Review: Six of Crows
Ah, ‘Six of Crows’. It’s been a little while since I’ve read something that makes me want to write so much (The last one I can remember electrifying me like this was Philip Pullman’s ‘The Book of Dust’).
I have some narrative kinks that were satisfied by this book:
- I love a group of characters that feels like it was built to raid a dungeon. Maybe I’ve played too many RPGs? I like a well-balanced crew.
- The (mostly) well-handled diverse cast. So many contemporary YA books get this wrong by treating characters like a series of checkboxes on some imaginary diversity chart, and it makes the characters feel exceedingly artificial. Leigh Bardugo manages this successfully: Jesper isn’t the ADHD Black Bisexual character’s, he’s a thrillseeking jokester who makes bad decisions and competes with Nina to be the biggest flirt in a given room.
The dialogue was believable.
- So many writers have their characters go on and on monologuing and telling their entire backstory blah blah blah SHOW DON’T TELL
- Bardugo is good at the showing and not telling
- Also the repeated micro-interactions (“Scheming face?”) make the crew feel real
The world gave you just enough to feel immersed, but not so much that it became tedious or overwhelming (walking scenes in LOTR, anyone?).
- Bardugo’s research into historical Amsterdam shows. She uses the skeleton of the real world to drape her fictional landscape of Ketterdam on top of, and relies on the reader filling in the blanks.
- Again, the micro-interactions (“The deal is the deal”, “No mourners/No funerals”) make real a world built on commerce.
- Limited magic system kept things lovely and tense and kept non-magic wielding characters relevant. I loved that the magic mostly did things that a reader could imagine accomplishing through modern technology. The build up to Nina’s explosive show of power at the end of the book works because it can only happen once, and everything else has to be solved through plain-old skill and cunning.
- I love an epic tale that leans into moral ambiguity hard. We love a good antihero! We love plotting and scheming and conniving!
- We also love using first person plural apparently!!
Noteworthy, but not a narrative kink:
- Gentle treatment of sexual abuse. I was wary of how Bardugo would handle Inej’s sex work, and was happy that it wasn’t an excuse to paint repulsive scenes of sexual violence. (I’m still recovering from my loathsome experience with ‘A Little Life’.) Nor was Inej’s trauma used as an essential plotpoint. Her trauma is part of her, but not the only thing that she is. She thinks more about her Saints and her family than her trauma.
Some things I didn’t love so much (sorrynotsorry):
Nina and Matthias’ relationship is just confusing to me. We’re thrown into Nina feeling guilty and Matthias hating her and she’s tried to rescue him from a prison she somehow got him sent to and at some point she was his captive and ??? By the time it’s finally revealed why Nina had Matthias thrown in prison, I was really over the whole thing.
- Innocent-naive-soldier + flirty flirty lady pairings (à la Jon Snow + Ygritte) don’t do it for me.
- The ambiguousness of their relationship history made it hard for me to grasp Nina’s character–one minute she’s flirty flirty then she’s morose about Matthias and I couldn’t buy her guilt.
- This is particularly frustrating because by the end of the book I really liked her. Bardugo put a lot of thought into her, she’s a very fleshed out character, but she spends more than half the book tangled in an unconvincing romantic subplot.
- Also Matthias is big time shrugemoji and I don’t buy Nina’s infatuation… Nina seems way too sure of herself and her desires to get bowled over by this judgemental virginal hunk of man.
Kaz. Particularly as a love interest.
- “Didn’t you just say “We love a good antihero”?????
- Ok, put down the pointy knife and hear me out.
- I have strong misgivings about the Beauty and the Beast trope, wherein an idealistic young woman is exposed to a brooding, violently angry and selfish man, and stands by him in the hopes that he will change. Kaz Brekker is far from the most offensive of the genre, but it’s still a genre he belongs to. I don’t think that we need to provide young people with more emotionally stunted fictional love interests to lust after.
- I say this as someone who has watched Peaky Blinders 8000 times (Kaz and Thomas Shelby are cut from the same cloth), so I definitely do fall for this trope and THAT is the PROBLEM but:
- Peaky Blinders is definitely not a show written with a young adult audience in mind.
- Also I’d argue that after season 1 the Beauty and the Beast trope falls by the wayside
- I’m becoming sidetracked thinking about Cillian Murphy’s cheekbones
- I could write at length about how damaging this trope is, but I’ll refrain. For now.
The way Bardugo describes Inej’s skin. In the passages detailing how Inej’s clients see her in the House of Exotics, I trust that Bardugo’s intention is to draw attention to the violence of white gaze and Orientalist thinking. But I’m concerned that she falls into a trap by returning to those descriptions repeatedly without explicitly problematizing how Inej’s clients sexualize and otherize her. I’m worried that she sets herself up to objectify Inej as an exotic Other in Inej’s romance with Kaz.
- In the subsequent book, ‘Crooked Kingdom’, Inej’s brown skin is referenced in a steamy passage between herself and Kaz. It didn’t sit right. It doesn’t seem possible for Inej to have a sexual experience, consensual or otherwise, without the color of her skin (and thus, her Otherness) becoming involved.
- I could really dig deep and start referencing any number of teachers at the intersection of Feminism and Postcolonialism, but I’ll refrain.
- Recommended reading along these lines: Edward Said, Saba Mahmood, Franz Fanon, Afsaneh Najmabadi
- tl;dr: Inej’s character comes far too close to refiying precisely the dynamics Bardugo is attempting to problematize.
Would recommend to anyone who enjoys YA fantasy, I read it in like 1 day, it made me feel all zingy and inspired like I wanna write a book or something similarly foolish.
Posted February 12, 2019