“Six of Crows” author Leigh Bardugo and I will be in conversation at Politics and Prose at 7 p.m. tonight. You should come see us and ask great questions about her books — especially since we’re up against Jon Meacham, who will be discussing his new biography of George H.W. Bush at the same time.
In “Shadow and Bone,” “Siege and Storm” and “Ruin and Rising,” novelist Leigh Bardugo introduced the Grisha, an order of incredibly powerful people who are able to manipulate matter at the molecular level in a way that seems to blur the distinction between science and magic. Those books followed Alina, a young woman who discovers her Grisha powers later in life, as she was plunged into a battle for Ravka, the Russia-like country (complete with a Rasputin figure) where she grew up and that has been bisected by a vast shadow cast by a powerful magician. Bardugo’s novels may have been young adult books, but they captured the difficulty of making moral decisions at the level of national policy.
“Six of Crows,” which moves the action to Ketterdam, a city an awful lot like Amsterdam in a country called Kerch, introduces a new set of concerns. Where Ravka, Alina’s country, venerates the Grisha and inducts them into its army, Fjerda, a neighboring nation, fears the Grisha as witches and hunts them. And the Grisha become even more threatened when a scientist from Shu Han, a country that studies Grisha power, develops a powerful drug to enhance the Grisha’s abilities, making them unstoppable weapons of war while rendering them ravaged addicts. Fjerdan forces capture the scientist and imprison him. And Kaz Brekker, a rising criminal in Ketterdam, gets hired by a powerful merchant to steal the man and bring him back to Kerch.
The crew Kaz assembles is a terrific way for Bardugo to flesh out the way personal motivations interact with geopolitics.
Nina and Matthias are a Grisha and a Fjerdan witch-hunter; in fact, Matthias captured Nina and was taking her to Fjerda to stand what would have inevitably been an unfair trial and face slave labor or execution. The only thing they agree on is that the Shu scientist has created something so dangerous that no state can be allowed to control it. Inej, one of the members of Kaz’s gang, was an acrobat before she was sold into slavery and forced to work for a brutal brothel-owner. Jesper is from a rural community and has fallen into debt in Ketterdam’s gambling dens. And Wylan, who is handy with maps and bombs, has a rather more personal connection to the Kerch aristocracy.
All the characters have been shaped by national policies or national cultures. Kaz suffered a childhood trauma because of the criminal culture Ketterdam has allowed to flourish. Matthias has been deeply inculcated into Fjerda’s religious traditions and anti-Grisha bigotries. Nina has spent her life terrified of falling into Fjerdan hands. Inej has been made vulnerable by the sexual fetishization of Suli women and the Suli’s status as stateless people. Jesper has lost his sense of self by falling off the academic track that was intended for him.
While never leaning on this idea too heavily — “Six of Crows” is a well-plotted heist novel — the characters’ experiences are an elegant expression of an important insight. The fate of nations may seem to grind on in an impersonal fashion. But foreign and domestic policies and cultures have a profound effect on individuals. And individuals who are either extraordinary or determined, or both, can change nations, even if they only nudge their trajectories a little bit. That’s the stuff of appealing young adult fiction. It also happens to be true.