Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows is about six badass teenage criminals coming together to perform an impossible heist that could make them rich beyond their dreams. Along with her other series Shadow and Bone – which is set in the same magical universe dubbed the ‘’GrishaVerse’’, and one of the most popular series in Young Adult at the moment – it is soon coming to Netflix!
What has this anything to do with Dutch culture?
First of all, the fantasy world Leigh Bardugo has created takes heavy inspiration from real-world countries in the 17th/18th/19th centuries. There are multiple countries in this world, all having a realistic country-counterpart and people with powers called ‘‘Grisha’’ exist in this universe. Leigh’s first series Shadow and Bone (2012), took place in a country called ‘Ravka’ – the equivalent of 19th-century tsarist Russia – following an orphan girl discovering she has unique ‘’Grisha’’ powers. The 2015 Six of Crows takes place (mostly) in a country called ‘Kerch’ with its capital ‘Ketterdam’, the international capital of trade and commerce. See the resemblance already? Kerch is heavily inspired by Dutch language and culture from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Ketterdam is a diverse and “tolerant’’ city, full of (economic) opportunity, resembling 17th-century capitalistic culture of the Dutch Republic. The natives have typical Dutch last names like ‘Van..’, they live by the canals where street names end in ‘-straat’, and they eat ‘Hutspot’. It’s also very touristy, because even a made-up Amsterdam-inspired city cannot escape the nuisance of mass tourism.
Although different people are accepted in Ketterdam, it’s not all rosy and romanticised in the book. Many people live in extreme poverty, there is a clear class hierarchy, and gangs rule the streets and canals of this bustling international hub. As for the “Grisha’’ living here, many are subject to hard labor that is borderline slavery. You can probably guess that the ‘Kerch’ view it as simple business. Foreigners human-trafficked to Ketterdam are forced to sign contracts in a language they don’t even speak. And you can already guess the places where most women (but also men) are forced to work… Yes, what is fantasy-Amsterdam without its infamous Red Light District-equivalent called ‘The Barrel’. Ketterdam takes ‘’Vice City’’ to a whole new level.
‘’THE BEST MAGIC UNIVERSE SINCE HARRY POTTER’’ – BUSTLE
‘’A WORLD THAT FEELS REAL ENOUGH TO HAVE ITS OWN PASSPORT STAMP’’ – NPR
What are Grisha, exactly?
Grisha are people with innate elemental abilities, so it’s not technically magic. Think of it more as being a bender in the Avatar: The Last Airbender-universe. They have limits to their powers which can also differ. One group controls the body like Healers and Heartrenders, while others such as Fabrikators can control matter like metals, for example.
In some countries, Grisha are feared and hunted like witches such as in Fjerda, the equivalent of Scandinavia. In other countries they are more respected and trained for the military elite, such as in Ravka (our Russia). Pretty ironic if you compare these countries and their human rights nowadays (that was an LGBT reference). As for our fantasy Dutch Republic, Kerch is also one of the few countries where Grisha people are tolerated and not instantly killed at first sight, as they mostly work as indentured ‘‘servants’’ for wealthy merchants. Very reminiscent about how Amsterdam in the Dutch Golden Age was the supposed safe-haven of Europe for Jews, Protestants, and LGBT+ people, to name a few.
Are all the characters Dutch-inspired?
This world is so diverse, and so many characters are from all corners of this fantasy world. Remember that Amsterdam was a fairly diverse city back in the day compared to other countries and cities. Its immigrant population was huge, and Ketterdam is no different. Taking a break from the history lessons now, diversity is not only based on ethnicity or nationality of course. Our six protagonists hail from all walks of life and these do not necessarily define them:
- Vengeful Grisha witch-hunter and convict, Matthias Helvar, our equivalent of a ‘’Scandinavian soldier’’ from ‘Fjerda’
- Gambling-addict sharpshooter, Jesper Fahey, fantasy-equivalent of someone from Sub-Saharan Africa – ‘Novyi Zem’ – who also happens to be bisexual.
- Disowned runaway, Wylan van Eck, our rich and privileged ‘’Dutchie’’ who also happens to be gay and dyslexic.
- Deadly spy, Inej Ghafa, our fantasy-equivalent of a gipsy/traveller from ‘Ravka’, captured by Kerch slavers and sold into prostitution.
- Ravkan Grisha Heartrender, Nina Zenik, our ‘’Russian witch’’ of the team, soldier and talented polyglot.
- Criminal prodigy and gang-leader, Kaz Brekker, our ‘’Dutchie’’ from poor beginnings who also happens to be disabled.
A disabled main character in an action-packed fantasy? Talk about representation! And the main characters all live and work in the fantasy-esque Netherlands. In addition, they also speak ‘Kerch’ with each other, which obviously derives from Dutch and is the language of trade as well as the unofficial lingua franca of the GrishaVerse. Our protagonists are basically bred ‘’Dutchies’’ – diverse and well fleshed-out, represented in an American fantasy novel. And they seem to have almost nothing in common, but for one thing: getting rich! How Dutch can it get?
“This isn’t a job for trained soldiers and spies. It’s a job for thugs and thieves.’’ – Kaz Brekker
Should I pick up this series?
If you like steampunk mixed with a Dutch-inspired theme plus a heist-story in the world’s most secure prison, this is an excellent pick and not just because of the fantastic world-building. The characters and their dysfunctional, but awesome dynamics, is what makes this story. The Dutch-derived setting is just the cherry on top. Devoid of stupid tropes, clichés, and problematic relationships that many books are subject to, Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows (2015) and Crooked Kingdom (2016) are everything that is right with the genre and story-telling.
As you know, this duology – along with the Shadow and Bone Trilogy – will be adapted by Netflix! It has been cast and filming has already started in Budapest, and is set to come out in the fall of 2020. So read it before you watch it, so you can enjoy it more!
Cover: Danny Cao