Hypable dives deep into Crooked Kingdom with Leigh Bardugo, discussing the art, heart, and future of her dynamic duology Six of Crows.
In addition to Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, Bardugo is the author of the best-selling Grisha Trilogy, and is currently writing a young-adult Wonder Woman novel.
Crooked Kingdom, due out tomorrow, continues the tale of Kaz Brekker and his motley gang of young (and only occasionally reluctant) criminals. Set in the chilly streets of Ketterdam, Kaz’s crew finds themselves working against the clock in game where the stakes have risen from “seriously high” to “catastrophically personal.”
Cunningly magical and exactingly scientific, Bardugo’s work celebrates quirks of character, and champions diverse protagonists who challenge readers on every page — which is just about as often as they challenge themselves.
This interview is spoiler-free for Crooked Kingdom.
Interview with Leigh Bardugo
One of the major differences between Six of Crows and the Grisha Trilogy is the way you utilize perspective. How did you decide to structure the duology among multiple points of view?
I knew when I wanted to tell a heist story that I didn’t want to tell it first-person POV. It can be done, if I’m not mistaken, Ally Carter wrote her heist books in first person, but I had a clear idea of how I wanted to break the chapters, and how I wanted to release information. And I feel like that’s what heists and cons are really about.
Both Holly Black, and Ally Carter and I have all commiserated on the challenges of writing a heist, and I can’t remember which one of them said it, but it’s not just about conning the mark — it’s about conning the reader. And I felt like having these different, shifting perspectives would give me more opportunities to do that.
Obviously, that structure is very George R.R. Martin-esque. Did you take any inspiration from the point-of-view structure in A Song of Ice and Fire?
As far as I’m concerned, A Song of Ice and Fire is my touchstone for fantasy, particularly the first three books. And I think there are certain things I’ve definitely taken from [Martin], like the geography as destiny. But also, starting with redshirt who gets killed off is very much a Martin trick! [laughs] But it was also kind of a way to get people up to speed in terms of the powers that existed in the Grisha world and the potential for what [jurda parem] could do… to put everything on the playing field and move into the rest of the action.
Did you find much of a difference between writing Six of Crows and writing Crooked Kingdom? Very little time passes between the two books, but almost everybody is in radically different mindsets.
I think the biggest difference in Crooked Kingdom is, in the beginning of Six of Crows, Kaz is assembling the team. So you have some people who know each other, but you have some who don’t, and none of them trust each other — with the exclusion of Kaz and Inej, but even that is trust with conditions.
And then they go through hell together, which naturally changes the way that they interact with each other, and the way that they think about each other. And so that’s really where they are in Crooked Kingdom. Six of Crows has this escalating level of action and interaction between these characters, whereas Crooked Kingdom, we hit the ground running. I think that there’s a lot more progress in those relationships because of what they’ve been through.
Let’s talk about Kaz for a bit — the guy with, ostensibly, all the answers. Where is he emotionally in Crooked Kingdom? How did you decide to employ him in the book?
He comes in a little later, but he’s definitely not used sparingly. It’s interesting, because I’ve always thought of Inej as the heart of the books, and I was talking to a friend recently and she was like, “Crooked Kingdom is much more her book.” And I was like, “Really? I think of Six of Crows as being very much her book!” But whoever reads it, they see a different hero, or a different protagonist, that the arc belongs to them. But I think everybody has pretty steep hill to climb with this one, honestly.
Early in the book, Kaz thinks that, over the course of the three days Inej has been missing, he has murdered the old Kaz Brekker, and now he’s all business. I was really struck by that — I thought he was all business before!
Well, Kaz has some very clear ideas on how you are able to survive in the world. And there are certain tools that have served him very well. It’s not an easy idea — he really believes there are punishments for making yourself vulnerable. And the truth is, in this environment that is 100% true. And that fact does not change throughout the book. That is the reality of the world that they live in. But whether or not Kaz can actually keep his humanity at bay is a different story.
He does start off involved in some fairly brutal business at the beginning of the book. It’s interesting, because you don’t pull many punches in Six of Crows, but in Crooked Kingdom it feels like… well, the gloves are not off, but the gloves are off!
[laughs] That should have been the tagline! “The gloves are not off! Crooked Kingdom!” I’m ready for that movie trailer.
You know, it’s interesting. In some ways, I think that… I don’t think Crooked Kingdom is necessarily a darker book. There are a lot of dark things that happen in it, but it is also… because these characters know each other better, I think… I mean, maybe I’m wrong, you never know when you’ve written a book what people are going to take from it. But for me, there are actually quite a lot of moments of lightness and hijinks. I think I felt freer to let them have certain adventures that were… I don’t want to use the word “zany!” But there’s a pleasure in going a little bit over the top when it comes to heists and cons, and I really wanted to indulge that.
And because it is only a duology, there was a lot that had to happen emotionally. And I really am not into being beaten over the head with grimdark. My personality is like, is I sense tension in the room or if something bad has happened, I inevitably make the wisecrack. And I think that that sense of humor imbues the books — or I hope it does.
So would you say that Jesper takes some of that from you?
Yeah, probably! Jesper actually [says] in Crooked Kingdom, that he always thought of himself as a lucky guy. He’d always thought of himself as a generally happy person. And one of the things he has to contend with in this book is digging a little deeper than that, and understanding where his own compulsions come from, and some of the choices that he’s made. And the idea of acknowledging that there’s something beneath this easygoing manner. But I love writing Jesper. A lot.
And which character would you say you find the easiest to write?
You know, it depends on the book. In Six of Crows, the easiest character to write was Matthias, because he’s so dogmatic. He has such strong opinions, and he also has this very mannered, old school fantasy way of thinking. He has this kind of Arthurian bent to him. So he was very easy to write, but I think in terms of the character that was the most fun to write, it was probably Jesper.
In Crooked Kingdom, it was Wylan, because he was the person I was discovering most about as I wrote him. And he’s also in some ways the most YA of all the characters, because he has, for a big chunk of his life, despite the things that were going on at home with his father, has led a fairly sheltered life compared to the rest of these characters.
Speaking of YA, how do you balance the youth of Kaz and co. with their at times very mature exploits? At times, I find myself thinking, “These kids are so young!”
I think of them as sort of like CW teenagers! But I also think, you know, adolescence is a very modern construct, and we tend to forget about that. But I always say, what would Arya Stark be like at 17?
Very stabby. And very cynical! I get why there’s a certain suspension of disbelief required for the characters ages, and in truth, when I go to a high school to speak, or I go to a signing and I meet actual 16 and 17-year-olds, I’m like, “Oh my God! You are but wee children! You are but walking, talking, fetuses! I can’t put you in these horrible circumstances!” [laughs]
But I also think that that’s one of the conventions of YA — and also, look, life is nasty, brutish, and short in the worlds that I create. So unless you are of a very privileged class, and even then, you are probably not going to have a whole lot of time to eke out an existence.
It’s interesting, because Nina undergoes a very adolescent-like experience in Crooked Kingdom, grappling with the ways she has changed. In Six of Crows, she’s like Lady Confidence, and now…
Yeah, Nina’s confidence is shaken in a very fundamental way because of her attachment to her power, and it’s something that she’s never had to question before. And there are other things about her that remain unshaken, and she knows who she is on a lot of levels.
You know, I don’t think there’s anything interesting about keeping a character in one place. And people always talk about, “Oh, who are you going to kill off?” The worst thing you can do is not kill somebody off. One of the lessons that I really took from reading George R.R. Martin is, you take the thing that the character thinks defines them, and then you take it away, and you see what happens. That’s the Jaime Lannister lesson. And that, to me, was the exciting thing to do with some of the characters in the book.
Speaking of taking things from characters, what kind of challenges is Kaz facing internally at the start of Crooked Kingdom?
I think this is the moment when Kaz is deciding who is going to be. Because his life has been all about revenge, and one of the questions that Inej poses to him is not really about his attachment to her. It’s about, what comes after that? Are you just going to become exactly like the man you’re looking to destroy? Because the methods Kaz pursues are not any less ruthless than Pekka Rollins’.
He prides himself on that, actually.
Yes. Although he and Rollins have different ideas about where the lines are drawn. I think this is the book where all of the demons come home to roost. It’s the revenge and redemption book, but it’s also, which demon is going to win, essentially.
Kaz reminds me in a lot of ways of Locke Lamora from Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series — but ironically, Locke is a lot better-hearted than Kaz.
I actually read Lies of Locke Lamora after I wrote Six of Crows, because I had heard a lot about it, people had been telling me to read it for years. And then I read it, because I was really afraid that it would be so much like Six of Crows that I would be like, “Oh no! What have I done!” But as it turns out, they’re not at all alike.
Locke is very much the mode of the like, kindhearted trickster, as opposed to Kaz, who is like, “I will cut out your kind heart and eat it!”
Do you think of him at all like the Darkling from the Grisha Trilogy? They both have a profoundly diabolical streak.
I think the Darkling is a much more noble character than Kaz. The Darkling may have lost the thread in terms of his humanity and the cost of human life, but he has, ostensibly, noble goals. He’s a patriot, he believes in protecting his people, he’s trying to build a future for the Grisha that isn’t one of persecution. There are a lot of ways to defend the Darkling that don’t work for Kaz, who is very much out for himself, and out for revenge. And revenge is not necessarily a noble goal. It’s something you sympathize with, but it’s not something that is bigger than him.
But I really, [laughs] I really enjoyed writing him. And sometimes he would take me by surprise! And I don’t say that lightly, because I think of myself as very much in control of my characters — they don’t tell me what to do. But I remember writing the scene on the ship with Oomen and thinking, well, what is Kaz going to do here? And it was sort of like Kaz took over, and was like, “I’m telling you what I’m going to do!”
I took a great deal of pleasure in writing the details of that scene, and it’s weird, because I always know when people get to that scene. I know what page it is, because they’re like, “Page 158! Ahhh!” And the weird thing for me is, I’m like, I think it’s kind of romantic! He’ll poke a guy’s eye out for you, baby, and then throw him in the drink!
It is very sweet, in a murderous way. Were there any similar moments where you thought Kaz went overboard? Or did you ever have to push him?
I pulled back, actually. In Crooked Kingdom there was a torture scene that I ended up taking out, because it was just too much. It’s not that it was implausible for the character, but there was already enough brutality happening. And I think sometimes we’re pulled toward these things because they have a certain amount of emotional resonance in them, and high stakes in them.
But I think we also, somehow the idea of being dark, or edgy, or gritty, has come to mean that you’re somehow more legitimate or the story is weightier. And I try to sometimes consciously push against that, because I want this world to feel real, I want it to feel like the peril is real, but we do write for young people. And I want my readers to be able to follow me there without feeling hopeless.
Looking at the bigger picture, how did it feel to craft this story as a duology?
Weird! [laughs] I’m honestly a real lover of structure. I believe very firmly in the resonances of narrative structure, and to me they kind of provide a safety net for writing. I can look at my own stories and say, okay, well, this was squishy here, or this moment needed to come sooner, or this wasn’t a strong enough twist. And to me, the natural structure for a story is three acts. And I think that’s still the story that got told, it just got told in two books. That second act did not belong to it’s own book. But it’s funny, I sort of thought of it — it just always felt like this shape.
And for the characters who survive, there could continue to be stories, but for this particular moment, this is the moment where we pause with them. And in some ways, it just felt like it always had this shape, is the best way I can put it.
I love the duology format — there’s a natural urgency to it, I think, and that serves the heist story particularly well.
It does, it does. And I’ve always sort of thought of these books as, when I set out to write them, I told my editor — I gave her a proposal, but I said, I’ve never written a book like this before. So I don’t know if it’s one book, or if it’s two books, or if it’s three books, and we’ll just have to play it by ear. And at the end of the first book, I was like, okay. I can tie up all of the plot-things easy, there’s a very natural way to do this. I was like, but the emotional things I wanted to do with these characters, they went deeper and darker than I expected them to, and there’s no way they can earn the endings that I think they deserve in one book.
It’s true, at the end of Six of Crows it feels like the characters think they’ve reached their endings, and they haven’t.
I think too, that’s what makes heists interesting. There’s the fun side of them, but the thing that really makes them exciting, particularly in books as opposed to film is what the challenges are that the characters have to overcome. People enter in, these are characters who appear highly competent at the beginning of Six of Crows, and then they face these challenges… that undermine that competence, and that’s what makes the heist exciting.
It’s not that like, OH! This is happening! And this is blowing up! Or this person got caught! It’s what they have to overcome personally within the story. And for Crooked Kingdom, that was kind of doubly true, because they have this whole new set of challenges that are coming out them, and they’ve just had their armor torn to bits, so they’re a lot more vulnerable to those challenges.
So moving forward, what are you working on now?
Well, I’m working on Wonder Woman right now, and I have a couple of other projects that I can’t talk about yet, but one is one that I have been wanting to write for a very long time. And some other things cooking!
What is it like writing Wonder Woman?
You know, it’s really very joyful! The strange thing about it is that I have just come off the heels of writing these very morally compromised characters, and Diana has her own challenges to contend with, but she is at her heart a very kind hero. And it’s one of the things I think people love so much about her, is that she has this deep empathy, and this deep kindness.
She comes from a culture where that is valued, and where the suffering of others means something. And so it’s been really fun to write her! And I feel like I’m in a better mood! I’ll come out of my writing day, and I’m like, oh, I feel good! And then I’m like, maybe it’s because I wasn’t writing about murder and torture!
So it’s been great. I feel like there’s obviously a tremendous weight of expectations that are attached to the character and I want to do right by the character, but I’m really glad I’m doing it. I don’t think there’s any other character I would have wanted to put my other work aside for than Wonder Woman.
Did you like the trailer?
I LOVED IT!