Of Crows and Men: A Perfect Heist with a Perfect Team

Big Trouble in Little Ketterdam.

Of Crows and Men: A Perfect Heist with a Perfect Team

Spoilers for the Crows duology (Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom) follow. Proceed with caution!
(Updated on 15th August 2021)

I was introduced to the Crows when I watched the Shadow and Bone series. They became the main reasons I continued watching the series with greater interest. I had finished Shadow and Bone by the time the series started so the Crows storyline was all new to me. But that was not the only reason I my interest was piqued; Kaz, Inej and Jesper, and on the other side, Nina and Mathias had won my heart in their performances.

After finishing the series I was looking forward to an extra dose of the Crows with the Six of Crows, and boy, was I excited?! Just like in the series, the Six of Crows follows Kaz and his team as they plan and execute a heist. We are introduced to the jurda parem and it's effects on the Grisha right in the opening chapter. This would be the core of the Crows duology and coming from the Shadow and Bone series. It takes time for the seriousness of the drug to sink in, but from the outset, one thing is clear: it does not look good for the Grisha. The drug gives Grisha magic a boost, essentially making them super-human, but at the cost of addiction and subsequent death. Unlike the enhancing powers that magic has on the Grisha, the drug seems to burn out a Grisha's energy.

The Crows seem more on the ground level that the court like politics that play a major part of the Shadow and Bone trilogy. Where Shadow and Bone dominantly happened in Ravka, the Crows shows us the island nation of Kerch and it's corrupted center, Ketterdam and later on, Fjerda. There is a total different dynamic on the streets of Ketterdam and the consequence seem more brutal and real than the civil war in Ravka. There the threat was unreal in the form of the Darkling and his monsters, but here in the streets, it seems more grounded and humane. Backroom politics do play a role in the second book with Shu Han adding another threat to the table, but it takes a backseat to the more focused events across Ketterdam.


Six of Crows: The Beginning

We are introduced to Kaz and his ruthlessness and cunning in the form of the deal he makes with a rival gang for control of the harbor. We learn of how Kaz trades in information using it to get what he wants and against enemies to maintain his control. He plays a dangerous game in a dangerous world and he knows it.

As I said, the drug jurda parem is the core and it's creator has been captured in Fjerda. Being shown the power of the drug firsthand, Kaz gets roped in by a merch, Van Eyck, from the Merchant Council of Kerch, to rescue Bo Yul Bayur, the creator of the drug, from the clutches of Fjerda. Kaz negotiates his price for the rescue as 20 million kruge and begins planning his heist for the Ice Court in Fjerda. He is careful in his planning so as to get things right and not let any rivals get in his way. The hint of threat from a rival gang, Dime Lions, led by Pekka Rollins lingers.

Meet the Crows

We have Kaz, the mastermind thief, who has come up from the streets to become part of the gang called Crows. He has been responsible for their recent rise in prosperity through his deft maneuvering and establishing their headquarters in the Barrel.

Six of Crows
The Six of Crows

Kaz knows the Ice Court infiltration job will require a solid team. By his side is Inej, the Wraith, who is a master in the art of sneaking and fetching information that most try to keep secret. She is how Kaz always seems to get a upper hand in most encounters. Being rescued from the brothels, she forms a bond with Kaz, who earns her loyalty.

Apart from Inej, Jesper is another member of the Crows, whom Kaz chooses to come along.  He is a great sharpshooter, who never misses his mark, but he does have a weakness for gambling. Having a hint of a power, we later learn that Jesper is a Fabrikator in hiding from the Novyi Zem, who had come to Ketterdam for his educationin the University, but fell into the wrong crowd because of his gambling addiction.

Then we have Nina, a Grisha Heartrender, who is in Ketterdam as she wants to help rescue her love Mathias, a Fjerdan she helped put in jail. Kaz uses this opportunity to not only recruit Nina but also Mathias, whose intimate knowledge of the Ice Court and Fjerda will prove useful in their venture.

Nina didn’t need a bed because she specialised in emotions. She dealt in joy, calm, confidence. Most Grisha Corporalki focused on the body – to kill or to cure – but Nina had needed a job that would keep her in Ketterdam and out of trouble. So instead of risking her life and making major money as a mercenary, she slowed heartbeats, eased breathing, relaxed muscles. She had a lucrative side business as a Tailor, seeing to the wrinkles and jowls of the wealthy Kerch, but her chief source of income came from altering moods. People came to her lonely, grieving, sad for no reason, and left buoyed, their anxieties eased. The effect didn’t last long, but sometimes just the illusion of happiness was enough to make her clients feel like they could face another day.

Finally, Kaz chooses Wylan, a demolitions expert to tag along with them. His ulterior motive for choosing Wylan is that he is the son of the Van Eyck, the merch who hired them. He would serve as leverage if things go south. At first, it seems than Wylan is merely along as leverage, until he proves his expertise with devices that get them out of a bind.

Except for Wylan, we get to meet the rest of the crew in the Shadow and Bone Netflix series. After reading the books, I find them perfectly cast in the roles. I have already written in my review of the series of how I always found myself looking forward to the Crows storyline in the series. Now the books gave me more of them and I was loving it.

Wylan summoned every bit of bravado he’d learned from Nina, the will he’d learned from Matthias, the focus he’d studied in Kaz, the courage he’d learned from Inej, and the wild, reckless hope he’d learned from Jesper, the belief that no matter the odds, somehow they would win.

Through the books, we would see this odd group of people get together to form an unbeatable team (I almost continued to say "...of superheroes", because in one way it does seem to go that way. Crows, assemble!).

The Flashbacks

Interspersed through the main story are a series of flashbacks that tell us the backstories of the Crows. While Six of Crows mainly shows Nina, Mathias, Kaz and Inej's story, the Crooked Kingdom gives some insight into Jesper and Wylan's past. This stories deliver a break from the present delving into the thoughts of the characters, giving us further understanding into their motivations and how they ended up where they are.

Kaz's tale is tragic as we follow his story with his brother and their subsequent duping at the hands of a merch, Mr. Hertzoon, in the streets of Ketterdam. The dupe had all the hints of a scam to us readers, but to two naive boys just landed on the streets of Ketterdam, they were just taken in with the thoughts of making a quick buck. Ketterdam burned the innocence out of the young Kaz and made him the ruthless thief he is now. It was clear that Pekka Rollins had some part to play in this story, but what surprised me was that he was Jacob Hertzoon himself, the man had actually cheated Kaz and his brother of their money.

We understand Kaz's reason to wear gloves and his aversion to touch and it is tragic as hell. One small choice and his path would be all that different. It wasn;t even his choice that put him on this path, but his brother's.

The scam run by Hertzoon seems to be taken right out of the books of the stock market scams, in which many people have been duped time and time again. If it's too good to be true, it is too good to be true. There is no legal shortcut to getting rich (unless you cheat your way to the top).

The Heist

With the team in place, the next step was getting to Fjerda and infiltrating the Ice Court. Using their skills, Kaz makes a plan from the point of infiltration to the plan for extraction. As with most heists, the plan is multi-layered beginning with getting into the enemy country. As we get deeper in there, the relationships between the characters are further explored.

After making their way to the Ice Court, things align well for the team. The books have this character perspectives in which the stories are told. We follow each character in their part of the plan. This change in perspective is used to build up tension and also show parallel events as the characters get into position. At a certain point, it seems all hope is lost until we learn that it was all part of the plan. We are always given part of the knowledge so when other facets are revealed, it comes as a satisfying surprise.

The Ice Court

From the outer circles of the Ice Court to the inner sanctum, we follow the characters till we reach the prisoner we are looking for. In Fjerda, the Grisha are persecuted and put to death for their supposed cursed powers, but we learn this is not exactly the case in the Ice Court, which actually seems to be the work of Grisha. Further, we learn of how the Grisha are experimented on right in the center of the court, the White Island, all for control.

Finally, when Nina and Mathias do get to the prisoner, we learn that Bo Yul Bayur is dead and that his young 15 year old son, Kuwei Yul Bo is forced to recreate his father's experiments. With the choice now to kill the son instead of the father, Nina and Mathias choose to rescue him instead and they make their escape.

Their is a side story of Kaz having met Pekka Rollins in the cells of the prison and what seems to look like having killed him. But it later turns out that, Kaz had let him escape. Looking at this particular event in the context of both the books, it does not seem to have served a purpose as it does put Pekka in debt to Kaz, which is subsequently erased at the end of the book.

By the time we reach the next book, Pekka aligns himself with Van Eyck causing all sorts of trouble for Kaz. This seemed to be the natural course of events even if Kaz had not helped Pekka and made me feel that the subplot was shoehorned in just for the sake of it.

The Escape

Escaping from the Ice Court would not be easy and it is so represented as the Crows make their way out. A number of clues dotted the books to help in the escape and it all comes together so well. From using the waters of Djel under the ash tree to a literal tank, the Crows blast their way out of Fjerda towards the harbor, where their ship was waiting to extract them.

As expected, their escape would not be a walk in the park, with an army waiting by the docks to take them out. By now, we are well aware of jurda parem and it's effects. Finally, we see out team driven to the corner, where they have to use it and for that, Nina steps forward. With the power of the drug, she is able to bring the army to heel and help them get away.

The Consequences

What seems like a simple decision at the time, the consequence of Nina taking the jurda parem are evident on the ship back to Ketterdam. I was not as worried as I should have been at first. After all, she is the hero, she will spring back. But as I witnessed first hand, her reaction to the drug and it's withdrawal, it seemed so painful. In the end, she even loses her ability to control her Heartrender powers. It is a representation of addiction and the subsequent loss that accompanies as one tries to overcome it.

Being successful in the impossible heist, the team makes their way back to Van Eyck to finish the deal and get the 30 million kruge, but things can never be so simple. The merch turns out to be sleazy as fuck, planning to cheat Kaz all along and grab Kuwei Yul Bo out of his hands. Somehow, Kaz is able to pull one on the merch, and manages to dupe him by getting Wylan tailored as Kuwei. So, without Kuwei Yul Bo, van Eyck has no choice but to retreat.

In a moment when it seems Van Eyck had lost, he realizes of the bond between Kaz and Inej and has her captured as he makes his escape. An interesting and unexpected turn of events closes the first book and lays down the opening of the next.

Crooked Kingdom: The Path to Freedom

Where Six of Crows followed the team in the heist in a foreign country, the Crooked Kingdom finds them as fugitives in their own city. We pick up right where we left off, with Inej captured by Van Eyck. With Kaz making a plan to break Inej, it makes a thrilling first act. While we are misdirected with a direct rescue plan, Kaz pulls one on Van Eyck by actually kidnapping his wife.

“Always hit where the mark isn’t looking.”

So instead of falling into the trap set by Van Eyck, Kaz now holds a chip that allows him to exchange for Inej. Where the first book looked to establish the team, we now see it taken to the next level. Comfortable working with each other, the team starts working together in the rescue, the subsequent escape and the plan to get their freedoms.

Using his position in the merch council, Van Eyck gets Kaz and his team condemned as criminals, charging them with kidnapping his son. He even teams up with Pekka Rollins, who gets all the rival gangs of the Barrel together to hunt for Kaz. It was the whole city against the Six Crows. Not only do Kaz and his team need to get what they are owed, they also need to exonerate themselves. Adding to the tension are the Shu Han's kherguud soldiers, who are kidnapping Grisha for their experiments. It seems the Shu have used their reserves of the parem to create super soldiers that seem indestructible.

A part of the plan is again revealed to us as to how they can make the money back. There is one thing I learned time and time again, which is further exemplified in this series, it is that if a plan is revealed to us, it rarely goes according to it. There is always something that will get messed up. The best masterminds, as is the case with Kaz, know this and always have a plan for pivoting. So is the case, when the plan went to hell, Kaz comes up with an even madder plan on how they can get what they want. As we not privy to all the details, it ends up being the case, where it gets executed flawlessly.

It was good to meet Nikolai, Genya and Zoya in the Ravkan embassy. It was strange to see that the king himself had come, under the guise of Sturmhond, of course, to Ketterdam. Ravka seemed to be in debt and not doing so well after the civil war. It was strange to hear as the Darkling's coup on the Lantsov's be referred to as a civil war, but it makes sense that it would be so to the countries outside its borders. It does seem that Genya's tailoring powers are enhanced as she succeeds in undoing Wylan's tailoring as Kuwei and further is able to tailor Nikolai's scars.

While we converge to the finale, it is tense as things start falling into place and the team is able to reveal Van Eyck for the cheat that he is and exonerate themselves. In the process, Kaz is also able to get the funds they were promised and splits the 30 million kruge among the Crows. But sadly while making their escape, Mathias is shot by one of the Druskelle (the Fjerdan Grisha hunters).

After all their mad escapes and close calls, he’d started to believe the six of them were somehow charmed, that his guns, Kaz’s brains, Nina’s wit, Inej’s talent, Wylan’s ingenuity, and Matthias’ strength had made them somehow untouchable. They might suffer. They might take their knocks, but Wylan was right, in the end they were all supposed to stay standing.
- Jesper, Crooked Kingdom

The Love Stories

Through all the chaos, their is the sub plots of the love stories. It seems the Crows were made to pair up with Inej and Kaz, Nina and Matthias, Jesper and Wylan forming into couples.

Nina and Mathias

Nina and Mathias's story is as shown in the Netflix series. They did modify the escape from the ship sequence. While the book shows a certain Nina's initiative for escape, the series seems to have directly transitioned into the storm. However, it does manage to convey the sweet dynamic between the two and what seems to be the subsequent betrayal by Nina.

“It’s not natural for someone to be as stupid as he is tall, and yet there you stand. Did you really swim all those miles just to die in this hut?”
- Nina, Six of Crows
Nina and Mathias (Art by Frida Johansson)
Nina and Mathias (Art by Frida Johansson)

We get to see their reconciliation over their mutual self interest to kill Bo Yul Bayur and not allow his research to get out into the world. But it is the love that grows between them that is very satisfying. The bubbly, outspoken Nina with her love for cakes makes a stark contrast to the stoic, quiet Mathias. They are like two sides of a coin. They say "Opposites attract" and we can see this firsthand in Nina and Mathias.

Wylan and Jesper

Wylan and Jesper are another example of opposites attracting each other, the boisterous Jesper falling for the shy Wylan. What starts out as simple teasing for being an outsider rich kid in the cruel streets, Jesper's love for Wylan grows into something beautiful.

Wylan and Jesper (Art by Frida Marijo)
Wylan and Jesper (Art by Frida Marijo)

Over the two books, we see the silly banter between the two. We witness the almost first kiss, where Jesper mistakes Kuwei as Wylan, and then their actually first kiss "a gunshot". Somehow this pairing parallels that of Nina and Mathias, with Nina and Jesper being the flirtish counterparts to the shy Mathias and Wylan.

Kaz and Inej

Inej is the right hand of Kaz and we learn early on of her importance to him in being the spy and gatherig information. But when they are attacked as they set out to Fjerda and Inej is injured, we see Kaz worry for her. Inej does seem to have feelings for Kaz but knowing his true self, she is not sure if he will reciprocate it.

- Inej to Kaz

It seems their love story is doomed from the start, but the ending gives me some hope, in the way Kaz arranges for Inej's parents to come to Ketterdam.

Merchants and mercenaries

When Kaz and Van Eyck first meet, they have the following exchange in regards to their motivations and methods. As we go through the series, we learn that while the merch seems legitimate in his means, at the end of the day, his motivations are no different from the mercenary gang leader from the Barrel. Both are driven by profit, one under the pretense of the law and the other outside it.

“You’re a blackmailer—” ‌‌
“I broker information.” ‌‌
“A con artist—” ‌‌
“I create opportunity.”‌‌
“A bawd and a murderer—”
‌‌“I don’t run whores, and I kill for a cause.” ‌‌
“And what cause is that?” ‌‌
“Same as yours, merch. Profit.”

The series also highlights how far Van Eyck is ready to go to secure his fortune, so far as to disown and orchestrate the murder of his son, double cross on a deal and his readiness to make a profit at the behest of all out war. His greed knows no bounds despite his luxurious life. He seems worse than Kaz, who does what he needs to do to survive in the harsher Barrel.

The Worst Hand of them all: Nina

Of all the Crows, at the end of the duology, it seems that Nina is served the worst hand. Not only has she lost her powers after overcoming the withdrawal of the jurda parem, she also loses the love of her life. You see throughout the series, Nina never had a chance to settle down and spend some time with Mathias.

She gets captured in Ravka and taken away from her homeland to be put to trial before she is rescued by the storm. Then she makes a journey through the harsh winter of Fjerda with the very man who hunted her, Mathias and somehow, they fall in love. However, their time together was brief before she gives him up to the authorities (to save him from being killed by Ravkans). She then ends up working in a brothel in Ketterdam instead of going back to Ravka while trying to find a way to rescue Mathias. When they finally get back together in the Six of Crows, most of the time is spent in anger before they finally reconcile with each other and concentrate on the heist.

Then as they make their escape, Nina takes the jurda parem and subsequently spends most of the second book trying to overcome her withdrawal. It is only when she discovers her new powers over death and slowly returns to her old self that there is some hope in their relationship. But this is lost with his death and all for some young Fjerdan boy, who believes it is right in his misguided patriotism.

I was so sad for Nina in the end and she was the most hopeful of the lot. She voluntarily chose to stay in Ketterdam out of her loyalty for her love and in the end, the city exacted a costly price from her. I hear that her story continues in the Scars duology and hope for the best for her.

Closing Thoughts

I found both books seem to be one long story‌‌, and yet the break is perfect. It serves as a good cliffhanger. I found myself entertained by the Crows and their ever growing relationship. I grew very fond of Nina, Inej, Jesper, Wylan, Mathias and even Kaz. In part, I was happy for the end of their adventures (except for Nina, of course) and the chance for them to get their much deserved rest. On the other hand, I wished for more of their adventures, of Inej ruling the seas, of Wylan and Jesper settling down in the city, of Kaz ruling the Barrel and of Nina finding her peace, the last of which I do have a chance to read in the Scars duology.

I found Kaz's arc paralleling the Darkling. The bad, good guy, but Leigh Bardugo has found her balance in portraying a redeemable anti-hero. Where the Darkling's actions seemed very extreme by the end of the Shadow and Bone series, Kaz shows a more humane side to himself. I understood the reason for his ruthlessness and why he needs to do what he did. He did not settle as a victim of circumstances, but pulled himself out of it by using his wits. There is a lot to learn from his willfulness, a sense of direction that can drive you forward in a chaotic world.

The Crows duology has become one of my favorite series of all time. I am glad to see Leigh Bardugo grow as a writer. She succeeded in making me relate to the Crows and grow a fondness for all of the them.