By Katy Goodwin-Bates
In my house, we live in constant fear of ‘Scott Pilgriming’ an upcoming event. The term, in case you’re interested in etymology, stems from the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, about which I was extremely excited and which, tragically, was not worth the hype I created. To ‘Scott Pilgrim’ a film, book, album or cupcake is a particularly bad idea and can only end in pain and distress on an epic scale.
A couple of chapters into Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo (Indigo, 2015), I was worried I had Scott Pilgrimed it. I was also worried I was out of my depth in reading this, billed as ‘A Grisha Novel,’ when I hadn’t read any books from Bardugo’s previous trilogy about the Grisha: a powerful, magical section of a fantastical society, alternately revered and persecuted for their abilities. There was a brief period when I had no idea what was going on.
But worry not. I quickly realized I was just being unimaginative and, with this obstacle cleared, I was fully immersed in the world of Kerch, Ravka and Fjerda, fascinated by the set-up. Gangland Kerch is a kind of fantasy Dickensian London (insofar as Dickensian London isn’t also a fantasy), with child pickpockets, con men and prostitutes populating the narrative. Leader of the Dregs, the notorious Kaz Brekker, is presented with a proposal he can’t refuse, and the novel becomes a fascinating mash-up of The Magnificent Seven and Prison Break as Kaz puts together a crew for a daring heist.
“The knowledge that they might never see each other again, that some of them – maybe all of them – might not survive this night hung heavy in the air. A gambler, a convict, a wayward son, a lost Grisha, a Suli girl who had become a killer, a boy from the barrel who had become something worse.”
– page 355
I don’t think of myself as a reader of fantasy, but I keep being proven wrong by wonderful YA books. Six of Crows succeeds in creating a fully immersive world, recognizable but completely ‘other’ at the same time. Bardugo sure knows how to write a set-piece, with prison breaks and stand-offs between rival gangs adroitly executed. Another triumphant aspect of the novel is the creation of a convincing backstory for each of the eponymous ‘Six’ without detracting from the main narrative; there’s a daring mix of characters, without any descent into cliché. The relationships between the characters are equally enthralling, particularly the love-hate sparring between Grisha Nina and Grisha-hunter Matthias. It seems to me the majority of YA fiction (and, perhaps, recent fiction as a whole) tends to focus on a particular character or a pair of characters; Six of Crows gives us a whole crew, and the rapport between the key protagonists – a sort of adolescent, sulky Friends with magic powers and hardened criminals – makes Bardugo’s novel eminently readable.
“‘This isn’t a job for trained soldiers and spies. It’s a job for thugs and thieves. Van Eck knows it, and that’s why he brought us in.’
‘You can’t spend his money if you’re dead.’
‘I’ll acquire expensive habits in the afterlife.'”
– page 145
I particularly like Bardugo’s world-building. This is something with which I’ve become quite fascinated as I’ve read more fantasy novels. The first few pages of the book feature maps of the fictional countries in which Six of Crows is set, along with an initially incomprehensible list of the different powers possessed by the Grisha. All these aspects add to the immersive nature of the novel, along with the unique vocabulary of the characters; something Bardugo does particularly well is create a specific voice and dialect for each character, echoing their contrasting upbringings. There’s something quite magical about all this, making the reader completely forget their surroundings; the Russian-esque climate is so well realized I felt chilly for the duration of Six of Crows.
As someone who spends far too much time on Twitter, I was aware of Six of Crows quite some time before it came out. It has been quite the social media sensation, and it’s obviously a YA book which transcends the ‘Y,’ with bucketloads of grown-ups expressing frighteningly intense feelings about it, creating fan art and, in at least one instance, having sections of it permanently etched on their skin. It’s remarkable how many ‘Top Ten’ lists it has appeared on, with comments often descending into random shrieking as otherwise sensible readers lose their minds over Leigh Bardugo’s fictional world. If you’re an adult reader, perhaps curious enough to dip a toe into the world of YA fantasy, this is the book for you. Although ostensibly a book about teenagers, Six of Crows is very grown-up, with underlying themes of war, abuse, identity and sexuality, all of which add to the weighty sense of Bardugo’s work. And, like a music-lover discovering their new favourite artist has already released three albums, the new convert to the world of the Grisha will undoubtedly enjoy backtracking to the original trilogy, starting with Shadow and Bone.
Six of Crows will be available soon at GPL.