Something about the original Grisha trilogy has really stuck with me. At the time that I finished Ruin and Rising, the third book in that series, my passion and protectiveness of the main character Alina inspired a ranty, off-topic diatribe of a review about shipping wherein I was basically mad that other readers didn’t appreciate the book and the ending of the trilogy because they were mad their ship didn’t become canon. It’s a silly thing to become incensed about, but clearly something in the book made me very defensive, and whatever that thing is drove me to recall that series more frequently in my various book-related thought wanderings than almost any other book or series I’ve read in the last few years.
I was kind of saving Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo’s follow-up to the Grisha trilogy, set in the same universe, for myself as a treat, but finally I got tired of waiting to read it. If it wasn’t already evident — which I believe it was — that Bardugo grew as an author over the course of the original trilogy, particularly in the development of her characters and finding that balance of character motivations driving plot and not the other way around, that potential was fully realized in both Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom. Following a street gang of six young adults in a fantasy analog city for Amsterdam, except much more late-stage capitalist, the two books are a pair of tightly-written heist novels that are gripping both for the narrative arcs and the compelling characters.
Kaz Brekker, the leader, is ruthless and intelligent, “born” on the streets of Ketterdam. His singular focus on his goals and the brutality of his backstory make him a dangerous adversary against all the other would-be powers in Ketterdam, from the merchant-leaders of the city to the gang bosses in the Barrel, the slum district.
Inej is an immigrant to Ketterdam, from a culture of travelers where she grew up studying acrobatics for their performances. Once in Ketterdam, she was kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery, until Kaz bought out her contract with her madam so that she could work for his gang the Crows as their spy, using her acrobatic talents to scale walls and slip about unseen.
Jesper is a highly talented sharpshooter with a very bad gambling problem. Also not native to Ketterdam, he means to send his earnings from his dealings with the Crows back to his farmer father, but he keeps needing to work to feed his habit.
Nina is a Grisha Heartrender, who misses her homeland of Ravka but nonetheless feels at home with the Crows, finding the camaraderie she hoped to experience in Ravka’s Second Army until the Civil War tore the country apart and disrupted the institutions of Grisha learning and service that had existed for centuries.
Wylan, the son of one of Ketterdam’s wealthiest merchants, has run away from home and has a damn good reason, but still needs to prove himself to Kaz and the other Crows before they accept him as a trustworthy ally, given his privileged upbringing and (at the start) unclear motivation for leaving that life behind.
Finally, there’s Matthias, a Fjerdan former soldier whose training had chiefly been to hunt Grisha, who are seen as abominations in his home country. His and Nina’s paths to Ketterdam were tangled from the start, but a misunderstanding had landed Matthias in prison and he has a long road up to forgiveness when it comes to Nina, especially considering the conditioning he’s receives his whole life to consider her an unnatural witch.
In Six of Crows, this crew of unlikely allies is asked to accomplish the impossible — break out a captive from within the Fjerdan prison in the core of the Ice Court, considered by literally everyone to be impenetrable. in Crooked Kingdom, they’re dealing with the fallout of the first book (no spoilers.) But both books come alive from wild plans with razor-thin margins of error, and throughout the characters themselves come alive through POV chapters that flesh out their backstories, motivations, and various complex traits that give them form and dimension and shape the group as a whole with a diverse set of abilities and perspectives.
I loved basically everything about these books, except for one thing that happened at the end of the second book (why?) But beyond the stories themselves, there is something about this Grisha universe that I can’t get enough of. The callbacks to the previous books were almost euphoric for me. I love the combination of somewhat typical YA tropes — whether it’s young people with abilities, either magical or just life skills, that somehow outclass all the adults around, or dramatic, tension-filled romances that seem impossible and yet inevitable — with the somewhat brutal, unforgiving environment that all of these young people have to adapt to in order to survive, and even that survival requires very tempered expectations.
At the end of these two books, I was so hopped up on everything I had just read that I bought the entire original trilogy and the two Six of Crows books on Kindle, where I had previously borrowed them all from the library. I felt desperate to read them all over again. Some of that is a mania that I can’t diagnose, but a lot of it is Leigh Bardugo’s seriously addictive writing.