Image by Mina Malloy
Content Warning: sexual assault, mental illness
Leigh Bardugo, already known for her captivating “Grisha Trilogy,” completed a duology at the end of 2016 set in the same universe: “Six of Crows” and “Crooked Kingdom.” Together, the two books tell the tale of six teenagers who embark on a mission to bring the most coveted scientist in their world to the merchant council. The band of misfits stop at nothing to break the scientist out of his highly secured country and, more importantly, earn a fortune for their work. As the series continues, betrayal, kidnapping, and general chaos ensue, and hefty rewards are made available for the crew’s capture.
Despite being jam-packed with twists and turns that are nothing short of tear-jerking and heart-wrenching, the most thrilling part of the story is the diverse cast of main characters. [Warning: some spoilers to follow.]
Kaz, the callous and strong leader of the gang, is originally enlisted for the mission by himself, but forms his crew for each of their strengths. His quick-thinking and complex personality overshadow the fact that he is differently abled: he walks with a cane due to a leg injury a few years prior. He is known as one of the most powerful seventeen-year-olds to walk the streets of Ketterdam, a country based on what is now known as Amsterdam. Throughout the books, he uses his ability to his advantage, shattering bones with the strike of his cane and increasing his body count wherever he roams. Unbeknownst to most of the others, Kaz has a form of PTSD due to his brother passing away in his youth. Hardened from the ruse that ultimately led to his brother’s death in his arms, Kaz becomes physically ill at skin-to-skin contact. This leads to complications with his romantic relationship with Inej Ghafa.
Known as “the Wraith” for her ability to slip through small spaces and creep unnoticed, Inej is one of the most resilient members of the crew. Extremely intelligent and described as having Desi origins, Inej is recruited by Kaz Brekker for her ability to climb towering buildings and act as a spy. As a young girl, she was kidnapped for sex trafficking, and while Kaz eventually helps her to escape, the toxic treatment she endured causes her to suffer from PTSD. As a survivor of sexual assault, she has trouble with physical affection for Kaz, which leads both of them to question how much they mean to each other. Despite this, Bardugo ensures that Inej is never seen as weak, but a dangerous weapon as a part of Kaz’s team.
Flirty and headstrong, Nina Zenik is the Grisha of the clan. While healing is Nina’s specialty, Grisha practice other specialized types of magic as well, including metallurgy and transforming appearances. Grisha are a marginalized group within the story, but Nina does not allow that to minimize her in any way. In fact, she constantly advocates for other Grisha and engages in courageous acts of sacrifice, such as taking a harmful drug to save the rest of the crew. She is regarded as one of the most beautiful characters in the series, something which is heartening to hear because she is not described as having a thin physique. Her confidence alone helps teach Matthias Helvar, a boy she is in love with, to reconsider the ideals he was raised upon. There are also hints in the book that she may be attracted to girls, as she states that she flirts with women as well as men and is shown paying particular attention to Inej.
Coming from Fjerda, a country that is hostile toward Grisha, Matthias has been raised as a soldier since he was a child. He comes from a place of privilege relative to the others as he has not grown up in an environment full of thieves and tricksters. However, his original encounter with Nina prior to the book’s beginning lands him in prison. At the beginning of “Six of Crows,” he is quickly freed by Kaz and unwillingly shoved into his crew. The mission is a test of his character; he has to give up his religious beliefs and social conventions in order to fight for what is right. He is brave but socially inept, and only learns to relax when he spends enough time with the crew. He especially loosens up when he falls in love with the young Grisha, Nina Zenik, as he has to unlearn every prejudice about Grisha that has been ingrained in his brain to love her.
His signature two rifles mark the lively Jesper as an intriguing character from the beginning. A lanky Black boy that has an affinity for gambling and a heart of gold, Jesper is a crucial member of the group. He is recruited for Kaz’s gang for being a sharpshooter and a secret Grisha. One of the most interesting aspects of his character is that his activity can be attributed to symptoms of ADHD. He is a humorous person overall and brings positivity to the crew even in the worst of times. He eventually develops a romantic relationship with one of the other boys, Wylan Van Eck.
Wylan Van Eck
Exiled from his family and recruited for the crew to serve as collateral, Wylan is one of the more innocent members of Kaz’s gang. He is the son of a wealthy merchant, who has disowned him because he has a severe form of dyslexia. However, Wylan is excellent at chemistry and math. He is loving and caring and always believes there is some good in everyone, even when Kaz commits unspeakable crimes. His naive view of the world is shattered when he discovers that his mother is secretly being kept at a mental facility. Jesper Fahey, who he has feelings for, is the only one that can comfort him through the pain of discovering that his father is truly evil.
“Six of Crows” and “Crooked Kingdom” are breaths of fresh air. They allow commonly alienated identities to flourish in a fantasy setting. The crew succeeds in spite of their social stigmas, because the Grishaverse does not antagonize them for identities that are not so warmly accepted in the real world. Leigh Bardugo not only skillfully avoids ableism, whitewashing, heteronormativity, fat-shaming, and neurotypicality, but allows these characters to be regular people defined by their personalities, which is all that fans of YA fiction have ever asked for.