Review: The Beautiful Score

Anika Reads
5 min readFeb 9, 2021

In which I enjoy the heck out of Leigh Bardugo’s criminal caper duology

If you’ve heard about Six of Crows and its sequel, Crooked Kingdom, and you’re wondering whether or not to read them, this questionnaire may help:

  1. Do you like elaborately plotted novels that DON’T revolve around a war?
  2. Do you like intense, slow-burn romances full of soulful yearning and impossible conflicts that prove Shakespeare’s maxim that “the course of true love never did run smooth”?
  3. Do you like ensemble casts with deep backstories?
  4. Do you enjoy found family dynamics?
  5. Are you down for rapid-fire shootouts and dramatic action sequences?
  6. Are you ready for some m-fucking revenge?

If you answered yes to even 3 of the above, you should pop this neat duology on top of your TBR. I’m not saying these books are perfect, but they’re damn near close. The six characters are fully realized individuals; their repartee so witty that I came out of the series with enough material for more than one tattoo. Consider the motto that appears on the book’s flyleaf: “no mourners, no funerals.”

There’s been a boom in Russian-set fantasy literature lately (and Bardugo’s other books operate in that space) but this story is set in Ketterdam, a mythical Amsterdam where tulips bloom, merchants are esteemed like kings, and the only true god is profit.

At the heart of this duology sits Kaz Brekker, an aspiring underworld kingpin famous for his dead-eyed pragmatism and his crow-headed cane; less famous for his vengeful impulses and his raging PTSD. Kaz gets a shot at an impossible score, and he recruits five similarly down-on-their-luck, end-of-their-rope hucksters to pull off the job with him.

These characters make a lot of noise about being criminals, but it’s clear that on some level, Bardugo wants us to like them, or at least, understand where they’re coming from. Against the rapid-paced backdrop of the job, Bardugo unspools the threads of each character’s backstory, creating a tapestry where what we see gains greater meaning because of what we know they can’t. Each of these characters carries at least one burden: rejection, brutalization, loss. The way they carry these burdens influences how they approach each other, and it’s in these approachments that half the story’s plot exists and more than half its emotional hooks.

Speaking of those six characters: they’re a varied bunch. Kaz Brekker, cast in the anti-hero mold and burnished until he shines, remains ambiguous throughout. I’m still not sure if I like him, since both his cruelties and his witticisms loom quite large. But he is absolutely, unbelievably interesting. He also, as mentioned above, carries a cane.

In a review of Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, Alaina Leary writes:

In this series, we’re given scenes where disabled characters face their limitations, as well as scenes where the disability isn’t a major player, which is the lived experience of pretty much every disabled person I know.

Bardugo’s writing does the work of representation with such elegant sleight-of-hand that as a reader, all you really see is that you’re having a good time. This isn’t just representation, it’s life.

Ninety percent of this book is perfect, and while Bardugo would have benefited from a Writing the Other course, overall her representation feels like it’s built on fairly solid ground.

I have only two complaints against this book, and they’re not unique to this book: the first is the Overly Mature Teenager.

The Overly Mature Teenager is, at this point, less a YA fantasy trope than the YA fantasy default. I remember being a teenager. I didn’t know a damn thing. By contrast, the Overly Mature Teenager knows everything. They somehow skip right over that experimental, terrible, hormonal, brain-stewing phase the rest of humanity goes through. When they fight wars, it’s for kingdoms. When they fall in love, it’s for life. When they adopt an ambition, it’s their vocation. By the end of the book, they’ve already turned into what they’re going to be. I understand the boundaries of childhood shift based on the cultural and historical moment, but be aware that pretty much every character in these books is an Overly Mature Teenager. Good luck.

Trope #2: the Bronze/Caramel/Cafe-au-Lait skinned character. Bardugo spends a lot of time telling us about her characters’ physicality, which is how we know that two of characters, Inej and Jesper, are both nonwhite. By and large she handles these characters well, but she seems really, really obsessed with telling us about Inej and Jesper’s skin. One character, in his first POV chapter, refers to Inej as “the little bronze girl” at least seven times. Really? Not the girl who’s so silent you can’t hear her coming? Or the one armed with multiple knives that he knows how to use? At another moment, a character muses on Inej’s “ brown skin”. Are you serious? These descriptions are wildly Othering. Most of us brown folks don’t go around referring to ourselves as if we’re cafe products, or constantly obsessing about how brown we are. Why do white people feel the need?

Parul Sehgal, in her review of that hot mess that is American Dirt, sums it up:

Still, the book feels conspicuously like the work of an outsider. The writer has a strange, excited fascination in commenting on gradients of brown skin: Characters are “berry-brown” or “tan as childhood” (no, I don’t know what that means either). In one scene, the sisters embrace and console each other: “Rebeca breathes deeply into Soledad’s neck, and her tears wet the soft brown curve of her sister’s skin.” In all my years of hugging my own sister, I don’t think I’ve ever thought, “Here I am, hugging your brown neck.” Am I missing out?

When authors constantly describe a nonwhite character’s skin color in these kinds of breathless terms, all they’re illustrating is their own tendency to see skin color before humanity. If you, author, really must tell us about someone’s skin color, then stick to one reference max. And stay out of the bakery and precious metals aisles, for the love of God.

Still, despite my irritation at these two points, Bardugo’s willingness to illustrate her characters’ stories — her attention to who they are, and her devotion to showing us their history — is more prominent than her occasional foibles. Read the books. They’re good.



Anika Reads

Reader, gamer, sci-fi/fantasy nerd, reviewer. I love great stories, regardless of medium. This account is for honest reviews, observations, and critiques.