Friday, February 26, 2021

"Crooked Kingdom," by Leigh Bardugo--Fiction Review

So for this review, Obscurists, we’re returning to Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse in her dark epic fantasy “Crooked Kingdom.” Characters from which will be featured in a new Netflix show “Shadow and Bone” coming out this April.  

Leigh Bardugo

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

What I love about this book:

Sometimes sequels don’t quite match up to the first story, like “Ghostbusters 2,” for example. In trying to recapture the original’s magic, they end up telling the first story again, but slightly different. That is emphatically not the case with “Crooked Kingdom,” which, in my opinion, addresses all of my minor issues with “Six of Crows” and tells a whole new story. Again—in my opinion—it is a far superior book to its predecessor.

I felt that the city of Ketterdam is a far better setting than the Ice Court and was thrilled that this is where all the action of this story takes place. Ketterdam has all the intrigue and political machinations on both sides of the law. It’s a dynamic place, a melting pot of a variety of peoples created by Bardugo. Whereas the Ice Court, in Fjerda, certainly had a lot of ice—that—and blonde-haired blue-eyed barbarians. As a blonde-haired, green-eyed barbarian, meself, I know these people already, I’d rather hang out in Ketterdam.

“Crooked Kingdom” turned me around on Wylan and Jesper’s relationship. In the first book, I felt it was tacked on, but in this, I thought it might have been the healthiest romantic subplot of the bunch. This further development of the characters was really done well, and Bardugo doesn’t try to re-review old territory with her characters. Since she didn’t have to introduce her characters, she had far more time to develop them further and deepen their individual arcs.    

What I don’t love about this book:

One character in this book I didn’t like and didn’t feel contributed much in the narrative, despite becoming the central McGuffin at the end of “Six of Crows,” and throughout this novel, was Kuwei Yul-Bo. Kuwei is vital to the plot because of what he might be able to do—not because of who he is as a person, which is mainly an ungrateful catty prick. I get it—he wants his freedom to go where he chooses and resents Kaz for using him as a chip in the big game of nation-states—see how I didn’t say thrones there? Oh, shit, I just did—damn it. 

But anyway, back on topic; why I don’t like Kuwei is because he annoyingly goes on about how he’s being treated by the dregs. He complains incessantly, without really acknowledging that without the dregs and Kaz, he’d be back at the Ice Court, in a cell, forced to create what amounts to a weapon of mass destruction for a bunch of people just one shade away from Nazi. 

This is a minor quibble, and it’s more my fault than anything, but we get introduced to characters from a previous story in this novel, from a different trilogy, and I get the sense that there is a lot of depth to them that I’m missing because I haven’t read those stories yet. This is the crux of why I don’t like reading things out of order. I want to understand each character’s story in precisely the manner and order it was intended. But again, this is what I get for having read the “Six of Crows” duology first before the “Shadow & Bone” trilogy, and I really only have myself to blame.  

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

The quick and dirty synopsis:

“Crooked Kingdom” starts off right where the last book left off, Kaz and crew have just pulled off an impossible heist, and their employer betrayed them, kidnapping Inej, who is Kaz’s love interest from the first book. The merchant gives Kaz and the dregs an ultimatum, give him Kuwei, which really means the secret of Jurda Parem, the most dangerous substance in the world, for Inej. 

Kaz, not one to take any slight lying down, immediately vows three things, to get Inej back, to get his money, and most of all—revenge. To get his revenge against the merchant and rescue Inej, Kaz even puts his other all-consuming revenge plot against a rival gangster, the man who got his brother killed, on the back burner. He even deals with that gangster to get the resources necessary to rescue Inej.

All of the team members that helped Kaz pull off the impossible heist at the ice court agree to help save Inej. They set up in a particularly morbid safe house, a tomb in the middle of a graveyard away from Ketterdam proper. It’s perfect because the citizens of the city don’t go there anymore after a recent plague. From there, Kaz and the crew plan their insurgency in their own city since the merchant lord who betrayed them has the full force of the law behind him. 

Meanwhile, Inej uses her time to plot her own escape and comes close. Ultimately though, how Kaz rescues Inej is trademark Kaz, and he hits his adversary where it hurts him most. Kaz kidnaps the merchant’s young wife, who is pregnant, and thus he effectively kidnaps two people most dear to the merchant to the one the merchant has on Kaz. Knowing the merchant won’t risk his unborn heir—since the merchant effectively disowned his firstborn son Wylan when he tried to kill him—Kaz sets up an exchange that goes nearly to plan. In any case, Inej is restored to the dregs.

While all of this is going on, three other sovereign powers have agents in Ketterdam, all trying to obtain Kuwei, who is still under the dregs protection, to get the Jurda Parem for their nations. So whilst scheming and fighting against a powerful merchant lord from their own town, the dregs have to contend with well-funded assassins and soldiers from foreign countries in their quest to get their money.

Utilizing all of their unique talents and every trick he’s got, Kaz eventually steers the dregs through the crises—gets their money, frustrates their adversaries, and gets Kuwei safely out of Ketterdam by faking his death. There is cost, though, and not all of his six crows make it through to the end.    


Clearly, Kaz is my favorite character since I center my synopsis around him. Still, I should immediately come clean and point out that there are really six protagonists in this book and the previous book in the series. Bardugo juggles them all ably, and I personally felt that there wasn’t a weak link in this novel’s core six characters. I picked a perspective for my synopsis, so it wouldn’t go on forever because there is so—so much packed into this book.

I found Kaz so compelling because, while I hesitate to say he’s a good man, I do believe he started as one and buried that side of himself deep under his tough shell. His aims, if not his methods, are for good—for at least his people. So he’s got a heroic quality to him in the sense that he does ultimately do what’s best for the world so that his people can live in that world.  

Bardugo has created an incredibly rich fantasy world, and I’ve talked about her skills as a world builder in a prior review. “Crooked Kingdom,” though, is a story tightly focused on individuals who have to live in this vibrant world she’s built, which I think is the greatest masterstroke of this novel. Great world builders can sometimes get stuck on the big picture, the big ideas, and cultures—and their character work suffers for it in the end. Bardugo has made that jump from being not just a talented world builder but has a masterful command of plot and character as well.  

Parting thoughts:

I am excited that these characters will be brought to life on the small screen, with the Netflix show “Shadow and Bone” airing on April 23, 2021. 

That being said, like with all long-form fiction being translated into a show, I am also a bit nervous. I’m glad the Grishaverse is being translated into a series rather than a movie because I’m always more skeptical of translating a long story of a novel into the relatively short format of a film. A series can do many of the same pacing strategies as a book does, which is why I feel it’s easier to translate a novel into a show.

I’m not totally down on movie translations of books; I just find them more likely to fall flat because they’re harder to do. When you take a book that takes thirteen hours to read and compress it into, say, two and a half hours, you’re bound to lose a lot of information. This means that a studio and a screenwriter—to create a faithful film adaption—have to grasp the most essential elements of a book’s story and boil them down to their crucial points to fit the format. It’s a bit like writing a good synopsis, which I’ve been told I’ve yet to do myself. 

Here is a bit of book heresy for you to conclude this post. For as much as I love the novels—I think that the “Lord of the Rings” works better as movies. I know. I’m that guy. It surprised even me.

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