Good day to you, avid readers! I hope this column finds every little bookworm out there well. The days are getting chilly, and it's a great time to dive into some darker fare — the cold snaps and fuzzy blankets make such a good pairing for them. But don’t worry; I’m not assigning you to read some Russian novel. (Hell, I was an English major, and I struggle with reading Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.) But I do want to explore a Russian-folklore-inspired YA series and all of its queer little corners with you.
Before I go much further, I should put out a SPOILER ALERT for both of these novels. In order for me to fully articulate my points, I will need to discuss some key events and characters from the books. Sorry in advance. I feel like I should also include a content warning: sexual assault. Forewarned is fore-armed. But for those who don’t mind a few spoilers or have already read CK, let’s grab some waffles and settle in. Good? Good. The deal is the deal.
Crooked Kingdom is the second in a duology of YA fantasy novels, focusing on a band of teens in a gang called the Dregs. The first novel, Six of Crows, hones in on how this motley crew got together for the biggest heist in their world — a magic heist. CK continues the story by exploring the after-effects of the campaign and what each of the characters does next with the heist’s consequences.
All of the main players — Kaz, Inej, Nina, Matthias, Jesper, and Wylan — are no more than twenty when they try to pull off the biggest prison break in this world. I got a massive Ocean’s Eleven vibe from the set-up to get into the supposedly impenetrable Ice Court, and it turned out that was with good reason — in my novel’s edition, Bardugo elaborates that she was inspired to do a magic heist from remembering that movie existed. But the stakes are far different in this world — and in a strange way, much harder to pull off in this universe since none of the cast of characters have cleared their teen years. How would this world, and these deeply wounded children, let them have enough social cache or know-how to navigate and bust out of a clink that is the equivalent of Fort Knox? Once I got that this was the set-up (more on that later), I was hooked.
Wait a minute; you may be asking, this is supposed to be a queer book review. When is she gonna start talking about all that bi goodness? Right now, buddies. The main queer character at play here is Jesper, a young sharpshooter of color with a gambling addiction and a smart mouth almost as fast as his gun-wielding.
Jesper provides much of the snarky commentary during Six of Crows. I wouldn’t say he’s the comic relief because all of the players get in some good jabs here and there — but humor is the biggest tool in Jesper’s arsenal, next to his bullets. While he barely admits it to himself while flirting with Nina, it’s clear that Jesper has a thing for Kaz. He is also a habitual flirt, especially when he knows his attempts will either find friendly landings or fluster their targets. So when he sends a few lines over to Wylan, the newest and youngest member of this mission’s crew, and they get met with blushes, Jesper goes to town. This is the first direct same-sex flirtation we really see in this duology, but it’s not the last. And Jesper’s sexuality is made explicitly clear in a darling passage where he confirms it.
“I don’t like the idea of killing people, either. I don’t even like chemistry.”
“What do you like?”
“Music. Numbers. Equations. They’re not like words. They… they don’t get mixed up.”
“If only you could talk to girls in equations.”
There was a long silence, and then, eyes trained on the notch they’d created in the link, Wylan said, “Just girls?”
Jesper restrained a grin. “No. Not just girls." It really was a shame they were all probably going to die tonight.
While I enjoyed this passage, I was disappointed because I thought Jesper was the least fleshed-out character in SoC. Most of the other characters get more dimensions and backstory to show how they ticked.
But then I remembered my friend telling me I had to read Six of Crows before Crooked Kingdom to help it make sense, so I pressed on. And boy, am I glad I did. Jesper finally gets a lot more of the story told from his vantage point, and we get to see his backstory and how and why he fell into this particular gang and life of crime. We meet his family, and we get to see many more fears, hopes, and dreams he holds within himself but rarely speaks out loud. I felt like I was watching a beloved recurring guest star on a show get a bump up to a series regular and get the backstory the fans demanded from the network. It was really satisfying to see how Jesper’s story unfolded. Even Kaz mentions Jesper’s hook-ups near the end of the novel — his queerness is conspicuous and accepted within the Dregs crew.
After some poking around in discussion forums and fanfic for Crooked Kingdom, I have also found that a lot of folks coded Nina and Inej’s relationship as queer. I can see where they get the ideas: they’re very physically affectionate with each other (which is a nice foil to their hetero love interests) and are clearly deeply invested in each other, care for one another, and keep it real when they talk to each other. Regardless of if the girls are queer or not, it’s lovely to see affectionate relationships — especially in this Grishaverse, which is full of a lot of darkness.
There’s an interesting flavor to Bardugo’s universe that feels sort of less heteronormative, but that straightness was still generally assumed. As Leigh Bardugo noted in this interview, she wanted to normalize queerness and queer relationships, and I think she succeeded. If there is any questioning of Jesper’s or Wylan’s sexuality, it doesn’t really seem to come from themselves or their inner circle, which is refreshing.
There is also great intersectional representation going on in Crooked Kingdom and Six of Crows in addition to bi-ness. Kaz with his cane displays some diverse disability representation. Multiple characters in the Dregs crew are people of color, and it often is not an issue (except sometimes in some amusing magical rom-com confusion or outsider’s perceptions). And many of the characters come from a place from their past informed by manifestations of PTS — something that informs their character and actions but in no way feels forced. None of this representation feels shoehorned but rather essential to the narrative.
All that said, these are dark, dark tales, including allusions to Inej’s time as a young sex slave and attempted child murder. These are entertaining books, but it’s heavy material in case someone is looking for a lighter bi fare.
Also, I feel compelled to note that these books take a bit of patience. It took over a hundred pages for the full set-up to come into play in Six of Crows to get the plot rolling. Normally I give a book fifty pages to catch my attention, so take heed.
So I do have some hesitations in recommending this book. It definitely has a streak of humor throughout the story, but this is Harry Potter if Westeros got to him first. That may not be to everyone’s taste, but this New York Times bestseller definitely has an audience — which included me. I look forward to seeing what Netflix does with this dark, fascinating tale. I’ll be ready with a big pile of waffles.