Hi friends, and happy Wednesday!
I think we can all agree that we have our favorite books and series, and then we have our favorite books and series. And sure, favorite and favorite are the same exact word, but our favorite books are the ones that are just a tier up. They’re the stories that have consumed our conscious thoughts since closing the back cover. They’re the books with the characters we can’t stop thinking about, down to the specific sentences that they say to each other. They’re the stories packed with meaning and emotion that won’t let you go. Without sounding too dramatic
(as if I haven’t already done exactly that), these are the books that don’t leave you alone because they fully affected your life.
Towards the end of last year, I wrote a post about The Darkest Minds, a series that altered my life in ways I can’t even begin to explain
(but still managed to write a post of 2,500+ words). Earlier in 2020, I wrote about The Lunar Chronicles and how I quickly fell in those with those characters and their adventures. And now, it feels like it’s about time that I finally dedicate a post to the Grishaverse and to the duology that owns my whole heart, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo.
Truthfully speaking, Six of Crows has consistently and constantly been infiltrating my everyday since reading the first installment back in 2016 and waiting in pure agony for Crooked Kingdom‘s release a few months later. I remember sitting outside on a hot summer day, reading Six of Crows and the painted black edges melting onto my finger tips. I remember meeting Nina Zenik and I, for the first time, truly felt represented by a character. These two books specifically have become such a comfort for me; when quarantine first began, I reached for Six of Crows because I needed to spend time with some old friends to feel a little more sane. And just last month, when I was being plagued by a reading slump, I picked up Crooked Kingdom because I knew I could rely on it.
Fast forward to now, and I’m not so patently waiting for the Shadow & Bone Netflix adaptation to drop on April 23. From the teaser trailer to each released still to photos of the actors getting ready for promo days, I feel like I’m losing my mind. The characters that were so real in my head for years are actually going to be on screens across the world; I still can’t wrap my head around it. I mean, I could hardly handle hearing Freddy Carter say “I play Kaz Brekker,” I don’t know how I’m meant to handle a whole show. And even more so, I’m perched at the edge of my seat in anticipation for Rule of Wolves later this month, terrified of what Leigh Bardugo is going to do to Nikolai Lantsov. I’m in this world, and I’m in it deep.
If it isn’t obvious by now, the Grishaverse world and the Six of Crows duology mean a lot to me. I could talk in circles about it for pages and pages. But before I let that happen, let’s get into some of the reasons why I love these stupidly wonderful characters and their adventures as much as I do.
I’m warning you now, this is a long post. Grab a snack. Drink some water. Let’s do this.
*please note: I will be talking about Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom in a general manner. I also touch on the Shadow & Bone trilogy. Endings may be discussed, spoilers may be spoiled. Furthermore, discussions of touch aversion, learning disabilities, and food and eating are included in this post. Read at your own risk!*
A very brief synopsis of Six of Crows: The Bastard of the Barrel, Kaz Brekker, will do anything to get his dirty hands on copious amounts of money. He’d lie and steal. He’d kill a man. He’d kill multiple men. And children, probably, if they stood in his way. And, when there’s the chance to earn a jaw-dropping amount of kruge, Kaz brings together a ragtag group of hoodlums for an impossible world class heist on the most protected building in the vicinity. The odds are surely up against them, but can they use their own strengths to break into the Ice Court and kidnap the most sought after Grisha, or will all of their weaknesses bring them to their doom?
The amount of diversity and different abilities.
‘You’re not weak because you can’t read. You’re weak because you’re afraid of people seeing your weakness. You’re letting shame decide who you are.’
Crooked Kingdom, page 283
From aversions to body types to LGBTQ+ persons to learning disabilities, Six of Crows showcases a wide range of diversities in a stunning way. And what elevates this representation even more, in my opinion, is the simple fact that none of these differences are painted in a negative light. Yes, these characters have to jump over countless hurdles because of aspects they can’t change about themselves, but they are not presented as “less than” in any way.
Let’s start with Kaz Brekker. When he was only 9, Kaz and his brother Jordie moved to Ketterdam after losing their father, in the hopes that they would run into some good luck and endless fortunes. After being lured in by a con man and after he loses Jordie to the Queen Lady’s Plague, Kaz is filled with anger and a need for revenge. And, at the age of 12, Kaz joins the Dregs and very quickly rises to the top and becomes the most ruthless and feared person in the gang. During a job, Kaz falls off of a roof and breaks his leg, but it never sets properly. This makes him adopt a cane. Now, as opposed to it being viewed as a physical disability or something that slows him down, Kaz’s cane is an actual weapon and becomes feared by everyone with an ounce of common sense. I mean, he has a cane specially made by Fabrikators so that it has the perfect weight to bash someone’s skull in. This boy, without even opening his mouth, ignites fear and makes anyone second guess crossing him.
Additionally, Kaz also has a touch aversion after having to use Jordie’s bloated corpse as a flotation device to escape from the Reaper’s Barge. Any form of skin-to-skin contact causes waves of nausea or even a loss of consciousness. But, again, this diversity doesn’t phase or stop Dirtyhands. Every day, he pulls on black gloves and is never seen without them. He lets the rumors surrounding his reasoning for the gloves to grow, causing his terrifying reputation to inflate even more. Kaz uses his diversities to become the most feared and the strongest member of the Dregs. The things that some people may view as weaknesses are quite literally some of his best strengths.
Next, Nina Zenik. Nina is a powerful Grisha and trained soldier who not only can start or stop your heart, but she can steal it too. She’s unapologetically herself at all times, even when she probably shouldn’t be. She’d do anything for the people she loves, even if it affects her safety and well-being. Not to mention, Nina is stunning and has curves for days, flaunting them every chance she gets
(as she should). And this representation, this positive outlook on body image is what made me fall for her. In a lot of the stories I’ve come across in the past, there are some typical things you find when you met a plus-sized character. Nine times out of ten, plus-sized characters are used for comic relief. They’re almost always the funny best friend but never the main character. And on top of that, their body shape is discussed in a disturbing amount of detail and it usually leads to conversations of weight loss. Neither of those things happen with Nina. You learn about Nina’s appearance the same way you learn about other characters’ and for the same reason: so that you can visualize them. And the only time Nina ever discusses food is the countless times she’s craving a steaming pile of fluffy waffles or when she’s dreaming of a tin of biscuits—and her appetite is never viewed as a bad thing. Her curves are applauded; she’s painted as gorgeous and a force to be reckoned with, and she is loved by her friends because of that. Nina is a fantastic character for an innumerable amount of reasons, but having such a positive body image representation in a book that is largely picked up by younger adults could change everything for them.
Now, onto Wylan Van Eck. Wylan didn’t have it easy growing up. Sure, having a rich merchant as a father couldn’t have been so bad, but considering his father despised his own son’s existence because he couldn’t read, which resulted in his father lying about his mother’s death and taking up a wife not much older than his own son, all the while instructing his men to throw Wylan overboard a ship and kill him? I’m sure that muddied the relationship up a bit. No matter the amount of tutors or the never-ending hours spent with his neck strained over piles of books, Wylan was never able to read; letters and words just looked like a collection of lines and squiggles that couldn’t possibly form any sort of real language. Accepting this, Wylan found solace on pages of sheet music and through the notes that filtered out of his flute. He came to love numbers and math equations because they couldn’t get jumbled up like words could. And, when cornered with five other outcasts, he found an admiration for bomb-making and science. Wylan’s inability to read is never seen as a negative when it comes to the Dregs; they never judge him for that.
If I haven’t already made it painfully obvious, the varying diversities in the Six of Crows duology is what really sets apart these books from the rest. If a reader with a physical disability meets Kaz Brekker, they’ll see firsthand that their different ability doesn’t slow them down. If a reader struggling with body image meets Nina, they’ll learn that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, each beautiful in their own right. And if a reader with learning disabilities meets Wylan, they’ll know that you can overcome just about anything that life throws your way.
This isn’t even all of the diversity in the Grishaverse. Despite my rambles, I’ve barely scraped the service. You have canon bisexual and gay characters. You have characters that were previously employed as sex workers. You have characters that struggle with addiction. All of the representation may be fictional, but it can be life-changing for the right reader.
‘Has anyone noticed this whole city is looking for us, mad at us, or wants to kill us?’
Crooked Kingdom, page 47
Let’s just pretend I haven’t already ranted about three of the characters for an unreasonable amount of time.
Even back when I was first reading Six of Crows, it was next to impossible for me to think of these characters as anything other than real people. They’re each so well-developed with amazing character development that they can’t help but feel as if they’re some of my closest friends, as silly as it sounds. I mean, I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve caught myself saying “I miss *insert Six of Crows character here*” as if they’re just regular people I hadn’t seen in a little while and it was due time we got together to catch up.
I’ll spare you from once again hashing some of the reasons why I love Kaz Brekker, Nina Zenik, and Wylan Van Eck, but we can’t ignore the ones I’ve skipped over either.
Raised by her acrobatic parents, Inej Ghafa is quietly unstoppable. She’s the Wraith, a spider traversing high altitudes no one else would dare even consider. She’s Kaz’s right hand, but it wasn’t always that way. After being scooped up by slavers in the middle of the night, she was forced to work at a pleasure house. It wasn’t until Kaz approached her for her spying skills that she found refuge and an escape with the deadliest boy of them all. At any given moment, Inej has a plethora of knives tucked into her clothing and she has specially made leather shoes to grip high, slippery services. And despite the fact that she could gut you like a fish before a scream even left your lips, Inej leans heavily into her ancient Suli proverbs, spitting out wisdom every other minute. Like Kaz, she lets her revenge and anger fuel her life, her purpose. Sure, she isn’t as outwardly aggressive, but because of her past, she decides to dedicate her future to capturing slavers and bringing them to justice, saving their victims any way she can. Inej is faithful to the end, if you’re lucky enough to earn her trust and friendship, and I don’t know that I could love her any more than I already do.
Jesper Fahey grew up as a dedicated and passionate farm boy, helping whenever he could, but had to watch as his mother used her Grisha power to save someone else’s life rather than her own and watch his dad shamefully abstain from ever discussing his mother’s gift and banned Jesper from using his own. Antsy for finding new adventures, Jesper told his father he was enrolling at Ketterdam University, only to join the Dregs and develop an addiction to gambling and revolvers. He’s impulsive and reckless. He reaches for his revolvers to find peace before ever reaching for words. Jesper suffers from low self-esteem because of bad decisions made and refusing to use his power, but that never stops him. He continuously puts himself in life-or-death situations both for the thrill of it and to protect his friends. Not to mention, Jesper’s growth over the whole duology is incredible.
Naturally, we’ve come to Matthias Helvar, but I’m going to talk about him a little bit later. For good reason, I promise.
Each character in Six of Crows is wonderfully complex, I’m not even sure I’ve covered each reason why. And they’re all so beautifully flawed, you can’t help but love them and think about them years and years after finishing their stories. When I say I could talk about these characters until I run out of breath, I admit that sincerely and whole-heartedly. I mean, we’re already this deep in the post and I’ve only talked about the characters on their own, not even their dynamics and interactions with each other. That could be a whole separate post, as far as I’m concerned.
‘So what are we doing here?’
‘Hoping for honey, I guess. And praying not to get stung.’
Six of Crows, page 200
Much like me being unable to realize that these characters are indeed fictional, I have trouble believing that I can’t just hop on a plane or a train and find myself in Ravka, Ketterdam, Os Alta. On top of that, I’m not entirely certain that Grisha and their orders aren’t real.
The Grisha Trilogy—which is set one year before the Six of Crows duology—obviously sets up the stage for the magic and mysticism of the Grishaverse. The original trilogy lays out the hierarchy of the orders, the monarchies involved, the disparities and wars fought between lands. But that isn’t to say that you have to read The Grisha Trilogy first to understand Six of Crows. Leigh Bardugo somehow found the perfect balance that is introducing a world that may have already been introduced to a reader, without it being repetitive. It always feels like the information learned is building on top of each other, never overlapping.
The rules of the Grisha are so well thought out too. It’s not hard to understand the importance of the Second Army. It’s not hard to understand why some cultures fear the Grisha. It’s not even hard to understand that once upon a time a very greedy and talented Grisha-turned-Saint developed power amplifiers and accidentally created some of the most beautiful and most terrifying powers to ever exist in their world. I say all of this because it’s second nature to accept the Grishaverse and that world because it’s presented so well to you that it might as well be served on a silver platter with a cherry on top. Each detail is so obviously meticulously planned out and developed, and I think that’s why I’m effortlessly taken out of our world and plopped into this fictional one.
The ability to change.
‘I have been made to protect you. Only in death will I be kept from this oath. It was the vow of the Drüskelle to Fjerda. And now it was Matthias’ promise to her.’
Six of Crows, page 390
In any story you’re telling, character development is key. After I take the time to follow characters and their adventures, I want to see them come out differently than they went in. That’s the whole point of it, right? Is that not the hero’s journey? And if we were to hand out awards for Best Most Changed Character, I would gladly hand that trophy over to Matthias Helvar.
Born in Fjerda, Matthias was the highest-ranking Drüskelle and hunted Grisha because his religion deemed them unnatural. He spent his days tracking down Grisha and capturing them because they were the ‘other;’ they weren’t right. That is until he finds himself surviving a shipwreck with one of his captures, Nina Zenik. As they trekked through the terrain to find some sort of safety, Nina’s flirtatious nature rubbed Matthias the wrong way. She was being too outgoing and too forward, according to what he learned growing up. Nina was a Heartrender; Nina was a girl who liked to pick fights; and she was a girl that laced her words with all kinds of intentions. She was unnatural to him. But, when they find themselves in a supposedly safe Ketterdam, Nina accuses Matthias as a slaver and he is thrown into a maximum security prison. Their paths don’t cross again until Kaz deems Matthias a valuable asset, and upon the two locking eyes for the first time since Nina’s accusation, Matthias wants nothing more than to kill her. Again, she’s not a natural being.
Fast forward a bit, and Matthias unwillingly becomes a member of the crew. Not only does this mean he has to spend more time with Nina, but he becomes an integral piece in breaking into the Ice Court. You know, the holiest place in his culture. Not a big deal or anything. But as Matthias spends time with these criminals and learns what Grisha fear on the daily because of people like him, he begins to change. It starts in little ways at first. Maybe Nina isn’t as awful and boisterous as she first seemed. Maybe Grisha aren’t unnatural because their power isn’t something they can change. And maybe, just maybe, everything he grew up knowing was a complete lie.
Matthias Helvar was a trained soldier that would bring down any Grisha that crossed him; it’s what he was taught. Imagine that: everything that you knew suddenly feels like it couldn’t have been any more wrong. And when we’re spending some of those final chapters with Matthias in Crooked Kingdom, he even admits how wrong he was and he wants to spend the rest of his life changing his brethrens’ minds about the Grisha because they’re nothing to be feared.
Showing readers that they can change despite their upbringing is such a powerful statement that can truly affect someone’s life and their way of living. Change is something that is needed in this world, especially as we meet more people and our horizons broaden to new possibilities. Matthias Helvar is an incredible character for countless reasons, but one of the top being his character development and his ability to change.
The found family.
‘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.”
Crooked Kingdom, page 185
There are very few things I love more than the found family trope, especially if it’s done well.
Watching characters go from tolerating each other to fully depending on one another is magical in and of itself. I mean, Kaz lost his brother and had no one. Inej was taken away from her parents and everything she’s ever known. Nina grew up in the Little Palace, training for the Second Army. Matthias spent his days learning how to be the best soldier he could be. Jesper lost his mother and left his father when he moved away from home. Wylan’s father tried to kill him. Each one of these outcasts couldn’t find a place to belong until they found each other.
Kaz never trusted anyone in the Dregs until meeting Inej, then she slowly began to learn all of his secrets. Inej and Nina bonded over stories and promises, and they quickly started acting as if they were sisters. Jesper relied on Inej with his Grisha secret and often confided in her. Nina and Matthias, despite their early differences, vowed to protect one another in any situation. And, when Wylan washed ashore in Ketterdam, Kaz took him under his wing and acted like the big brother he lost. They each started caring for and looking after one another in their unique ways, and they couldn’t help but become a family.
Brought together by the promise of an insane amount of kruge, I’m convinced that nothing could break this group apart, not that any of them would ever care to admit it.
There’s something so special about the Six of Crows duology and it just resonates with me; it’s as simple as that. There really aren’t enough words in the dictionary to fully capture how I feel about these characters and their stories, but I’ll consider this a good start.
And thank you for taking the time to read this post. I know, it was a long one. I say this with the most sincerity: you deserve a cookie for making it this far.
In the meantime, if you need me, I’ll be anxiously awaiting March 30 and April 23, rereading The Grisha Trilogy and Six of Crows until then to tide me over.