Friday, July 24, 2020

"Six of Crows," by Leigh Bardugo--Fiction Review

Happy Friday, today I thought we’d talk fantasy with Leigh Bardugo’s “Six of Crows.” It’s a YA fantasy that has a 19th to early 20th century feel in its mixture of magical elements with more modern technologies beyond what would be typical for epic or high fantasy, i.e., they use guns instead of bows and swords—typically. 

Leigh Bardugo

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

The ensemble cast of characters is all diverse and interesting in their own ways. Bardugo does all of her groundwork on the characterizations of the six protagonists of the story. They have distinct ways of speaking, mannerisms, and everyone’s back story gets fleshed out with times and places.

Bardugo shines with more than just her character work and is also a skilled world builder, which is a core skill required for fantasy and science fiction. She captures the notion that whole nations and even smaller city-states aren’t homogenous but are always conglomerates of people—built by smaller and smaller fractals of tribal units. Her city, Ketterdam, is the best example of this concept—in this novel—it’s a place ruled by commerce, so from the nobles on down to the gangsters of the barrel, trade is the central concern of their lives.   

I appreciate that there are no characters that are built up as being awesome, but we never experience them in action, or even succeeding. It’s one of my absolute greatest dislikes in the vain of telling and not showing. I call it the Yara Greyjoy syndrome—Asha Greyjoy if you’re feeling bookish. Everyone in Bardugo’s story gets their moment in the sun, and their core competencies are displayed more than once.

Have I mentioned that I’m a bit of an audiobook fan? Well, in case I haven’t, the audiobook version of this title has a full cast, which is awesome. I always enjoy it when audiobooks have different voice actors narrating different perspective characters. 

What I don’t love about this book:

There is a romantic pairing off of all six of the main characters, and it can feel a bit forced. Especially the romantic tension between Jesper and Wylan, it’s not that I’m down on a non-heterosexual relationship it just feels like a bit of an afterthought, a check on a list of objectives.

One of my teeny problems, also about the ensemble cast of characters, is their ages and maturity levels all feel a little out of wack. They’re all young men and women in their late teens, and I get they’ve all had hard lives in this world and have had to grow up fast, but they all have an air of gravitas that suggests a depth of experience and world-weariness of decades.   

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The story begins from the perspective of a character who is not one of the protagonists—a recurring device in modern fantasy that I started noticing becoming more popular since “A Game of Thrones.” The first thing we witness in this novel is an experiment being done on a sorceress—called a Grisha in Bardugo’s universe. They are studying the effects of a new drug called Jurda Parem and how it affects her magic, and you quickly get the idea that as a servant, this Grisha woman doesn’t have much of a say in whether or not she’ll be participating. Jurda is explained as a sort of stimulant equivalent to something like coffee. Jurda Parem, however, is to Jurda what cocaine is to coffee, and to a Grisha, it greatly enhances their abilities to a dangerous level. The Grisha uses this newfound power to escape, and she orders her captors to “wait,” which they do, never doing anything else—forever.    

Afterward, we change focus to Inej, nicknamed the wraith for her prowess at stealth. She is tailing her boss Kaz Brekker as he parlays with a rival gang. Kaz assumes trouble always, so Inej is his insurance. The meeting turns out to be a trap, but Kaz anticipated it, so he laid his own trap, which allows him and his crew to come out on top. No one out double-crosses Kaz.

Later Kaz gets summoned to a wealthy merchant’s home, against his will, which to do so on Kaz’s streets is a feat of magical proportions, which is precisely what the merchant lord uses to get Kaz. The merchant informs Kaz that he wants him to rescue a scientist from a place called the Ice Court—one part peerless prison and two parts unconquerable fortress. Kaz concludes it’s a suicide mission. The merchant offers him millions upon millions, and Kaz decides it’s more of an unlikely to succeed mission and takes the job. The scientist Kaz is to rescue is the creator of a new kind of Jurda, called Jurda Parem, which will change the world, and make whichever nation who controls it a superpower.

Kaz collects his team one-by-one: Inej as his stealth expert, Jesper his sharpshooter, Nina a Grisha, Matthias as his inside man for information about the Ice Court plus muscle, and finally Wylan demolitions expert and insurance policy because he is also the merchant’s son.

Their journey to the Ice Court is fraught with peril because there is more than one interested party after the scientist. After all, he creates the substance that makes Grisha into superweapons. So before even leaving Ketterdam, they have to fend off an assassination attempt from a rival party. 

Things get even more complicated once they arrive at their destination because to infiltrate the Ice Court, Kaz plans to go in the usual way for people like them, as criminals, which means as prisoners. There is a party happening at the Ice Court when they arrive, so he’s confident that once he and his crew are taken to the dungeons that he will first be able to break out, and second, use all the confusion from the party as cover to rescue the scientist.

Everything goes, sort of to plan, but with some major moments of improvisation, because if things didn’t go this way, it’d be a pretty dull heist plot. One of the significant issues is the scientist is dead, and they end up rescuing his son, who was his assistant. Another problem, after shooting their way out in a tank, they end up facing a battalion at the docks. Nina, despite its dangerous side effects and extremely addictive qualities, has to use Jurda Parem to help them escape with their lives at terrible personal cost.

When the crew returns to Ketterdam, Kaz, assuming trouble as always sets up the meeting with the merchant expecting a double-cross. Kaz’s plan heavily relies on the idea that the merchant won’t do anything too rash while Wylan is within Kaz’s sphere of influence. 

For the first time in a long time, Kaz miscalculates, and the merchant reveals that he despises his son because the boy is illiterate, likely due to something like dyslexia, and isn’t fit to be a merchant. Kaz and the merchant stalemate, though, because Kaz reveals he didn’t bring the scientist’s son to the meeting. He brought the merchant’s son Wylan, disguised, of course. The merchant, however, kidnaps Inej and will hold her for ransom until Kaz delivers the boy. 

The story ends with Kaz and his crew vowing revenge.            


Like any story about a heist, about half of it is all pre-heist hijinks, which isn’t bad or good, it’s just standard for the form. The fact that the rich lord, who hires them at the beginning of the story, only to betray them at the end, revealing he never intended to pay them once they succeeded is about as shocking as the revelation that water is wet.

The real meat of this novel is the multifaceted world Bardugo creates and the equally nuanced people who inhabit that world. I especially liked Kaz’s story, bastard of the barrel—because yeah, if I had his childhood experiences, I too probably wouldn’t be an overly friendly person. Having all of your inheritance stolen in a Ponzi scheme, becoming destitute, barely surviving a plague, and having to use your dead brother’s body as a life raft, all before scraping your way up the underworld ladder—leaves a psychological mark.     

Parting thoughts:

A skilled world builder like Leigh Bardugo has a valuable and enviable skill for an author because it sets up a story-generating machine. It’s a practice that a lot of famous fantasy writers have engaged in, like George R.R. Martin or J.R.R. Tolkien—though both of them may have taken it to an unnecessary extreme. What I mean by this is when you imagine whole histories, continents, societies, and countries, it becomes easier to imagine conflict. 

Conflict is the lifeblood of how we tell stories. If you don’t have conflict in your story—yes, even your children’s book about anthropomorphized rabbits—then you don’t have a story. What you have is an account of someone’s ordinary day, which, if you’ve ever listened to anyone talk about how they planted petunias over the weekend and aren’t particularly interested in petunias or gardening in general, then you know you’re in for a dull conversation. However, if the story takes a turn, where the nasty next-door neighbor cattycorner to the story teller’s backyard wants to tear up the flower bed because Benjamin Bartholomew—the nasty neighbor—reviewed the property line and insists that corner of the yard is his corner. Now we have a story. 

This all might say something negative about us as a species that we require conflict in our stories for them to be engaging. Still, it’s been the basic building block of all stories for thousands of years all the way back to Gilgamesh, the Old Testament, or Beowulf. A lot of amateurs and first-time writers can come up with characters—interesting ones too—which is a hard skill in itself, but if they can’t manage conflict in their plot, then there isn’t anything for those interesting character’s to do or overcome.  

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