Spoiler alert! This review contains a few mentions that could be considered minor spoilers if you haven't read Crooked Kingdom. I try to keep anything too spoilerific out of my review, but there are some stray mentions in there which might spoil a couple of plot points.
Do you ever feel like you must have missed something with a book? Everyone raves about it. It has a 4.6 rating on Goodreads. It's been on just about every bestseller list going. And then you read it, and you wonder if your copy somehow ended up with different contents than everyone else's? That was my feeling on finally finishing Crooked Kingdom.
I loved Six of Crows. Really loved it. It was a step up from the Grisha trilogy - which I really enjoyed - in terms of plotting and writing style, and it ended on one hell of a hook. I barely put Six of Crows down when I was reading it, and all the reviews I've read for the second in the duology were raves, so I was expecting more of the same from Crooked Kingdom. I didn't find it. I hit the wall about a third of the way in, and found the second half of this book an absolute chore to get through. Perhaps if my hopes hadn't been so high, I wouldn't have been so disappointed. But the gulf between book one and book two, between my expectation and the reality, was a big one.
Whereas Six of Crows had a tight, consistent plot, Crooked Kingdom felt like four or five different plots stuck together. It just felt so disjointed, with Kaz and the gang lurching from one ludicrously implausible scheme to the next. They cook up a plot that seems impossible, execute it, almost get caught but then get away thanks to Kaz's apparent omnipotence. Repeat ad nauseum. I lost count of the number of times I put this book down. First there's rescuing Inej, then there's revenge on Van Eck, then there's something about buying up sugar and bombing the city's supply to increase its worth, then there's rescuing Grisha, then there's revenge on Pekka Rollins. And I've probably missed some because I got to the stage where I was skimming towards the end. Reading back what I've written, these individual plots probably hung together to form a grander scheme, but I never got that sense while I was reading. Everything felt very episodic. Don't get me wrong, the world building is incredible, and the intricacies of the plot are so tight they'd tie a less talented writer up in knots. But with so much going on, I just found the book unforgivably boring. There was a bigger story going on here, with Grisha-enhanced super soldiers infused with metal flying around and kingdoms teetering on the brink of all-out war, fighting for control of those with magic and the opiate-like substance used to turbocharge them, but it felt relegated to the background in favour of another "OMG, isn't Kaz awesome!?" moment.
My main problem with this book was the same niggling problem I had with Six of Crows and can be summed up in two words. Kaz Brekker. Honestly, the man is a total dick. Alright, he's got a tragic backstory, but no more so than many other, far more pleasant characters. Quite why anyone puts up with this nasty, arrogant asshole is beyond me. The oddly limp finale has him finally getting his revenge on the man he perceives to have wronged him (short version; he tricked Kaz and his brother out of all their money and turned them out onto the streets where his brother got sick and died. Let's just ignore the fact that Kaz openly admits to conning numerous people out of their money and putting them in exactly the same situation, shall we? And if you've read Six of Crows already - which I presume most people would have - it's nothing you don't already know), by giving a loving, uncomfortably detailed description of how he buried the man's innocent son alive. Our hero, ladies and gentleman! Sure, it turns out to be a bluff, but what kind of sick fuck does that? I just can't bring myself to root for such a colossal prick, and the numerous instances of him treating his supposed friends/allies/people he needs around for his own benefit, like utter garbage did nothing to endear him to me either, and the less said about the scenes of him threatening children and tormenting heavily pregnant women the better. His scenes with Inej towards the end, while offering moments of genuine sweetness, were too little too late to redeem this character in my eyes. In fact, pairing him with her, a far better character who'd been through worse and come out stronger, only made his flaws seem more glaring. I appreciate that different people handle trauma in different ways, and it would have been pretty boring if we'd ended up with six identical, scarred but hopeful characters, but Kaz's utter assholery and insufferable smugness just made me want to see him get outsmarted and having the everloving crap kicked out of him. But of course, that never happened.
And that raises my other problem that the character of Kaz. His apparent omnipotence and constant forward thinking, to the point I assumed he must be a new kind of Grisha who could see the future (alas, this is not the case), robbed the story and events of any tension. I'd suggest a drinking game where you take a shot everytime a character waxes lyrical about how sly, sneaky and badass Kaz is, but you'd run a very serious risk of death from alcohol poisoning. The best you could hope for is a three day hangover.
In every single situation, he's one step ahead, knowing information he couldn't possibly have known and planning for scenarios he could never have foreseen. That happens once in a story, and it's exciting. It's a heart-stopping near miss, raising the stakes for our protagonists. But when you've seen the story-ordained hero trick his way out of an impossible situation for the fourth time - and that's just in this book, I'm not even counting Six of Crows - you stop caring the next time they're in danger, because you know exactly what's going to happen. The finale of this duology, which should have been an all out battle of epic proportions, ends up being a damp squib that essentially rehashes the same plot twist we've seen four or five times already. Oh not, Kaz is outsmarted and they're all going to die! Oh wait, no they're not. The guy manages to outwit every single character he crosses paths with, beat up a room full of heavily armed thugs bare-handed (despite having a dodgy leg and needing a cane to walk) and has an extensive knowledge of geo-politics, trading markets and property investment. He's less a character than a plot device, a heavy-handed analogy for how rotten Ketterdam makes people and just a thoroughly unpleasant bastard, and not in a good way. I found myself veering between bored and annoyed by him, which meant I spent a good deal of the book in a foul mood. If you love the character - which many people appear to do, so I'm very much the minority - you'll probably love this book. In fact, I'm fairly certain you will, as Kaz is clearly intended to be a product of his environment and a personification of Ketterdam; damaged, harsh, but not completely beyond redemption. But for me personally, the character was pretty much the entire reason I didn't enjoy this book.
Elsewhere, the characters I loved so much in book one were all present and correct, if a little sidelined by the plot. Inej is still my favourite character, with a little more of her backstory coming out in this book. She deserved better than being shackled to a miserable git like Kaz, but that's love I guess. Nina's battle with her addiction to parem was suitably brutal, even though I had no idea by the end of the book why it had changed her powers from a heartrender to someone who could apparently raise the dead into some sort of zombie horde to do her bidding. I'm still too pissed off by what happened to Matthias to even mention him, but I was glad to see Jesper and Wylan finally get together. Forget Kaz and Inej (well, not Inej, because she's awesome), this pair stole the show for me! There were a couple of returning faces, but they were too fleeting to make much impact. Even my beloved Sturmhond got short changed! I loved the introduction of Dunyasha, a mysterious assassin who goes after Inej, but she pops up in literally two scenes, says something about having royal blood, and then gets killed off. It's just ... bizarre! Why the hell go to so much trouble describing this character, giving her a jump-off-the-page-awesome personality and a deliciously enticing tie to a bigger picture, only to have her fall off a roof on her second outing? Maybe she was somehow connected to the original Grisha trilogy and I've just forgotten about her, but what a waste!
In a sea of cookie-cutter YA characters that bring little to the table in terms of diversity, I like that this series involves a mix of ethnicities and sexualities. There aren't a whole lot of romantic scenes in this book, but one of the few kissy scenes - and easily the most lengthy and detailed one - occurs between two guys. The author does an awesome job of writing the female characters too, with a refreshing lack of bitchiness and backstabbing, and a healthy representation of female sexuality without any judgey faces from other characters. Again, more of this please!
I feel a little harsh giving this book just two stars because Leigh Bardugo is such a fantastic writer and, even when the story wasn't holding my interest, her writing is pure poetry. There's no way this book is two stars in terms of writing quality, but it's two stars in terms of my enjoyment, and that's how my ratings work. Crooked Kingdom was impeccably plotted and dazzling well written, but it bored me to tears.