This novel is really just the second half of the story begun in Six of Crows, so my thoughts on it will be hopelessly intertwined with its prequel. In short, Leigh Bardugo presents a series of impossible heists, and raises six beautifully drawn characters — her “crows” — to meet these challenges. Part dark fantasy, part grim crime novel, part character study, you should definitely check these books out.
One of the strengths of Bardugo’s prose is her command of character intention and internal voice. I actually listened to the audiobooks for both of these novels and, in a particularly well conceived production decision, Audible decided to bring in six individual narrators to take each viewpoint character (though the sixth, for Wylan, doesn’t show up until the second novel). The performances each narrator gave nearly transformed the drama into an audio play — all they needed was a few sound effects and a pit orchestra. The success of this decision, in my opinion, underlines the skill Bardugo employs to give each of her characters a unique internal voice.
In terms of plot, she doesn’t fall short, but this is not her strength. The characters all act reasonably given their motivations and the resources they have at their disposal. The typical “heist” plot point does show up; that of the ‘plan’ going horribly wrong, and the team having to improvise a new plan on the fly. In Crooked Kingdom in particular, I counted two separate times this happened, and the failures came down to the particular flaws of their planner: the crows’ “brains of the operation,” Kaz — driving home his own character development.
This all unfolds among some of the most anti-capitalist worldbuilding I’ve seen in fantasy, showcasing the corruption, greed, and deep character trauma that naturally follows from a “free market.” The central city, Ketterdam, even has a cathedral dedicated to the “church of barter,” and you bet your crows some nasty action goes down there.
I don’t think it could have been more on-the-nose if it tried.
I have one problem concerning the end of a particular section of Crooked Kingdom; at the risk of vague spoilers, an entire chapter unfolds in which the point of view character keeps a single, central fact about the proceeding action secret from the audience . . . just long enough for us to think the plan went wrong again. I felt it was a little sloppy, but the closeness Bardugo cleaves to her characters’ viewpoints throughout the rest of the tale makes this a minor quibble.
Each character’s arc ends in a narratively satisfying place, which is all I could reasonably ask. If you haven’t picked this one up, do so.