Crooked Kingdom (Six of Crows, #2)Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“He has more guns, more men, and more resources. All we have is surprise, and we’re not going to squander it.”

Inej has been taken. Jesper made an almost fatal mistake that strains the trust of the crew. Wylan is struggling to find his moral compass in a crew of thieves after his father publically spurned him. Nina is physically wounded and fighting addiction. Matthias is a man without a country who’s woman is wounded. And Kaz, Kaz has been forced to make an accommodation with his sworn enemy to save his Wraith.

“We meet fear,” he said. “We greet the unexpected visitor and listen to what he has to tell us. When fear arrives, something is about to happen.”

Our crew is wounded…physically and emotionally. They are divided in trust, capability, and location. And, to top it all off, they still have the human package they so artfully acquired during their visit to the frozen country in Six of Crows— and just about every country in their world would kill to find and keep him. Not to mention the corrupt Merchant who started this whole conniption by first hiring our talented con artists and then by not paying them.

“Do you know what Van Eck’s problem is?”
“No honor?” said Matthias.
“Rotten parenting skills?” said Nina.
“Receding hairline?” offered Jasper.
“No,” said Kaz. “Too much to lose. And he gave us a map to what to steal first.”

This is is wild ride of witty banter and clever schemes as our criminals take the fight to the dirty Merch’s front door and maybe even make some time for the occasional righting of long forgotten wrongs. So what is the catch? What took a 5 star shoo-in and made it a barely accomplished (and still debated internally) 4 star review?
the constant scheming.

“How would you like a hundred kruge?”
“What’s the catch?”
“Exactly. Van Eck’s making it too easy. He’s treating us like marks. But he isn’t Barrel born, and we aren’t a bunch of dumb culls ready to jump at the first shiny lure he flashes.”

This is a book of plot twists. Literally every plot point ends up with a twist…and those twists have twists. Inej’s rescue attempts have a half a dozen, our walking chemical weapon has three, Wylan v father has two, the inner crew relationships have two or three each, old debts even carried spins within spins… every other chapter ends in a cliffhanger to be redressed in the next. It was overly twisty in more than a couple cases and made this reader…SERIOUSLY!?!

So what saved the overly twistiness (it is a word if I say it is) of our major and minor plots within plots?

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

The characters!

“The problem was that creatures who had managed to survive this city he’d made were a new kind of misery entirely – Brekker, his Wraith queen, his rotten court of thugs. A fearless breed, hard-eyed and feral, hungrier for vengeance than for gold.”

Inej is our Wraith, a veritable spy and excellent killer. In the last book she was struggling reconciling her past with her present, although she had begun to see a future. Her development blows the reader away as we see that mousy girl develop into a no apologies strong female proantagonist.

“I am not sorry, she realized. She had chosen to live freely as a killer rather than die quietly as a slave, and she could not regret that.”

Jesper, our marksman with a bit of magic and a bad time with gambling actually shows signs of growing up.

“They had been not talking about things for so long that actually speaking the truth felt like it had broken some kind of spell – not a curse, but good magic, the kind that kept everyone safe…”

Matthias, the honor bound muscle of the group, finally makes peace with his teachings and finds something better to believe in..or rather someone.

“..somewhere between delighted to see Nina acting like herself again and jealous that Jesper made her smile. He needed to dunk his head in a bucket. He was behaving like a besotted ninny.”

Nina (view spoiler) our heartreader is slowly healing and leaving behind the immaturity that got Matthias thrown in prision.

“Nina knew that look. It came after the shipwreck, when the tide moved against you and the sky had gone dark. It was the first sign of land, the hope of shelter and even salvation that might await you on a distant shore.”

Wylan maybe a Merch transplant with a bad childhood, but even he is finding his place in this ever complicated den of thugs and thieves.

“Wylan knew that even if he’d had his pick of a thousand companions, these would have been the people he chose.”

And Kaz, our master con man with a huge chip and very little give a damn, actually shows signs of moving on to better things, of widening his gaze a bit…but not too much or too obviously. He would not want his enemies to see after all.

“I don’t hold a grudge. I cradle it. I coddle it. I feed it fine cuts of meat and send it to the best schools. I nurture my grudges.”

With all the developing characters and the delightful banter between them, it might have been hard to pick the stand out feature that overcame an unnecessarily complicated and squeaked out a 4 star read- except that it wasn’t. The defining factor in this novel is the character’s dedication to their crew and how they grow as a group…as well as the well written prose that made it seem seamless.

“I would come for you,” he said, and when he saw the wary look she shot him, he said it again. “I would come for you. And if I couldn’t walk, I’d crawl to you, and no matter how broken we were, we’d fight our way out together- knives drawn, pistols blazing. Because that’s what we do. We never stop fighting.”

Ultimately, this novel maintained the Ocean’s meets adventure feel that we loved so much in the first book. While the plots within plots started to become a drag toward the last 1/3 of the book, the characters and rich world they created in their hellish Barrel held it all together and still carried the day

Leigh Bardugo continues to give us beautiful prose and her storylines show that she is not afraid to take chances as an author.

Recommened for those who love a good adventure and criminally questionable characters.

A word of caution, however: remember that this is the Barrel, and there are no happy endings in the Barrel.

“No mourners. No funerals.”