Six of Crows has been languishing on my TBR for quite a long time, and it probably would have remained there to gather more virtual dust if it had not been for the appearance of the Netflix show Shadow and Bone, inspired by another work from this author: once I learned that the most intriguing sections of the show – those dedicated to the street thugs band of the Crows – were drawn from this book, I finally found the drive to pick it up, and now I’m berating myself for having waited that long.
Watching the first season of the show also gave me the necessary background to find myself immediately at home in the story, set in a world vaguely reminiscent of tsarist Russia from the 19th Century, where people gifted with the ability to manipulate elements, the Grisha, are both revered and feared – and in some cases hunted and killed, or exploited for their gifts. Kaz Brekker is the leader of a band of young gangsters and he’s offered the opportunity for the heist that will make their fortune: he must go deep into the territory of the Fjerdans, whose hatred of Grisha compels them to hunt, prosecute and kill the gifted without mercy, to retrieve a scientist who created a drug capable of enhancing Grisha powers in a way that’s destructive both for the world and for those using such a compound.
The crew Kaz gathers consists of Inej, spy and infiltrator of such incredible skill that she’s been nicknamed “the Wraith”, and who could give any ninja a run for their money; Jesper, the sharpshooter whose expertise with guns unfortunately does not extend to gambling; Nina, a Grisha Heartrender, who can play the human body like a musical instrument; Matthias, once a Fjerdan Grisha-hunter and now unsure of his loyalties; and Wylan, explosive expert and a runaway from his privileged home. Kaz himself is a hard, ruthless taskmaster whose lack of people skills hides a very traumatic past.
The six of them are all very young, and that’s why the novel might be labeled as YA – probably one of the reasons I was somewhat wary about reading it – but to my relief, and enjoyment, I discovered that their youth does not make them prone to the overused clichés of the genre, because the harsh lessons life imparted to each one of them forced these people to grow way beyond their years and to acquire the kind of stark maturity that turned them into intriguing and very relatable characters. Even the brief forays into romantic entanglement did not prove distracting or, worse, annoying, because they were filtered through the characters’ personal experiences and therefore felt quite organic in their development and very true in their expression: even though I usually don’t enjoy romance in my stories, both threads proved to be quite appealing and even emotionally touching.
The story itself is a breath-taking rollercoaster, littered with surprising twists, dramatic setbacks and adrenaline-laden situations that made putting down the book a massive effort every time I was forced to do so, but it also offers many flashbacks on the past history of each character that helped to flesh them out and make me understand what makes them tick: the transitions between present and past are quite smooth and I never felt for one moment jarred out of the main story – on the contrary, the more I learned about each one of the Crows, the more I wanted to know, even though that meant abandoning for a moment the excitement of the heist. And the six protagonists are indeed the soul of this novel: their personalities and the way they bond – not without difficulties – into a formidable team, turn this story into something quite special, something that goes well beyond the mere enjoyment of a daring adventure.
A gambler, a convict, a wayward son, a lost Grisha, a Suli girl who had become a killer, a boy from the Barrel who had become something worse.
I love this quote because it describes perfectly the essence of each of them, long before we get to know them more intimately in the course of the book. Kaz at first comes across as heartless and manipulative, but as his past is slowly revealed, with its terrible baggage of tragedy and loss, it’s easy to change one’s mind about him and to see the victim behind the protective screen of the criminal mastermind. Jesper was my favorite on screen, and I was delighted to see that the mini-series kept faith with the book version of the gambling gunman with a penchant for witticism. Matthias is an intriguing character because we see him dwelling on the cusp between his past convictions (or should I say ‘indoctrination’?) and the discoveries he’s making in the course of the adventure: there is great potential for him and I’m curious to see how he will evolve in the next book.
Inej and Nina might outwardly look like polar opposites: where Inej is still battling with the demons of a dreadful past of slavery and exploitation, Nina looks sunnier and more carefree, given as she is to reckless, humorous flirting and bald-faced optimism. Still the two of them form a strong bond of friendship, a mutual acknowledgement of sisterhood which goes beyond different extractions and experiences and that is a pure joy to behold. Their interactions represent another huge difference from the usual YA protocols, where they would be expected to be rivals, to bicker and constantly undermine each other, and even to fight for the attentions of the same man. Thankfully, Inej and Nina recognize each other’s strengths and come to appreciate and support each other, offering one of the many rays of light and playfulness that run through this dark story, counterbalancing the tension and the darkness of the adventure.
Story-wise, what at first looks like a classic heist punctuated by nasty surprises and setbacks, soon turns out to be something deeper, dealing with drug trafficking and shady politics, with the double standard of a moral high ground offset by ruthless exploitation, with thirst for power and the lengths people will go to grab it and keep it. There are also areas touching on the subject of trauma – both physical and psychological – the way if affects people and the means they employ to overcome it, or merely hide it from the world. There are various levels of approach to this novel, and I appreciated them all individually and in the way they combine to create a gripping story that stayed with me long after I went past the end – and on this subject I have to add that the only positive side of my long wait before reading Six of Crows comes from the fact that it ends in a cliffhanger for which I will not have to suffer until the next books comes out, because it’s already available.
And I need to know what comes next…