"I don't want an ice pack, I want a hug": How Six of Crows Got Me Through Some Weird Shit (Essay)
While I was reading Six of Crows for the first time, my roommates had a terrible fight. During this fight, one of them (the girlfriend) maced the other (the boyfriend), and later she helped him wash the mace out of his eyes, saying soothing things as he whimpered in pain. Since he had thrown her laptop across a room that night, he didn’t deserve her help in that moment, just like she didn’t deserve to have to mace him, and just like I didn’t deserve to hear their abusive relationship implode over the course of a one-year lease. That situation, the three of us in our constellation of dysfunction, was beyond words like “deserve.”
One year, two apartments, and a cross-country move later, I’m about to start reading Crooked Kingdom, the sequel to Six of Crows. I’ll be revisiting foggy Ketterdam with its gangsters and Grisha, and the Fjerdan capital’s ice and snow. I’ll also be revisiting that little basement apartment in Brooklyn where I watched Trump get elected, stopped talking to my best friend from college, got paid for my writing for the first time, and a bunch of the other weird shit that happened to me from mid-2016 to mid-2017.
Six of Crows takes place in a fantasy/vaguely steampunk version of Amsterdam in an 1800s-ish age of history, and centers on a group of teenagers who run a mob-type operation in the Bad Part of Town™. As you can probably imagine, the #aesthetic is extremely strong, and the Internet has responded—one of the main selling points of Six of Crows is that it has a notably robust Tumblr fandom, even by the standards of YA fantasy books. If you’re into the kind of books where you can immediately find a bunch of fanart online of what the characters would look like if they went to a present-day high school or all worked in a coffeeshop together, this book is emphatically for you.
The calculating, enigmatic leader of the central gang (called The Dregs) is an orphan teenager named Kaz Brekker. Kaz is a criminal mastermind who carries a cane, silk gloves, and a Dark Past™ wherever he goes—the fact that he never takes off his gloves has given him the ominous nickname “Dirtyhands,” though the gloves are actually just a remnant of the aforementioned Dark Past.™ He also reminds me a lot of Tommy Shelby from Peaky Blinders, and as I revisit the Six of Crows Tumblr tag I'm realizing that just about every artist on there draws Kaz with Tommy Shelby hair. Coincidence??
Kaz is inscrutable to most of the people around Ketterdam whom he employs and intimidates as part of his criminal activities. The only one who sees right through Kaz is Inej, a romani-coded assassin who’s called the Wraith because of her stealth. She can steal anything—even Kaz’s heart. They’ve got that Pride and Prejudice rapport—dueling wits backed up by mutual respect. Will they or won’t they?! The rest of the characters are introduced over a series of DnD style adventures around Ketterdam, as Kaz prepares the gang for The Heist. And what’s The Heist, you ask?
I had met Adam and Caitlyn through a college friend a few weeks before my graduation the previous May, almost a year ago when the macing incident happened. Adam and Caitlyn were a couple years older than me, and had gone to some kind of hippie nerd camp with the friend where they spent the summer LARP-ing. The friend sold them to me as our kind of people. They sold themselves to me as people who valued clear and open communication. In a moment when I was 99% sure heterosexual relationships were categorically bad, these two stoner nerds gave me hope that maybe I was wrong. I wasn’t wrong, though.
By the time they had that fight in May, I had grown used to their patterns, just like I knew what time the coffee shop by us closed and how often the B44 bus ran at the nearby stop. This being a New York apartment, with thin walls even by New York standards, I could hear every word they said as if they were in the room with me. They basically were in the room with me, separated from me by one of those standing wall dividers with Japanese paintings on them.
The fight that night started like any of their fights did—first they were talking about video games, or Caitlyn was talking about her day at the school where she worked, or, you know, whatever. Then there was some slight, real or imagined, which led to screaming, crying, throwing things—you know, couple stuff. For them, it was a typical Friday night to spend hours like that, so the fight that night was perfectly normal. Until it wasn’t. Until I had 911 typed out on my phone and was begging myself to just press the call button. Until—and I may be belaboring this point—Adam got fucking maced.
The other thing about the Six of Crows universe is that there’s hella magic. The magic users are called Grisha, and they come in several classes, from Fabrikators, who can manipulate metals and glass, to Heartrenders, who can control other people’s bodies. Grisha are used by the world governments of the Six of Crows-verse for war and espionage, so when a drug surfaces that can amp up a Grisha’s power to unimaginable levels, it causes a wave of international intrigue. Kaz and his gang are enlisted by a Ketterdam nobleman to kidnap the only scientist who knows how to make the drug, retrieving him from the last country to kidnap him—the icy, warlike kingdom of Fjerda.
So who are the other members of Kaz’s gang? There’s Jesper, a sharpshooter with a gambling addiction; Inej, aka the Wraith (already mentioned); Wylan, a nobleman’s son with a talent for explosives; Nina, a Heartrender who practices psychotherapy out of a brothel; and Matthias, a Fjerdan soldier cast out for the crime of loving the aforementioned Nina. In Fjerda, you see, Grisha like Nina are considered evil, so when Matthias, a young soldier in a special batallion of Grisha-hunters, falls in love with one, it’s frowned upon. In further bad news for Matthias, Nina betrayed him to the Ketterdam government after he betrayed Fjerda to be with her, so Matthias has been in jail there for a year. Getting him to help them, and also to not want to kill Nina, will be one of Kaz’s main challenges where team dynamics are concerned.
The second or third night I spent in the house with Adam and Caitlyn, we had our first “house meeting.” This was a monthly ritual they had suggested to me, and which had made me even more jazzed to be living with them, since it would facilitate all that good healthy communication they were all about telling me they were all about. Adam was appointed the moderator of the house meeting, a position that would rotate each month—it would be his job to lead us in divvying up the chores and deciding who would buy toilet paper when. You know. There was even a “check-in” session at the beginning of the meeting where we were all encouraged to share our current emotional state. I remember saying I was excited and optimistic.
Things were all new-agey and fine until halfway through the house meeting, when Caitlyn happened to mention that she usually bought 1-ply toilet paper because it was cheaper, and Adam interrupted her: “No one likes your sandpapery toilet paper, Caitlyn.” Caitlyn and I both laughed uncomfortably. You know how it is, when a straight white man makes a shitty joke but his feelings are more important than your right to not laugh at things that literally aren’t funny. Caitlyn started to speak, but Adam abruptly moved to the next agenda item, steamrolling over her.
This was starting to feel markedly unlike the open and clear communication I had been expecting, but I was 22, only a few months out of college, and I had never had a roommate I liked before. I had actually been agonizing about whether I would be able to live up to my new roommates’ standards of open communication. I didn’t typically communicate with my roommates at all, much less in an intentionally healthy way. So maybe this was what happened in normal roommate relationships; who was I to say? I had never been in one.
After the house meeting, we all retired to our respective rooms. Following a suggestion I had heard from an RA in college, I left my door open, so that I with my laptop on my bed could see them in their room across from me. This door-open policy was supposed to facilitate the making of friends. I didn’t get to see if it worked out, though, because Caitlyn closed their door. Oh, that’s cool, I thought. I guess they’re winding down for the night—
“Adam, you can’t talk over me at the house meeting!”
“Caitlyn, just stop. Are you really trying to make this into a whole conversation?”
“Yes, this is something we have to talk about!”
And so on.
Soon they were screaming, like there was no one in the apartment with them at all. Or like they thought their room was soundproof, not knowing that’s an idiotic thing to think in a New York apartment. At one point during the fight, Caitlyn literally stopped fighting with Adam, walked out into the kitchen, got some food, smiled at me, then silently walked back into the room and continued the fight. I knew the sound of me closing my door would make it obvious that I was in my room listening, so I rode out the fight with my door open. Finally they seemed to be going to sleep, and I made some tea in the kitchen as an excuse to close my door on the way back in.
So where are the queer people in this book? I’m so glad you asked! Jesper, the bi af gambling addict, has a slow-burn romance with Wylan, the nobleman’s son who Doesn’t Know The Streets. Leigh Bardugo, the book’s author, is clearly as addicted to Pride and Prejudice as I am (I can only become sexually aroused from arguments). The two have plenty of Banter as Jesper at first makes fun of Wylan for not being able to survive on The Streets, and then eventually takes Wylan under his wing to shelter him from The Streets. Meanwhile, Wylan slowly reveals himself as a partner of the Need Me A Freak Like That variety.
Refreshingly for a historically inspired book, Six of Crows doesn’t treat its queer characters the same way as the historical period of our world it’s riffing on. Jesper and Wylan come out to each other soon after meeting each other, because there’s no stigma about being gay in this universe. This means we get to skip the coming-out angst, which in a post-Love, Simon world I’m sure most of us are bored of by now. Jesper’s Street Smarts and Wylan’s upper-class background make them a lot more like Han Solo and Princess Leia than a stock coming-out-angst couple.
Nina, the group’s magic user, is also casually revealed as bisexual, because Nina flirts with everything, and that includes women (as well as cake). Nina’s character also shows the body-positivity in Six of Crows, since her curvy appearance is described as attractive repeatedly! In general, the characters in Six of Crows are described as being of all kinds of races and physical appearances, and all of them seem like stone cold studs to this bi af reviewer.
The roommates' fighting was like a podcast I couldn’t turn off. It was the most awkward third-wheeling experience I’ve ever had. When I would see them in the kitchen they would act like the laid-back LARPers I had gotten coffee with just months ago, and literally the moment they went back into their room I would hear more of the fighting start up again. They must have known before long. They couldn’t not have known. Caitlyn would even shush Adam during fights, which Adam would respond to by shouting more loudly, usually along the lines of “WHY DO YOU CARE MORE ABOUT THAT THAN OUR RELATIONSHIP?!” By “that,” Adam meant me, sitting motionless on my bed just twenty feet from him and Caitlyn, letting my mind drift up slowly toward the ceiling like a falling flower petal in reverse.
I could expect them to be fighting two or three nights out of any given week, but there were peaks and valleys. Every relationship has its ups and downs, you know. They spent a snow day in March fighting for literally six hours—Adam stormed out right into the snow, leaving Caitlyn to sob, sounding as if she was right next to me, for a solid half hour. I rushed out of my room during this time and quickly made my dinner, because they had been monopolizing most of the house up till then.
Even though I had distinctly heard the words “Giorgi can already fucking hear us!” earlier that day (hour three, if I had to guess), which implied to me that they knew and accepted me hearing them, during these fights I had the deep and intense instinct to hide—not just to hide physically, but also to hide that I knew what was going on. After all, since I had heard how they acted in conflicts with each other, it was hard to imagine them being pleasant to me were I to bring up the fighting situation. Maybe that’s how anyone would have reacted. I don’t know any people who have been in that situation.
If you end up reading Six of Crows and like it, not only is Crooked Kingdom waiting for you, but there’s also a whole other trilogy of books about this world, taking place in Gravka, a USSR-inspired country that maintains a standing army of Grisha trained from birth to serve the state. My understanding is that this trilogy is much more magic-heavy, since the main character is a cadet in that army. The breadth of the stories Leigh Bardugo tells about this world speaks to the well-spun tapestry she’s put together for them to take place in.
The worldbuilding of Six of Crowsand the other books in this universeis one example of how fantastical worlds that use real-world events and cultures as touchstones for the audience can develop a richly textured pluralism. A Song of Ice and Fireis another great example. Cultures that are familiar to us, like Gravka’s Russian inspired culture or Ketterdam’s Amsterdam template, give us jumping-off points from which the author builds cultural details of her own. This is especially true since this fantasy story doesn’t go the “medieval England except some of the peasants can shoot fire out of their hands” route.
I read Six of Crows over a period of about three days—those three days ended up being the most harrowing of the whole lease. They ended with me, sleep-deprived and physically shaking, berating my roommates through their closed door about unwashed dishes. Whether that was a rational move, or if I should have gotten to that point long before, who’s to say?
As I said, at the start it was only a little out of the normal range for their fights. They were talking about one of their usual three conversation topics, until something hit a snag. I began to hear little pauses of resentment and indignation; the girl said something along the lines of “why would you say that?” I imagined that if a naturalist were listening to birds in the jungle, they would have a similar intuitive grasp of what kind of calls or songs preceded mating season. Or a feeding frenzy.
It crescendoed, as usual, into Adam abruptly beginning to shout. This was typically followed by him throwing a few things in their room, and eventually crying. Afterward, he would want a hug from the girl, and the cycle would repeat if she didn’t want to give him one. She usually gave him a hug the first time he asked for this reason. This time, though, when he threw something, she began shouting at him to get out. He finally did, slamming the door so it shook the house. Caitlyn was silent for a few moments. In my room, I had Six of Crows open on my bed, but I had retreated into scrolling Tumblr without actually reading any of the posts.
Outside, I began to hear the sounds of something being pushed along the ground. It was outside their room. I didn’t know what Caitlyn had in their room to make that kind of noise, because it sounded like she was pushing around something really heavy. When she finished, she went back to her and Adam’s room. Half an hour later, I heard her pushing the thing around again, until she once more went back into their room. Adam eventually came home, and they had make-up sex. They were fighting again within minutes of his orgasm. Finally, finally, they went to sleep. I read some more of Six of Crows, and followed suit. I was lucky to have a sleep schedule so out of whack that they almost never kept me up past when I would have gone to bed.
The prose in Six of Crows is unfailingly snappy, especially the dialogue. On a moment to moment basis, even this exquisitely rich worldbuilding and cast of compelling characters wouldn’t work if they weren’t being painted with a wryly funny brush that propelled the story forward with a mix of wit, poetry, and pure sass. If you visit the Six of Crows fandom on Tumblr, you’ll notice it is by no means purely visual. Among the fanart are countless posts quoting the book, from simply reproducing the text to superimposing the words on pretty photos. Sometimes I imagine people online making fanworks about me and the people I know, and sometimes I even wonder what words of Adam and Caitlyn’s would be placed on a pastel background, or next to a picture of a flower with wilting petals.
They had another fight, which seemed to basically be a continuation of the first one, a couple nights later. This was the big one. This is the one where you hear about the mace. There was the same slow crescendo, then shouting, Adam throwing something, Caitlyn shouting him out of the house. And the mysterious pushing noise from outside their room. I was almost at the end of Six of Crows, when the gang think they’ve gotten what they wanted, but one last catastrophe still lies in wait that will set them on a quest taking them into the sequel, Crooked Kingdom. I was PMSing, and had bought a decidedly non-vegan pint of Ben and Jerry’s. I decided to grab the pint and a spoon from the kitchen and make a night of it. It was Cinco de Mayo.
I was in the kitchen, pint in hand. Looking for a spoon in the silverware drawer. You have to have the right size spoon to eat ice cream with, you know? I was looking for that perfect spoon, when a series of horribly loud bangs started coming from the entryway to the apartment. It was around a corner from me, so I couldn’t see, but I surmised enough to beat a hasty retreat to my room. It was only when I got there that I realized I had gotten entirely the wrong size of spoon.
Optimal spoon size was soon forgotten, though, as I heard the loudest bang yet, and the sound of a bunch of things tumbling around the door. The door was open now, and I heard Adam’s voice: “Barricading the door? Really?”
Adam’s voice is the reason why I hate men. More specifically, it’s the reason I don’t—can’t—trust men. Adam is one of the most charming people I’ve ever met—the more so because it’s in a laid back stoner way instead of a more consciously polite kind of persona. People like him. I liked him. When I was talking to him around the house during the day, it seemed literally impossible that he could be the same person who said the things I heard him say at night. I doubted what my own ears had heard. I doubted this, because the voice Adam used in “real life” and the range of intimidation, sobbing, and screaming that I heard from their bedroom were like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For all I know, behind closed doors, every man in the world could be the same. Every male friend, every colleague, my uncles, my cousins, my father. They could all be Adam, and they probably are.
Six of Crows sets up the promise of an ambitious and complex story, with moving parts that all fit together perfectly like a Swiss watch. It fufills this promise, and from what Tumblr tells me about Crooked Kingdom, the same can be expected from the sequel. I'm also moving the Grisha trilogy into my reading queue, and I’m looking forward to experiencing this world from inside the mysterious kingdom of Gravka that I’ve been hearing so much about from the Six of Crows series’s perspective. Bardugo manages to fill the world up with secrets and unexplored places, both within her characters and outside them in the world they inhabit, that keeps every moment of these books surprising.
So, the pushing sounds I had heard a couple nights ago were apparently Caitlyn trying to block Adam from coming back into the house. The macing didn’t happen right away; first she was screaming about how he was scaring her, then he was dismissing her feelings as usual (“Oh, yeah, I’m a monster. I’M A MONSTER!”), then she started hitting him, then her slaps broke off abruptly and she was whimpering in pain, he was saying “ALL I WANT YOU TO DO IS LOVE ME; JUST LOVE MEEEEE,”and then he was scream-sobbing from the mace.
The funny thing is, by that time in the lease I had heard Adam cry many, many times, and his normal crying was only slightly less intense than his just-got-maced crying. This is why I didn’t understand that he had been physically hurt until later when he said, “I can’t believe you maced me.”
The next day they woke me up around 7 AM, continuing their fight. This had happened before, and it would happen again. This morning fight was basically unremarkable, so instead I’ll tell you about a morning fight that happened later, in June. I woke up to them looking for Caitlyn’s graduation robes. Caitlyn thought Adam had moved them somewhere and forgotten. Adam ended up slamming the bathroom door over and over, saying, “bitch, bitch, bitch,” with every slam, until I heard a loud bang and Caitlyn said, “You broke the door again!” I did not know the door had been broken before. Adam dismissed Caitlyn’s emotions again, saying he would fix it later. Caitlyn said, “This is why I hate you. This is why I fucking hate you.” Then she started crying, and I could only make out things like, “can’t believe,” and, “have to go to work!!!”
Another morning fight had happened back in April, when Adam had apparently made Caitlyn breakfast before she got down to her day’s work on her grad school thesis. What seemed to have happened, from what I gathered after I woke up halfway through the fight, was that Caitlyn had asked Adam to turn down his NPR so she could work. There were smashing sounds happening literally right outside my bedroom door, and Adam, literally right outside my bedroom door, was shouting, “I made you breakfast!” I did not understand the connection between the volume of Adam’s NPR, and him having made Caitlyn breakfast. Caitlyn started hitting Adam at that point, which was something she did often, and she must have landed a good one because later she mumbled a question at him, to which he replied, “I don’t want an icepack, I want a hug!”
Anyway. After the 7 AM fight, and after I spent most of the day in Prospect Park trying to stop trembling, I went back to the house to make dinner. I found that a meal they had cooked two days ago was a. still partially out on the counter because they hadn’t put away the leftovers, b. still all over the dishes, which were still all over the counter and c. present on enough of the dishes in the house (pretty much all of them) that I was unable to cook dinner without cleaning up their filth. I don’t know why, but that was it. I didn’t yell at them, I just knocked on their door and asked them to please wash my dishes the day they used them, and also not to wake me up at 7 AM, thanks. Definitely a sardonic tone, but no yelling involved.
Then I went out and broke vegan for the second time in 24 hours, with a blue-cheese burger, if you’re interested. I wandered through my beautiful now-ex-neighborhood of Crown Heights. It was spring, and now that I’ve been experiencing summer for six months straight I long for that feeling that comes with warmth after long periods of cold. You know? I also long for the lamp-posts in Prospect Park, and the cars that rush by when you walk down the median of Eastern Parkway, and the strings of lights in the trees outside the bars on Franklin Avenue. But I digress.
A few weeks after these events, during which I said pretty much zero words to my roommates (this was an overdue measure), I got a Facebook message. I blurred Caitlyn’s face because I have an ounce of compassion, but included the rest of the message in this article because I only have that one ounce. I moved out about six weeks later, and counted down each day. The day afterward, Lorde’s new album Melodrama came out, which probably doesn’t have a lot of significance for you, but it does for me.
I am hardly the first person who has taken comfort in fantasy when the chips were down. Over that year, there were a lot of fantasies I used to deal with Adam and Caitlyn, and only some of them existed outside my own head. Six of Crows was part of the climax, and so was Riverdale, Gender Trouble by Judith Butler, and the album Gone Now by Bleachers. There’s lots of media out there that works just fine to distract you from normal things—things like being sleep deprived, hating your boss, or being stressed about mid-terms—but if you’re looking for something to get you through a full-blown three-day jag of panic attacks and violence, Six of Crows has been test-driven by me, and come out of the crash course with both it and me intact. Mostly.
You might even enjoy this book if you don’t have any debilitatingly awful situations to distract yourself from right now! If that’s the case, your sunny, non-Lemony-Snicket-esque life will be made even brighter and more pleasurable by this solid YA fantasy series. When it comes to misery levels, Six of Crows is suitable for people with anywhere from zero misery, to extreme and total misery. Fun for the whole family. Two thumbs up; highly recommended.