The Makings of a Great Young Adult Fantasy Novel | Learning from ‘Six of Crows’

Author Leigh Bardugo

This post is spoiler free.

Bardugo’s writing is original and fresh with fast paced plots, sharp dialogue, dynamic characters and an abundance of conflict. Boy, can she can write! By studying her work, I can only hope that my writing will improve. Even if it doesn’t, I’ve still found an awesome fantasy author.

Genre – Young Adult Fantasy

Back of the Book Quote

SIX DANGEROUS OUTCASTS
ONE IMPOSSIBLE HEIST

The Ice Court had been built to withstand an onslaught of armies, assassins, Grisha, and spies. When Inej said as much to Kaz, he simply replied, “But it hasn’t been built to keep us out.”

His confidence unnerved her, “What makes you think we can do this? There will be other teams out there, trained soldiers and spies, people with years of experience.”

“This isn’t a job for trained soldiers and spies. It’s a job for thugs and thieves.”

This selection sets the tone for the book. You are told that the protagonists are up against impossible odds, and have the added disadvantage of belonging to the underbelly of society. But Kaz is the type of guy who can use these perceived deficits to their advantage by having the attitude, the right skills, and the element of surprise to succeed.

Why Is This Book So Great?six-of-crows-2

Good question. Bardugo is a master storyteller. I won’t be able to do this book justice, it is just that good, but I will give it my best shot.

Character Development

The book is written in close third person. The majority of the story is told from the point of view (POV) of five members of a gang, the Dregs. The name is fitting; they are the dregs of society.

On the surface, Bardugo’s characters are unlikable. One of the main characters, Kaz, manages a casino and gang territory for his ‘out of touch’ boss. The Dregs all respect Kaz but fear him. His reputation is built on threats, intimidation, blackmail and even murder. Rumour has it that he is part demon and he likes it that way.

His second in command, Inej, is a former acrobat, who illegally acquires others’ secrets, so Kaz can use them whenever it suits his purpose. She is as quick with her knives as she is with her tongue. The other four, each flawed in different ways, round out the cast of unusual characters.

Bardugo makes each of these potentially despicable characters admirable by making them strong and capable, which is demonstrated by their ability to not only survive, but thrive, in “the dark and bleeding alleys of the pleasure district known as the Barrel“.

This is effectively illustrated early when Kaz employs intricate deception and counter-steps to ensure negotiations for gang territory go his way, even when he has been betrayed. Because he trades in secrets, he makes his enemy fear him, although the enemy has a gun pressed against Kaz’s chest.

The reader can sympathize with each character, despite their murdering and thievery, because it is obvious they have no choice. Only the ruthless survive in the Barrel. But Bardugo is always careful to make the reader understand that the target of the violence deserves it. It would be very difficult to root for characters that hurt the innocent. And as the backstory of each character is revealed, the reader relates to them even more.

Bardugo also has a knack for immersing the reader into the character’s perspective. You feel what they feel and you understand their motivations.

Conflict

I started to list all the conflicts in this novel but was overwhelmed by their number and complexity. Bardugo has layered conflict onto conflict, from political to interpersonal to internal.

six-of-crows-map-001-2

Map of Burdugo’s World by Keith Thompson

Conflict is inherent to the story by her worldbuilding. No place is safe. This is aptly demonstrated by how the Dregs wish each other luck: “No mourners. No funerals.” They have to be alert at all times. Before the negotiations take place, Inej remarks, “It felt like the hush of the woods before the snare yanks tight and the rabbit starts to scream.”

The main plot involves the ‘impossible heist’. For this post to remain spoiler free, I will not go into the specifics of it. Let me say that the heist does seem impossible, but every move the team makes is plausible and worthy of the mastermind that is Kaz.

Internal and interpersonal conflicts leap off every page, tantalizing the reader with dribs and drabs of backstory until the final reveal where you have the ‘ah ha!’ moment.

The platonic relationship between Kaz and Inej is captivating. Having seen potential in Inej, Kaz bought out her contract from a pleasure house so she could be his stealer of secrets. She believes she is only worth something to him as long as she is useful, but she resents being considered his ‘investment’.

Inej doesn’t always trust Kaz’s motives and regularly calls him out on it:

“Greed is your god, Kaz.”
“No, Inej. Greed bows to me. It is my servant and my lever.”
“And what god do you serve, then?”
“Whichever will grant me good fortune.”
“I don’t think gods work that way.”
“I don’t think I care.”

If Kaz really didn’t have a conscience, then the story would not be as good as it is. He struggles with moral dilemmas, the most significant of which is that he and his team will only receive the huge payout if he puts the world in peril. And Kaz is not used to doing the right thing.

Then there is the main conflict of performing the ‘impossible heist’.

Stakes

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Map of the Ice Court by Keith Thompson

Their very lives are at stake from the beginning as they fight to survive in the very dangerous world they are forced to inhabit, and the danger only escalates as the story unfolds.

By taking on the ‘impossible heist’, they are involving themselves in world changing events. Events that could destroy the world. If they succeed, the payout will free them from a life of servitude and from endangering their lives for the profit of someone else.

Dialogue

Bardugo is a genius with creating naturally flowing dialogue that fits each character’s personality perfectly:

“Nina—” Inej murmured.
“Don’t you start on me.”
“It will all work out. Let Kaz do what he does best.”
“He’s horrible.”
“But effective. Being angry at Kaz for being ruthless is like being angry at a stove for being hot. You know what he is.”
Nina crossed her arms. “I’m mad at you, too.”
“Me? Why?”
“I don’t know yet. I just am.”

My favourite line in the book is a line of dialogue as well:

Best Line – Maybe your tutors didn’t cover this lesson, but you do not argue with a man covered in blood and a knife up his sleeve.

Plain Ol’ Way with Words

Bardugo has an incredible array of metaphors and similes distributed throughout the novel. The similes she comes up with are original, entertaining and descriptive.

“…crushed beneath a plow with his insides strewn across a field like a trail of damp red blossoms.”

And, embedded in her entertaining dialogue:

“Kaz is…I don’t know, he’s like nobody else I’ve ever known. He surprises me.”
“Yes. Like a hive of bees in your dresser drawer.”

Last Words about ‘Six of Crows’

I have finally found my favourite YA fantasy author, Leigh Bardugo. Having enjoyed the Six of Crows so much, I went out and bought her debut novel, Shadow and Bone, and the rest of The Grisha Trilogy in quick succession.  I am currently enjoying Crooked Kingdom, the sequel to the Six of Crows.

And please let me know, if you think I’ve done the novel justice.

 

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