No one's going to read Leigh Bardugo's newest book, Six Of Crows, without thinking about Ocean's 11. No one's going to hear the premise — six young criminals hired to break into (and then out of) the most secure prison in the world — without thinking of Danny Ocean and his crew. Certainly no critic is going to write about the thing without making the connection. It would be stupid not to. Because Six Of Crows is a heist story. It is so purely and simply a heist story that comparisons to one of the best heist stories ever told are inevitable. If Ocean's 11 was a textbook exercise in plotting, character development and the ol' bait-and-switch reveal, then Six Of Crows is a thesis on how these lessons can be deployed in genre fiction.
We begin with Kaz Brekker, 17-year-old criminal prodigy and second in command of a gang called the Dregs. He has a mysterious past, a cool nickname (Dirtyhands), and Danny Ocean's knack for misdirection and covering all his bets. The first time we get a good view of him, he's having one of those brain-on-brain showdowns with another gang leader where he shows his mastery of the situation by never moving from the mark on which he stands while, all around him, a plan carefully laid off-page comes clicking together with clockwork precision. It's a nice set-piece, hobbled only by the fact that while it acts as the beginning of the tale, it isn't actually the beginning of the book.
No, Bardugo tacks on a long-ish (and dull) first chapter that serves both as a prologue and a gentle drop into her world for those not already familiar with the universe she writes in. And while I understand the utility of such a thing — particularly in the YA sphere, where this book ostensibly lives — it's one of those things that most readers will just have to suffer through in order to get to the good stuff that follows.
And yes, there is a lot of good stuff. I mean, how could there not be? Second only to submarine stories, the heist story is the most compact and driven of all possible plot frames. There's a thing in a place (in this case, a scientist/magician with the secret formula for a kind of magical super-drug, locked away in a supposedly impenetrable prison), then a team of thieves who have to go to the place and steal the thing. Complications, of course, arise.
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Bardugo does not stray far from these mechanics — no good heist writer does. Where the joy comes is in the interaction between the team of thieves, the brains of the boss and the machinations of the law. There are courtships and betrayals among Brekker's crew, long-simmering lusts, dark motivations laid out one by one as Bardugo bounces from one narrator to the next to the next, handing off the point of view with each chapter. And, always and forever, there's the Big Job there waiting at the end of the long trail — breaking into the Ice Court in the far North, grabbing Professor Maguffin and getting out again in one piece.
So sure, Six Of Crows has a muscle car's drive and a cast that hangs with you like they were made of magnets, but the one thing that bothered me throughout? The characters' ages. Pretty much the entire crew are 17 years old (with, I believe, one notable exception). And that's fine. Bardugo is aiming straight for that YA sweet spot, and 17 is the magic number. But if you're going to write about 17-year-old characters, it's your responsibility to make them think and act like 17-year-olds, which none of Bardugo's six crows do. Save the young demolitions expert (who is shy and easily embarrassed and mystified by pretty much everything happening around him), there's not one who couldn't suddenly age up to 32 and be more believable for that one cosmetic change. Brekker, in particular, talks (and thinks) like a 50-year-old criminal mastermind pulled out of retirement for one last job, his absolute surety of all human motives and seemingly bottomless bag of felonious tricks (and occasional murderous impulses) just way too hard-bitten even for this world.
But it's still an impressive world. Bardugo has created a grimy fantasy with a thin blank-punk veneer laid over the top. There are knives and rifles, magic and technology — everything mashed together in a jumble of influences that is wickedly attractive because (and not in spite of) the characters inhabiting it so fully. It's a slick trick of world-building that eschews the info-dump (save that first regrettable chapter) in favor of making the world simply the world, defined by the way the characters move through it. The smell of coal smoke in the morning does more to set a scene than 10,000 words describing the industry that produces it.
And Bardugo certainly knows how her world smells.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.