September Book Review: Crooked Kingdom

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Crooked Kingdom (Six of Crows #2)

By: Leigh Bardugo

Release Date: September 27 2016

 

*Beware: Spoilers Ahead!*

 

Official Synopsis:

Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives.  Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope.  As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s fragile loyalties.  A war will be waged on the city’s dark and twisting streets—a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world.


My Synopsis:

Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off an impossibly dangerous job, managing to escape with their prize and their lives.  They should be celebrating at the Slat and spending their considerable reward.  Instead, they find themselves without their money, without their Wraith, and with targets on their back.  Running low on luck and friends, things only get worse as the promise of jurda parem, the dangerous drug that gives Grisha extraordinary abilities, brings powerful players from around the world to Ketterdam.  As the rest of the city turns against them, Kaz faces his toughest challenge yet: surviving the upcoming battle and keeping his team together.  Because if he fails, it’s not only their futures that are in danger.  It’s the future of the entire Grisha world.


My Thoughts:

Six of Crows was one of the best books I read last year, and it’s easily in the top dozen of my favorite books ever.  There were a fabulous group of characters with a variety of talents, motivations, and morals.  There was fantastical world building with inherent danger, magic, and unique cultures.  And there was an absolutely genius plot with some of the best planning and heisting (I’m making that a word) that I’ve ever read or seen.  Seriously, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Kaz Brekker’s ability to scheme and plot puts Danny Ocean to shame.  Supervillains could take lessons from Kaz, and maybe they’d actually win for once.  There’s a level of planning in the book that blew me away, and even when I was thinking, “Oh, crap, it’s all gone wrong,” Kaz was just like, “Nah, I saw that coming.  It’s part of the plan.

Except that sometimes even Kaz Brekker is human enough to make a mistake, and that’s when things really do go all wrong, leaving us with a vicious cliffhanger and a year-long book hangover.

Luckily, Crooked Kingdom picks up shortly after the ending of Six of Crows, and we’re pulled right back into the action.  The slower moments are few and far between in this book, but the ones that there are provide huge insights into facets of the characters that weren’t fully explored in the first book.  It’s the action scenes, however, that keep this book moving, and boy, are there plenty of them.

Unlike Six of Crows, this book takes place in Kerch, with the vast majority played out in and around Ketterdam.  It’s great to get to see more of the Crows’ city, and there’s an absolutely beautiful map at the beginning of the book to help you keep track of where things are going down.  I’m a sucker for maps in books, and this one is quite intricate.  I’m pretty sure I would’ve been turned around and upside-down trying to follow Kaz’s plan if not for the map.  After having spent most of the last book at the Ice Court, I think coming back and having to face these new threats at home adds a more personal touch of menace to the story.  This is the city the Crows love, where they fight to survive, and having to suss out friend from enemy in people they’ve come to trust is certainly more painful than fighting through enemy territory where you can safely assume everyone’s out to get you.

Being in Ketterdam also provides more opportunities for plans.  Although Kaz is perfectly capable of improvising on the fly, when he’s in his element, the plans can be even more complex.  The Crows have more resources at their disposal—at least initially—and it’s great to see what they can cook up when they have more to play with.  Case in point, the Wyvil, which is awesome in both nature and name.  There’s also better disguises, as Kaz, which Inej points out, basically uses the entire city as his personal costume shop.  And there are more personal jobs, since the Crows can use their knowledge of the city and its inhabitants to get all different things they need.

But as things play out and greed overcomes past alliances, Ketterdam quickly becomes a prison.  Wylan profoundly points out the irony of escaping from the formidable Ice Court only to be trapped in their own hometown, and it’s really true.  It’s sad in a way, like  watching a team lose on their home field.  Although there are plenty of other things for the Crows to worry about, it’s obvious that they’re all affected by what is essentially the betrayal of their city.  Even Matthias, whose only time in Ketterdam previously had been spent in a nightmare of a prison, can feel the toll that the loss has on the Crows’ morale.  They manage to push through, though, as they always do, but these are the types of people who don’t forget—or even really forgive—a knife in the back.

While the unfaithfulness of Ketterdam had me feeling bad for the Crows, far worse things happened to each and every one of them.  Although I loved how the dangers and disasters really pushed the characters to grow, I found myself saying, “Poor [Insert character’s name here]” quite a lot:

Poor Wylan, for having such a truly terrible father.  The younger Van Eck didn’t just run away, he fled after his father ordered his death.  Even worse, Wylan finds out that his father lied about his mother’s death; the poor woman has been locked away in an institution for years, painting and repainting the face of the son she never expected to see again.  Then to top it all off, Wylan walks in on the guy he likes kissing someone else, potentially ruining one of the small handful of friendships he has.  He may have found people who value his skills, but is he really one of the Crows?

Poor Jesper, for kissing the wrong guy and making a mess of things.  But even that can’t quite compare to the misfortune  of his gambling addiction, which, having already lost him Kaz’s trust, costs him his precious guns and brings his father to Kerch, placing a target on the man’s back.  It’s Jesper’s fault that his father is almost killed, and it’s his fault that they’re going to lose the farm.  How much more are his bad decisions going to cost before he loses something he can’t replace?

Poor Inej, for not knowing where her family is anymore.  Her kidnapping was the beginning of a terrible sequence of events that left her suffering from PTSD.  And although she was saved from the brothel where she was forced into slavery, it was only to be Kaz’s spider, and she fears—not unfoundedly—that he only cares about her for her skills.  If she can’t be the Wraith, what good is she to Kaz Brekker?

Poor Nina, wondering what good she is to the Grisha and to the Crows if she can’t use her Heartrender abilities without craving another dose of jurda parem.  She can’t eat, she can’t sleep, she can barely keep herself together.  She’s no longer the weapon Kaz needs her to be, nor is she the same woman Matthias fell in love with, and although he claims he still cares for her, how can he love someone so weak?

Poor Matthias, desperate to help the woman he loves, the woman who saved his life and changed his entire worldview.  It was for Nina that he betrayed his people and returned to this city that holds nothing for him, and it’s for Nina that he’ll fight to keep the Grisha everywhere safe from the druskelle.  But how is he supposed to change the minds of an entire country, and what if he can’t keep Nina safe, from his people or from herself?

Poor Kaz, who finally managed to screw up and screw up so badly that the woman he cares for may end up dead.  It’s too bad his own PTSD keeps him from showing her how he truly feels, and he may never get the chance now that the Dregs—the gang he worked so hard and long to bring up and make successful—is out for his blood.  Kaz may be the cleverest bastard in the Barrel, but how can he outsmart, outwit, and outmaneuver an entire city?

Yeah.  Like I said, lots of ‘my poor baby’ moments.  Seriously, as many times as I felt bad for the Crows in Six of Crows, Crooked Kingdom was ten times worse.  Yes, I’m aware that
these are people who have no problem lying, cheating, stealing, and even murdering on occasion, but how can you not root for them?  Compared to most of the people in the  Barrel, they’re really not that bad—I’m aware that this isn’t exactly the best justification ever, but whatever—and they’re really the good guys when it comes down to it.  They’re like the Guardians of the Galaxy; they do a little of both good and bad, but they just want to see justice served.  And in a city that lives and dies by greed, even being a sort-of good guy is gonna cause problems.

Luckily, the Crows aren’t just a bunch of ordinary citizens.  They’re the best of the best, the smartest and the sneakiest and the most patient, and all their troubles are surpassed by their triumphs.  Crooked Kingdom has just as many “Woohoo!” moments as it has its ‘poor yous.’  Each of the Crows take their weaknesses and, with a little help from their friends, turn them into something unique, something brilliant and fearsome, something altogether more.

Wylan may not like his new life of crime, but he’s bloody good at it.  His inventions and skills with explosives are so much fun to read about, and once he starts thinking like Kaz, Wylan becomes a force to be reckoned with.  He even develops his own scheming face, and he lies to Kaz!  Granted, Kaz knows he was being lied to, but no one else in the Crows—or anyone else, for that matter—has had the guts to lie to Kaz Brekker, and Wylan does it without breaking a sweat.  Then, once he finds out what really happened to his mother, he really goes all in for Kaz’s plan for taking down his father.  With this newfound confidence, Wylan goes for the first kiss with Jesper, which is great.  He also lets himself be beaten up to make his father look like the bad guy, and he lies again, this time to the Stadwatch, to make his father look truly evil.  Wylan’s transformation from lost-little-rich-kid to rich-explosives-expert-with-awesome-friends-and-a-rocking-boyfriend is fantastically exciting to follow, and he really ended up being one of my favorite characters.

And speaking of that rocking boyfriend, Jesper, with some luck and lots of help, manages to get his life into some semblance of order.  He comes clean to his father about his life in Ketterdam and is forgiven.  Once they pull off the job, he has enough money to cover his gambling debts and pay off the farm, and he even manages to find something—actually, someone—that curbs his need for a few rounds of cards.  Of course, Wylan is still giving Jesper an allowance to play the market, but at least Jesper can begin to learn some self-control.  He’s going to learn more about his Fabrikator abilities, too, which is awesome.  It was  so interesting to see the contrast between Jesper and Nina and how they related
to their Grisha abilities.  Nina had been trained as a soldier and fully embraced her Heartrender abilities, while Jesper, having been taught to hide his powers, became more and more distraught throughout Six of Crows as people found out his secret.  But breaking into and then out of the Ice Court would’ve been impossible without Jesper’s Fabrikator abilities, however rudimentary, and I loved that the plan relied so much on Jesper for something other than his sharpshooting skills.

In Crooked Kingdom, it’s sort of the opposite; Jesper still isn’t fond of using his abilities, but he beings to use them more and more, finally culminating in using his sense of the materials within a bullet to make an impossible shot and save everyone.  Jesper’s belief in his abilities, fostered largely by Wylan, really changes the way he sees himself and his place in the world, and I would love to see Jesper later down the road once he’s had some formal training.  He’s a sharpshooter now, but by using his Grisha abilities to direct his shots, he’ll easily be the best gunman in the world.

And while we’re on the topic of the best in the world, let’s talk about Inej, the best spider in the Barrel, the sneak who bested the Ice Court, the acrobat who defeated the White
Blade.  Inej is not a damsel in distress, but it was good to see more of her vulnerable side in this book.  We were introduced to all the tragedies in Inej’s life in Six of Crows, but now we get to explore the scars more deeply before she overcomes them.  Being captured and held captive by Van Eck brings out all Inej’s worst fears about Kaz’s feelings—or lack thereof—for her, but once she’s rescued, she decides that if Kaz isn’t willing to let his guard down enough to be with her, she has better things to do.  Who needs all the drama and chaos of Ketterdam when she can be the captain of her own ship, taking out slavers and saving men and women from being forced into slavery like she was?  And it’s not as if Inej was afraid to speak her mind before, but being broken seems to have let out a bit more of her attitude.  She’s twice as fierce, she’s openly standing up to and disagreeing with Kaz, and she’s calling him out for being unwilling to even try to overcome his PTSD.

I don’t know if Kaz ever really considered that Inej too had problems being touched after what she went through at the Menagerie, but it says a lot about Inej that she was able to overcome her fear and revulsion and that she’s now willing to help Kaz fight against his.  That bathroom scene was the most vulnerable either of them has allowed themselves to be in a long time, and it shows that they’re both invested in the ‘what if?’ of them being together if only Kaz would let it happen.  But Inej, being the fiercely protective person she is, doesn’t let her conflicted feelings keep her from having Kaz’s back, even when it almost costs her life.  I loved seeing Inej get back to her acrobatic roots with her high wire walk at the Silos and with her eventual shift in fighting style from the slapdash survival skills she’d learned on the streets to the disciplined and ingrained strengths of her acrobatic background.  Inej’s acrobat skills are unique, and I love the idea of her flipping all over and doing backbends and whatnot while she’s fighting, a la Black Widow and her ballet training.  It’s a call back to her family, and I’m glad that Inej has finally reached a point where she can allow the person she used to be to mesh with the person she’s become.

And now that I’ve mentioned the mashing of old and new personas, Nina!  Nina’s sacrifice at the end of Six of Crows left her in a bad state, but this is Nina Zenik!  She escaped her would-be killers, survived being lost in the frozen ice fields of Fjerda, and has made a place for herself in Kerch.  She can flirt her way into and out of any situation, and she isn’t afraid to let everyone know what she’s thinking, whether they want to hear it or not. I never really doubted that Nina would recover, but I wasn’t expecting that recovery to be highlighted by her newly-transformed abilities.  No longer is Nina a Heartrender; she’s become something far more sinister, able to control the dead, either in part or in whole.  I loved Nina’s new abilities, despite how terrifying they truly were.  She was already unique for having survived the withdrawal from jurda parem, and this outcome makes her even more extraordinary.  Not to mention that once she discovers her new abilities, she begins to recover much more quickly until she’s back to her normal, awesome self.  And it’s because she’s back to herself that she can really fight back against the newest threat against the Grisha.  I really could’ve done without these Grisha-hunting mechanical-human hybrids that the Shu cooked up, but it did open up an opportunity for Nina to help the Grisha living in Ketterdam.  And  better yet, it brought back some of my favorite characters from the Grisha trilogy!  I absolutely loved getting to catch up with Genya and Zoya, and their presence really helps heal Nina.  It’s been so  long since she’s seen her fellow Ravkans, and being able to work alongside them and help them with her new abilities is really the thing Nina needs to fully embrace the person she’s become and the future she has planned.

And in Nina’s plans for the future, Matthias has a leading role.  Or at least he would have if he hadn’t been shot and killed.  I’m not going to lie, Matthias’s death really shocked me.  After all the Crows have been through, I really was expecting everyone to make it out alive.  Maybe damaged, maybe in a tough place, but at least alive.  Matthias has as much growth as the other characters before his untimely death, though.  In Six of Crows, he was still fighting against the indoctrination of the druskelle, fighting against his feelings for Nina and her Grisha witch nation.  Now, Matthias sees that his culture is wrong; the Grisha are capable of doing extraordinary things, but they’re not inherently evil.  The Grisha are just like everyone else in regards to morality—some are good, some are bad, and some fall into that grey area that the Crows are part of.  Matthias makes it his goal to change his people’s view of the Grisha, even if it means facing their wrath and fear to do so.  First, though, he proves to himself that’s he’s gotten past his prejudices by leading his own little Grisha army of Jesper and Kuwai, and it’s pretty cool.  Matthias is a born leader and soldier, and his fighting skills allow the Crows to get out of a number of tight spots. On top of that, his dedication to Nina and to helping others has really made him part of the Crows, which is why it’s so heartbreaking when he dies.  But at least he dies doing good, trying to convince a young druskelle that the Grisha aren’t monsters, and it’s this dream that gives his death meaning and gives poor Nina a purpose for a future without her true love.  Matthias’s death is tragic, but at least he found his true family and reunited with Nina before he passed.

And speaking of finding family and death, Kaz finally gets his revenge for Jordie’s death.  Pekka Rollins’s downfall is what Kaz has been working towards for years, and it’s quite satisfying to see the monster taken down, but Kaz has realized almost too late that that’s not all he wants anymore.  Seeing Kaz’s internal freak-outs over Inej was so bittersweet, and it hurt me every time he tried to be the man she deserves and failed.  It was interesting to see the different places Kaz and Inej were in dealing with their PTSD.  Inej has dealt with her issues, but Kaz can barely find the strength to even face them.  With anyone else, he simply pretends he has no weaknesses, but with Inej, he cares for and trusts her enough to battle his demons.  And he knows Inej cares for him enough to never use his demons against him. So even though they know it will take a lot of work, they’re willing to try for one another.

Despite letting his weakness shine for once, Kaz still totally manages to keep his badass image by showing how he came to be one of the most feared men in the Barrel.  Not only does he scheme up countless brilliant plans, he throws himself in the middle of things when needed, and he’s willing to put himself on the line to get things done.  So when Per Haskell leads the Dregs in a betrayal of Kaz and the rest of the Crows, Kaz decides to show the old man and the rest of the gang who’s really been running the show for the past few years.  What results is an epically hostile takeover, where Kaz shows off his skills with his cane and his fists before laying the rest of his cards on the table.  Kaz has a seemingly endless supply of patience, and this allows him to be a master manipulator.  He has put in years of hard work, turning tricks and taking jobs, biding his time while building up the reputation of the Dregs, so when he faces off against Per Haskell and questions who’s the better leader, he has the resume to back it up.  Once he has his gang back, the big plans go into motion, finally leading up to the showdown between Kaz and Pekka Rollins.  I loved that Kaz got to really play the monster role again as he threatened Rollins’s son, but the reveal that he was simply playing the monster without actually being a monster was perfect.  He managed to sweeten his revenge by relying on suggestion and his reputation, and it was such a perfectly Kaz thing to do.

But in the end, Kaz shows there’s a sweetheart buried deep beneath the monster, and it’s all for Inej.  He finally does the right thing and shows her that he cares for her not just as his Wraith, but as Inej.  Seriously, I don’t think Kaz could’ve done any more to show Inej his true feelings:  he meets her without his gloves, he manages to hold her hand, he buys
her a ship and a permanent berth, and he has Nikolai (yay for Nikolai being in this book, too!) track down Inej’s family and bring them to Ketterdam.  If that doesn’t scream, “I love you!” I don’t know what does.  And after all the crazy stuff he’s managed to do, the fact that Kaz is legitimately worried about whether or not his tie is straight for his first meeting with his kind-of girlfriend’s parents is beyond precious.  I couldn’t be more pleased that Kaz Brekker, the bastard of the Barrel, managed to find his happy ending.

On the one hand, I’m glad Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom are only a duology.  Two books meant I didn’t have to wait as long to see how things turned out for the Crows.  But on the other hand, I wish I had more books about these guys.  Does Wylan’s mom finally recover? How does Jesper’s Fabrikator training turn out?  What does Nina do after she returns Matthias’s body to Fjerda?  Do Kaz and Inej take down all the slavers in Kerch and become even more amazing?  These are things I need to know!  And hopefully I’ll find out someday, as I have it on good authority—as in a direct quote from the lovely Leigh herself—that “the Grishaverse is bigger on the inside.”  So whether or not we’ll be getting more books specifically about these characters is unknown, but there’s a good chance they’ll pop up in future books one way or another, and I can totally live with that.

Crooked Kingdom is as close to perfect as I think any sequel could get.  There are bigger jobs, higher stakes, and more romance.  The characters continue to grow (and become more amazing), the witty banter is perfectly witty and bantery, and the emotions cover the whole spectrum—excitement to fear, anger to passion, despair to hope, triumph to sorrow.  Kaz and the Crows’ new adventures are sure to keep you on the edge of your seat, and you really won’t believe the complexity of Kaz’s plans even after you’ve seen them unfold in his favor.  Leigh has produced another spectacular novel full of suspense, magic, and carefully cultivated chaos that will certainly leave you with a terrible book hangover. Trust me, though, it’s so totally worth it.


Stray Thoughts and Observations:

  • I liked the parallel in the opening chapter with the first chapter in Six of Crows.  It was fun to see the crotchety old Retvenka again.
  • Wylan chapters!
  • Kaz pretending to be the boogie man was ingenious and also absolutely chilling.
  • I could totally be the Squaller that works in the rare books room.  It sounds like a pretty cushy job, and you’re surrounded by books all day.  Totally my thing.
  • I love that these hardened criminals are so put-out with terrible singing.
  • The whole ‘pay me back in waffles’ thing is great.  I need a short story where everyone just goes for waffles, like the Avengers all going for shawarma.
  • Finally, there was kissing!!
  • Kaz and Wylan may have taken ‘party crashers’ too literally.
  • Pointy death doilies: the best name for potentially deadly weapons.
  • Kaz with his cane: I totally imagined Loki just taking out that security guard with his scepter.
  • Nikolai!!
  • All the Six of Crow people meeting the people from the Grisha trilogy was like an awesome crossover fanfic, except this is canon, so it was fifty times more amazing.
  • I’m really gonna miss these guys.  I hope they show up in Leigh’s books again sometime soon.

Favorite Quotes:

  • “A proper thief is like a proper poison, merchling.  He leaves no trace.”
  • “I’ll tell you a secret, Hanna.  The really bad monsters never look like monsters.”
  • “If we’re going to lie to ourselves, we might as well be grand about it.”
  • We met fear, he’d said. We greet the unexpected visitor and listen to what he has to tell us.  When fear arrives, something is about to happen.
  • Van Eck was either very confident or very stupid.  He double-crossed Kaz, she reminded herself. He’s leaning heavily into the stupid column.
  • “Young man—“ Jesper pointed a gun at the scholar’s chest.  “Move.”  “Jesper!” his father said.  “Don’t worry, Da.  People point guns at each other all the time in Ketterdam.  It’s basically a handshake.”
  • “Sometimes, the only way to get justice is to take it for yourself.”
  • “I would come for you,” he said, and when he saw the wary look she shot him, he said it again.  “I would come for you.  And if I couldn’t walk, I’d crawl to you, and no matter how broken we were, we’d fight our way out together—knives drawn, pistols blazing. Because that’s what we do.  We never stop fighting.”
  • “Zoya used to say fear is a phoenix.  You can watch it burn a thousand times and still it will return.”
  • When one plan was blown, you made a new one.  When they backed you into a corner, you cut a hole in the roof.
  • “So,” Jesper said, adding sugar to his coffee.  “Other than Inej making a new pal, what the hell happened out there?”  “Let’s see,” said Nina.  “Inej fell twenty stories.”  “We put a serious hole in my father’s dining room ceiling,” Wylan offered.  “Nina can raise the dead,” said Inej.
  • “I’m already harboring fugitives.  If I’m going to aid, I may as well abet.”
  • Two of the deadliest people the Barrel had to offer and they could barely touch each other without both of them keeling over.
  • And that was what destroyed you in the end: the longing for something you could never have.
  • The Kerch would probably consider staging acrobatics atop their cathedral blasphemous.  Unless of course she charged admission.
  • Inej almost felt sorry for her.  Dunyasha really believed she was the Lantsov heir, and maybe she was.  But wasn’t that what every girl dreamed?  That she’d wake
    and find herself a princess?  Or blessed with magical powers and a grand destiny?  Maybe there were people who lived those lives.  Maybe this girl was one of them.  But what about the rest of us?  What about the nobodies and the nothing, the invisible girls?  We learn to hold our heads as if we wear crowns.  We learn to wring magic form the ordinary.  That is how you survived when you weren’t chosen, when there was no royal blood in your veins.  When the world owed you nothing, you demanded of it anyway.
  • “Wait,” he said.  The burn of his voice was rougher than usual.  “Is my tie straight?”
  • Pekka would count his money. He would raise his son.  He’d find himself a good woman or two or ten.  And maybe, in the quiet hours, he’d raise a glass to the men like him, to his fellow architects of misfortune who had helped raise Brekker and his crew.  He’d drink to the whole sorry lot of them, but mostly to the poor fools who didn’t know what trouble was coming.
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