Following her bestselling Grisha trilogy, Leigh Bardugo is back with another story in her elaborate universe. This time, she leaves the Tzarist Russia-inspired land of Ravka and travels to the Amsterdam-like city of Ketterdam, where we meet 17-year-old Kaz Brekker, a hardened and brilliant criminal prodigy. He’s offered an exorbitant reward to rescue a scientist who’s being forced to recreate a deadly formula targeted at Grisha, humans with magical abilities to manipulate matter. Kaz masterminds a plan to break the scientist out of the impenetrable prison where he’s being held, and enlists the help of five other outcasts to pull off the heist – Inej, Jesper, Nina, Matthias, and Wylan.
Like so many YA novels, Six of Crows is about a band of misfits, but here, they are ostracized, motivated by greed and revenge, and they survive by cheating, lying, and killing. It’s hard to believe they’re all teenagers. Kaz, in particular, sometimes reads more like the head of a Mafia family than a 17-year-old kid. But as Bardugo switches between the viewpoints of Kaz, Inej, Jesper, Nina, and Matthias, she crafts rich backstories that explore the characters’ cultural beliefs and diverse upbringings. While you’ll root for each of them, Bardugo has us most invested in the unspoken attachment between Kaz and his loyal spy Inej, and the conflicted love-hate feelings between Nina, a Grisha, and Matthias, a former Grisha-hunting soldier.
The characters are intriguing, but just as important to the story is Bardugo’s imposing, multiethnic setting. It’s part fantasy, part real-life inspirations, from the Victorian slums and gambling halls of Ketterdam to the Scandinavian design of the prison in Fjerda. Six of Crows is slow to start – especially for those unfamiliar with Bardugo’s “Grishaverse” – but once Kaz’s plan is set in motion, it’s one twist after another in a heist at times reminiscent of Inception. It starts to feel like all will end well, but this is the first installment of a series, after all, and the final cliffhanger will leave you hungry for the next novel. B+