarters for long, amounts to divine intervention. This (or other implausible means) is just not my thing. I’d rather see ingenuity and suspense every time over a deus ex machina (See my notes on #8 in my post on Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing).
(Note that I haven’t provided specific examples here both to avoid spoilers and in fairness to Bardugo; Please comment here or contact me if you wish a further discussion).
Lastly, be aware that this is the first part of a duology. The heist is resolved, but the novel ends with on a cliffhanger, setting the scene for the next novel.
If you routinely read young-adult fantasy novels, this is certainly a good example of the genre. Bardugo’s world-building is first-class: original, witty, and engrossing. Characters are well drawn, and if you care more about stories driven by characters and are willing to forgive the occasional action or plot slip, this is as good a novel as any. While my review may seem scathing, note that a lot has to do with my personal tastes and preferences. I still enjoyed reading the novel and have no trouble recommending it to the right audience. If that is you, I’ll bet you’ll enjoy Six of Crows too.