When I started Leigh Bardugo’s The Grisha trilogy a few years ago, I was skeptical, but I was quickly won over by her world-building and characters. When the final book in that trilogy came out, I was skeptical because I find that YA trilogy’s rarely end strong. Again, she proved me wrong. When Six of Crows came out, I was skeptical because I thought it might just be The Grisha books done again with different characters. And yet again, she proved me wrong, delivering an entirely new story with unique and distinct characters, set in the same fascinating world as The Grisha. Basically, my relationship with Leigh Bardugo’s books so far has consisted of me keeping my standards for her low, and her blowing them out of the water. So by the time Crooked Kingdom was announced, I was optimistic. Leigh Bardugo had yet to fail me. I even pre-ordered it (something I only do with maybe one or two books a year). And while I wouldn’t say I was disappointed, it’s possible that this time around, my reading experience suffered because my expectations were too high.
Crooked Kingdom finishes the story started in Six of Crows. When reading Six of Crows, I thought it was a stand-alone novel,
so I was taken aback with the loose ends at the novel’s close. I encountered the opposite with Crooked Kingdom; I was expecting a trilogy, and was surprised (although not disappointed) when the story wrapped up at the end. It picks up where Six of Crows let off, and hits the ground running. It might help to read this as two halves of the same book instead of thinking of them as separate books. I certainly wouldn’t tackle Crooked Kingdom without reading Six of Crows first; it doesn’t stand alone. I actually had to go back several times and look up information in Six of Crows (okay, let’s be honest – I googled the information instead of actually pulling out the book) in order to understand what was happening.
There are a lot of players in this story, and you actually need to have a pretty good understanding of who they all are for the story to make sense. The good news is that the main cast – and it’s a pretty large main cast – is made up of very distinctive characters from Six of Crows, and I didn’t have trouble keeping them straight despite the lag time between reading the two books. The peripheral characters were a different story however, and my reading experience was interrupted multiple times because I couldn’t remember who someone was and I had to go back to Six of Crows (or Google) to figure it out.
I do have two gripes about the characters that frustrated me as I read. The first concerns Kuwei. Kuwei was absolutely critical to the plot, and was present with the main cast throughout the book. Despite this, he is only occasionally mentioned. It almost felt like the book was written without him, and then he was added back in later. Of course, that wouldn’t make sense since he was so pivotal. I got to the end of the book and felt like I still had no sense of him as a character, and that really disappointed me. In a book with so many interesting and complex characters of less significance, he was lamentably flat and forgettable.
My second character gripe is more minor, and perhaps more of a personal preference. I found Inej to be the most interesting character in Six of Crows. Although she was by no means the only interesting part of the book, she was the pull that kept me coming back to the book when I really should have been doing other things of the responsible grown-up variety. In Crooked Kingdom, she didn’t have the same strength. I wanted less of the love-stricken teenager and more of the powerful Wraith; the magnetism that she held for me originally completely disappeared.
More problematic than the characters, however, was the pacing. Like Six of Crows, this story had a lot of twists and turns, which kept me on my toes. Sometimes this was fun, but there were a few points where I felt like I couldn’t even get my feet under me before the story went in yet another direction. Between the constant switches and having to go back and look up certain details, I didn’t get any real momentum until the final third of the book. Once I got in the groove, I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t an easy groove to find.
Now that we’ve covered the bad, onto the good! As I’ve said, this book has a big cast, and it has very interesting and compelling characters. I particularly appreciate the depiction of Kaz; where a lot of authors would do “bad guy light,” Bardugo fully commits. Kaz is not a misunderstood guy with good intentions. He is genuinely manipulative and selfish, and she does not shy away from showing that. And yet, he is still sympathetic, if not entirely likeable. That is much more difficult to do, and much more satisfying to read. Jesper was also a wonderful read in this book. I love that we got to see more of his backstory and his family. In some ways, I feel like he had the best overall story and the most room to grow in the books.
The plot, despite its rough pacing, is delightfully intricate. It surprised me over and over again, and the pieces came together well. I admit, as the story become more complicated and tangled, I started to doubt that it would all come together in the end. I feared that, as with many complicated plots, it would turn out that it was complicated just for the sake of being complicated and not for the sake of the story. That was not the case here though; at the end of Crooked Kingdom, I was satisfied with the way the knot smoothly unraveled.
In the end, I think the biggest weakness for this book was my own lofty expectations. Next time I see an announcement that Bardugo has a new book coming, I will temper my expectations, but I will still most definitely read it. I still consider her one of my favorite contemporary authors. If you haven’t read her work, I highly recommend it. And while Crooked Kingdom might not have been magical, it was still a strong and enjoyable read. Paired with the somewhat stronger Six of Crows, it’s a story I can confidently recommend.
Overall score for Crooked Kingdom: 3.5/5
Overall score for the combined story of Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom: 4/5