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Lose Yourself In The Twisting, Turning Alleys Of 'Crooked Kingdom'

The thing with Crooked Kingdom is you have to decide whether or not you buy Kaz Brekker.

Not whether or not you like him, because of course you like him. Who wouldn't like him? He's a young thief prodigy, raised on the mean streets of Ketterdam. He's smarter than everyone and crueler than everyone and cooler than everyone. He's got a great nickname ("Dirtyhands" which, let's be honest, is one of the best criminal nicknames ever) and he walks with a cane and he never (or almost never) takes off his leather gloves because he's damaged and can't stand to touch other people or be touched. He has most of the best lines in the book (though not the funniest). He drives the action. He's the man (boy) with all the plans. You can't read Crooked Kingdom (Leigh Bardugo's sequel and conclusion to her young adult heist novel, Six Of Crows, an off-shoot of her original Grisha trilogy) and not like Kaz Brekker.

But do you believe in Kaz Brekker? That's the question. Even in a world full of magic and metal-winged flying assassins, witch-hunters and assorted Dutch-Victorian steampunkery, can you buy a teenaged crimelord masterminding an international long con that pits him against cops, gangsters, politicians, entire armies and pretty much everyone else in Bardugo's world?

If the answer is yes, then you're going to love Crooked Kingdom cover to cover. You're going to pick it up and lose hours in the twisting streets and alleys of Ketterdam, bouncing through the heads (and POVs) of each of her young leads in turn as Bardugo artfully skips and backtracks to show the complicated obscurations of Kaz's elaborate revenge plot.

And if the answer is no? Well here's the kicker. Even if you can't buy Kaz Brekker — even if, like me, you think he comes off as a grizzled, hard-bitten, 60-year-old black-and-white film noir anti-hero crammed into the body of a teenager, like Justin Bieber doing a bad Abe Vigoda impression at a Tuesday night open mic at the Chuckle Hut — then you're still probably going to like Crooked Kingdom, because Bardugo? She's magic when it comes to world building.

With Ketterdam (and the larger Grisha universe that surrounds it), she has created a rattling, sighing, stinking and fog-shrouded world that feels real enough to have its own passport stamp and fascinating enough to want to visit. As an author, she knows it to the stones and as a stylist, she understands just how to bring it to life on the page. Her balance is exquisite. There's never too much or too little. Just a crooked canal here, the drooping arms of a willow there, the look of faded and peeling wallpaper, the weight of a pistol. We walk this world with her, and she knows every address.

Bardugo has a stage magician's flair for misdirection, but I can say this: If 'Crows' was Harry Potter does 'Ocean's Eleven,' then 'Kingdom' is 'Heat' performed by a university drama club.

Kingdom begins just days after the conclusion of Crows, with Kaz and his gang just having pulled off the biggest, most impossible heist in the history of heists and then getting double/triple/quadruple-crossed by, well, everyone. They have been battered, hurt and betrayed. One of their own has been taken by the Big Bad and must be rescued. And there's still the question of the drug, jurda parem, that makes super heroes out of ordinary Grisha magicians, and turns them junkie at the least taste.

It's tough to say more about the plot without starting to give things away, and that wouldn't be fair, because so much of the joy of Crooked Kingdom is in the disparate but interlocking narratives and their coordinated, clockwork reveals. Bardugo has a stage magician's flair for misdirection, but I can say this: If Crows was Harry Potter does Ocean's Eleven, then Kingdom is Heat performed by a university drama club. It's darker and grittier and the stakes (world war, the fate of nations) have been raised through the roof. It's heavy stuff, full of blood and murder, revenge and redemption. But it's leavened by the snarking banter between Bardugo's leads, competing love stories and her greatest trick: An enduring sense of dark, larcenous fun.

Ketterdam and the Barrel are the dark places of our own imaginings. Every desire, every vice, every greedy impulse — they're all laid out in the tombs and canals, gaming halls and whorehouses. They're Diagon Alley after dark, when the bad kids come out to play. And even if you wouldn't want to live there, I promise you you'll want to visit.

Especially when you can do it in the company of Kaz Brekker and his Crows.

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 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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