Hello everyone, and welcome back!
I was going to write a review here of Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, but you don’t need me to tell you how good that duology is; every other YA reviewer has told you already.
And they’re right. These are quite good books. (Four stars for me, if you were wondering.)
I have some small quibbles with them—I’m not sure if they hold up as well on their own if you haven’t read the Grisha trilogy, especially Crooked Kingdom. The focus on the characters and their weaknesses sometimes necessitates that all of them make big mistakes, and while it makes sense to make some mistakes (and keeps things interesting), it does make them come off less as a legendary criminal team and more like they’re…not always competent. (Particularly when it’s not others exploiting their weaknesses; in those cases, it’s easy to just assume the villain is more clever than they’ve faced before.)
Also, in most cases, these are some pretty dang cleancut, nice criminals, so this felt less grey and dark than I was led to believe. (Although that may just be a function of the hype around the books and not the books themselves.) There are also times I feel like the dialogue is reaching a little too hard for clever banter between people who (mostly) aren’t banter-types, which leads to a slight oversaturation of waffle mentions. (But I can let that go because in the end, they’re kind of all awkward teenagers, so it makes sense if they overharp on an inside joke.)
Anyway, although I’ve just left my nitpicks up front, I really liked this duology, but since you don’t need me to tell you about that, I thought I’d offer you what I can do more uniquely: tell you why I liked this more than I liked the original Grisha trilogy (Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising), which I wanted to love but didn’t.
So without further ado, let’s get into that!
Better characters. There are myriad reasons why the characters of Six of Crows trump the characters of Shadow and Bone. And this is maybe not even a fair comparison, because the Six of Crows duology strikes me as far more character-driven than the Grisha trilogy (which is more plot-driven), but I’ll get to that later and compare these anyway.
The easiest way to describe this is that the cast of Six of Crows seems to reflect a more sophisticated writing style? The cast in Shadow and Bone feels small and Alina, Mal, and the Darkling are always at the centre of events and the most developed, while other characters come and go with minor moments of characterization.
This would be okay if Alina, Mal, and the Darkling were all compelling characters, but…not so much, from my point of view. I wanted to like all of them, but Alina and Mal spend most of the three books angsting about and fixating on one another, usually because Mal is being an ass. (I mean, come on. Alina has to deal with being the Chosen One. Cram it and be supportive. Nah?) Alina also spends most of the books feeling sort of defeated for various reasons, and it’s sort of…just tiring to read. The Darkling seemed intriguing, but felt more two-dimensional by the end than I wanted him to be.
The Six of Crows duology shifts the focus to six main characters, spreading the load out a bit, and it ensures that each of them have an interesting backstory, varying history with one another, complex motivations driven by conflicting loyalties, distinct personalities and roles, weaknesses they deal with in varying ways—they are just many more reasons to engage with them, and the interpersonal conflicts between them feel less repetitive because we don’t need to dwell on the same one the entire time. (There’s still a touch of the “waiting for the very end for some of these conflicts to resolve,” but some are just dealt with by the end of the first book and don’t recur. Nice!) There’s also more diversity among the characters in the crew, which is nice in terms of representation but also just generally so that a reader can find a favourite to latch on to.
The plot does more to emphasize the strengths of the books. So the original Grisha trilogy is definitely more a plot than a character series, but the plot is…well, pretty predictable. Other than a reasonably big twist in the first book, which is probably why that one is more interesting than the latter two…Alina is a Chosen One. Mal is the childhood friend she loves. There are three important artifacts that need to be found. (There are also three books. Get my gist?) Alina’s role in civil war is not unlike that of other literary heroines we know.
This is not to say these types of plots can’t be fun, because they can be. But the appeal for me of the original Grisha trilogy was worldbuilding; the structure of the king’s court, the Grisha training process, how they live with/around the Unsea, how people adapt to magic as a military force, and so on. The story the Grisha trilogy tells tears you away from those interests to send you on fetch quests and to spend a lot of time in Alina’s head being mopey. Sigh.
The plot in the Six of Crows duology is framed around the heist, which is another formula, but in this case, a more enjoyable one. The heist allows the talents of each member of the crew to shine while also allowing tight focus on a particular setting, set of characters, or events that have to go into motion. It focuses on detail, which allows more worldbuilding and character development—which was honestly what the Grisha trilogy needed to be better, in my opinion, since the world was the most interesting part of it and the focus on the main three characters was so tight. But those things are enabled by the plot structure of Six of Crows, so worldbuilding and character come out as strengths, and suddenly all that potential is actual goodness on the page.
More attention to worldbuilding and setting. Yeah, so this follows the above. The Grisha trilogy focuses on the Ravkan civil war, so it doesn’t pay heed to much of what goes on outside the country’s borders—but I honestly don’t feel like we get a big sense of what goes on in the country, either. (The Ravkan civil war comes off as a conflict between two people because of the narrative focus on the books. Which would be very interesting in character terms if I was more interested in those two people, but it really leaves out loads of worldbuilding.) The books move from place to place because of the plot, so each setting gets a little development. (The king’s court feels the most developed and interesting, but I wish we stayed there more.)
While I could actually do with more setting focus in the Six of Crows duology (particularly on Ketterdam and clubs and spaces in the Barrel), the worldbuilding here worked a lot better. Of course, that’s almost unfair because these books have the basis of the Grisha trilogy to build on, so they don’t need to necessarily explain to us what a Grisha is. But at the same time, these books manage to get more into the relationships between countries, their different attitudes towards Grisha, the cultural differences of their people, and more—including some serious stakes—without losing its focus on the six main characters or the smaller conflicts between the gangs in Ketterdam and so on.
The darkness hinted at didn’t feel unsubstantiated. For all its bluster—and a character named the Darkling—the original Grisha trilogy didn’t actually feel that dark, in the end. Sure, the villain was willing to stoop to some monstrosities, and definitely people get hurt or killed, but during or at the resolution of those books, I don’t feel like the stakes were too high for the characters a reader would care most about or that a lot of good, reasonable people turned to doing questionable things. Alina’s feelings get muddled along the way because of how she’s treated and her internal conflict, but more or less I just didn’t feel those books were as “dark” as they hinted at being.
I still feel as if the Six of Crows duology could’ve been darker, seeing as it is a duology about criminals. (They’re some pretty dang cleancut criminals, all in all.) But it does more to give substance to the darkness it foreshadows, both through things that the characters do or have done and the way that the stakes of the plot become personal and hurt and affect the main characters. This could’ve been darker with more grey decision making, for me. But these books did a better job of making threats feel real and bad things feel consequential.
So that’s why I liked the Six of Crows duology better than the Grisha trilogy, and why I’m glad that Leigh Bardugo is one of those authors I tried a second time. (I will almost definitely try her a third time. She might get even better.)
Thanks for coming by, and I’ll see you next week!