The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, in honor of Leigh Bardugo’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Amanda Hudson on Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows.
Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows follows a team of six diverse and intriguing teenagers as they attempt to pull off an impossible heist. Set in the fictional city of Ketterdam, the capital of an island nation, the story begins with an experiment involving a dangerous drug going wrong. Afterward, a wealthy merchant calls upon Kaz, a legendary criminal and member of the Dreg gang, to break into a high security prison and kidnap the creator of this dangerous drug in exchange for an amount of money that would more than pay off his debts and set him up for life. The prison he has to break into is no ordinary prison, and to pull something like this off, Kaz has to carefully select his team.
Prior to reading Six of Crows, I was not a YA person. Not really. This book changed the way I view YA because the world felt gritty, the characters were complex, and it gave me something deeper while taking me on an adventure. I loved this book, and I recommend it nearly every time someone asks for recommendations, thus I don’t want to go into too many spoilers. Six of Crows is a fun quick read, and—lucky for everyone who hasn’t yet read it—the sequel is already out, so you can dive right into Crooked Kingdom and be swept away to an epic conclusion. Instead, I want to look a little deeper at the two female characters on Kaz’s team: Inej and Nina.
Both work magic, but only Nina works magic in the traditional sense. And yet, Inej and Nina are powerful while dealing in two things that, in our culture, are often seen as weak and submissive. Inej is silent, unseen. Nina works magic with emotions; she literally does emotional labor. And still, they are feared. Kaz has picked every member of his team for the heist because of a unique skill and/or ability. From this, the reader is shown the power and strength of the two amazing women, who are valued explicitly for the things our society so often degrades.
Inej is known for her ability to slip through the shadows unnoticed, which makes her a valuable spy and collector of secrets. One could argue that her ‘magic’ is stealth, which makes her nearly invisible when she doesn’t want to be seen. I found Inej’s phantom qualities magical in their own right, and even wondered at times how much of her invisibility was from her own effort, and how much was merely a truth of being a woman in a man’s world.
Nina, on the other hand, is a Grisha Heartrender. Having not read the Shadow and Bone trilogy, Six of Crows served as my introduction to Bardugo’s world. Heartrenders, I learned, not only use their magic to heal, ease pain, and alter appearances, but are also considered valuable soldiers, able to slow pulses and do serious damage to a person’s body by manipulating their tissues. I found this duality rather beautiful. Nina can do harm, but she can also do good. The capacity to do both makes her a far more interesting kind of magic-worker than one given no choice over how to use their power.
We first meet Nina working in a brothel. Clients seek her out for her magic, not for her body. Specializing in emotions, Nina manipulates bodies into a sense of peace, ease, and relaxation. This brief scene at the start of the book stood in stark contrast to the brutality of the rest of Bardugo’s worldbuilding. The introduction to Nina’s powers as something so light left me wondering what on earth Kaz, the ringleader in this heist, had planned for the Heartrender.
Having power when others do not very obviously creates an imbalance where those with power are feared by those without. Interestingly, when that power is something like knowledge or magic, those without choose to oppress those with, or try to take the power away. In Six of Crows, Nina isn’t safe to broadcast what she is because Grishas are hunted. Thus, Nina is part of an entire class of magic-workers who hold immense power but must hide it away, or use it in non-threatening ways. Nina could torture a man with her mind, but instead she soothes him and deals in emotions. Something safe. Something, ultimately, that is woman’s work.
Following Inej and Nina through Six of Crows, and later through Crooked Kingdom, I thought about how I perceived them at each point. I sometimes judged them for their choices or their passivity, in what I interpreted then as moments of weakness. Like when Kaz pushes Inej too far and she stays silent— I wanted her to scream and tell him off. Or when Nina holds back her magic instead of showing the world what she can do. It reminded me of incidents in my own life, in a world where it’s hard to find power in silence and compassion. In rereading Six of Crows, I forced myself to pause when I came to those pages and asked myself if it was really a moment of weakness for that character. Sometimes, yes, it was, but other times, no. Other times, they drew immense power from holding back. Part of their journeys, like our own, is in learning when to hold back and when to unleash that quiet power hidden away inside.
Nina works magic. Real magic. But Inej works her own magic as well. And through them both we can learn to value what someone else might not, and to find power in perceived weaknesses. Both women are strong not because they’ve overcome hardships, fears, or weaknesses, but because they draw power from and work them to their benefits. It’s this kind of complexity in Bardugo’s characters that makes Six of Crows shine, and why I continue to recommend this book to friends and even acquaintances.
Amanda Hudson works full time as a game developer in Malmö, Sweden. She holds a JD from Baylor University and previously practiced law in Texas. When not reading or writing fantasy, Amanda enjoys eating delicious Scandinavian foods and playing video games and board games.