Six of Crows, a novel by Leigh Bardugo set in a world where certain talented people called Grisha are manipulated, persecuted or enslaved, is a young adult fantasy told from the point of view (primarily) of Kaz Brekker, Inej Ghafa, Nina Zenik, Jesper Fahey, and Matthias Helvar. Wylan Van Eck makes up the sixth “crow” but never has a chapter from his point of view. Additionally, the first and last chapters are from the point of view of characters not involved in the main story and serve almost as prologue and epilogue to the main plotline. In the world of the Grisha, most people are average humans. A small portion of the population have special skills which are lumped into certain categories, such a fabrikators, corporalniks, and others. These individuals are visually indistinguishable from normal people. The various characters in Six of Crows come from vastly different backgrounds, both familial and cultural, as well as different ideologies. That said, they are all currently similarly situated – i.e., displaced from home, relatively alone in a strange land, in their late teens, and must rely on themselves for survival. The world building and character development in Six of Crows, as told by the various characters, at first seems to jump from head-to-head with no particular order. However, as the story advances, it becomes clear that each of these individuals has a very rich past, and each such past sheds necessary light on the motivations driving the character to participate in the impossible task at hand. In an unusual twist, Bardugo has set the stakes so high that it appears no sane person would consider emulating these characters, so the author spends a lot of time making the reader understand why the characters are opting in to the crazy scenario in which they find themselves.
With such a sprawling and diverse world as world of Six of Crows, the author communicates the cultural differences between the characters primarily through point of view. Some characters are Grisha and others are not. They are all in the city of Ketterdam for different reasons, but circumstances have drawn them together, some orchestrated by certain characters and some just by happenstance. It is the complex web of their backstories that, as it is revealed, makes sense of their individual behavior. One thread follows the relationship between Nina and Matthias, a Grisha and a druskelle (Grisha-hunting soldier). Their relationship is a intricate matter that an entire novel could have been structured around. Nina was a prisoner on Matthias’s ship when a storm shipwrecked them in the middle of the ocean. As the only remaining living passengers, they were forced to rely on each other to survive. Hatred, attraction, affection, and betrayal combine for volatile interactions between Matthias and Nina.
Before Nina, before Hellgate, he never would have considered it. Now he found he could make this bargain with himself. He would join the demon’s crew, earn his pardon, and when he was a druskelle once more, Nina Zenik would be his first target.
Bardugo, Six of Crows, page 116.
If Matthias had brought Nina to face trial at the Ice Court, he would have been granted that permission. He would have worn the silver wolf’s head that marked an officer of the druskelle. It made her sick to think of it. Congratulations on your recent advancement to murderer of rank. The thought helped remind her just who she was dealing with. She sat up straighter, chin lifting.
“I don’t want to hear my language from your mouth.” His eyes flicked to her lips, and she felt an unwelcome flush.
With vindictive pleasure, she said in Fjerdan, “But you always like the way I spoke your tongue. You said it sounded pure.” It was true. He’d loved her accent—the vowels of a princess, courtesy of her teachers at the Little Palace.
Bardugo, Six of Crows, page 171 – 2.
Nina had wronged him, but she’d done it to protect her people. She’d hurt him, but she’d attempted everything in her power to make things right. She’d shown him in a thousand ways that she was honorable and strong and generous and very human, maybe more vividly human than anyone he’d ever known. And if she was, then Grisha weren’t inherently evil. They were like anyone else—full of the potential to great good, and also great harm. To ignore that would make Matthias the monster.
Bardugo, Six of Crows, page 382.
The series of passages above highlight the tumultuous nature of Nina and Matthias’s relationship. They cannot admit that they love each other, and they both fight against the social conditioning they received as children. If we didn’t spend time in each of their heads independently, it would be hard to understand the complexity and depth of their emotions surrounding how challenging these feelings are for each of them. The vitriol without the sadness and attraction would make no sense. The taunting without understanding how deeply these two characters know each other would seem petty, rather than biting. We would likewise not understand how each of them betrays their entire culture and upbringing in order to be together. Losing either Nina or Matthias’s point of view in this story would significantly weaken the story.
Another of the myriad complex relationships between the characters in the book is between Kaz, the leader of the Dregs, and Inej, his spider or spy. Although Kaz and Inej have no cultural barrier to their relationship, Kaz’s inability to stomach the touch of other humans, a physical manifestation of his mental inability to connect with others, creates both a physical and emotional barrier between them.
There was no part of him that was not broken, that had not healed wrong, and there was no part of him that was not stronger for having been broken.
The gloves were his one concession to weakness. Since that night among the bodies and the swim from the Reaper’s Barge, he had not been able to bear the feeling of skin against skin. It was excruciating to him, revolting. It was the only piece of his past that he could not forge into something dangerous.
Bardugo, Six of Crows, page 401.
He took a breath. “I want you to stay. I want you to… I want you.”
“You want me.” She turned the words over. Gently, she squeezed his hand. “And how will you have me, Kaz?”
He looked at her then, eyes fierce, mouth set. It was the face he wore when he was fighting.
“How will you have me?” she repeated. “Fully clothed, gloves on, your head turned way so our lips can never touch?”
He released her hand, his shoulders bunching, his gaze angry and ashamed as he turned his face to the sea.
Maybe it was because his back was to her that she could finally speak the words. “I will have you without armor, Kaz Brekker. Or I will not have you at all.”
Speak, she begged silently. Give me a reason to stay. For all his selfishness and cruelty, Kaz was still the boy who had saved her. She wanted to believe he was worth saving, too.
Bardugo, Six of Crows, page 433.
Again, without being in both the mind of Kaz and Inej, it would be impossible to fully buy into why Kaz is unable to touch human skin and why Inej needs such signs of affection. Without the visceral memories of being trapped on the Reaper’s Barge with his brother’s corpse and using it to swim to safety, the horror of it, it would be much harder for us to sympathize with Kaz’s repression. Likewise, without the memory of Inej’s parents and the loving relationship her father wanted her to experience and recollections of her life in a pleasure house, we wouldn’t root for Inej to stand her ground.
Ultimately, Bardugo uses point of view to endear us to multiple scallywags, thieves, zealots, addicts and worse. We root for these characters to overcome their faults, we understand and forgive their weaknesses, and we are optimistic that they can better themselves, because we understand that they want to. This is a successful strategy to employ where a group of characters is, on the surface, utterly unsympathetic and unrelatable. They become relatable because we have traveled with them in their minds, and we understand them.
Photograph: Image taken at The Orpheum in Minneapolis, MN in January, 2017.