This is the beginning of an excellent young adult fantasy series about a group of six smart, resourceful, and very likable members of the underclass of Ketterdam.
This Amsterdam analogue is a teeming soup of gangs, brothels, gambling dens, and a greedy, ruthless merchant ruling class that uses its false patina of respectability to control assets and power in the city. Kaz Brekker, de factor leader of one of the gangs captures the truth of it succinctly:
“’I’m a businessman,’ the 17-year-old leader of the “Dregs” gang Kaz told Inej, one of his gang members. ‘You’re a thief,’ she counters. ‘Isn’t that what I just said?’”
In this world, there are a set of people called Grisha, who can manipulate matter at its most fundamental levels. Under the influence of the stimulant parem, those manipulations are enhanced somewhat, but with the development of jurda parem, a stronger variation of the drug, the Grisha’s senses are sharpened to the point that “[t]hings become possible that simply shouldn’t be.”
Kaz is approached by a merchant, Van Eck, who wants Kaz’s gang to retrieve the kidnapped scientist who developed jurda parem and holds the secret to making more. Van Eck is willing to pay out the enormous sum of 30 million kruge if Kaz is successful. Kaz picks five others to help him do the job. These six unlikely allies agree to this very dangerous undertaking because a cut of the prize could allow each of them finally to escape the lives they never wanted and realize their dreams.
But there are unforeseen complications and betrayals, and whether all of them will make it out is never a foregone conclusion.
Discussion: I love the way the author describes Ketterdam. Anyone who has been to Amsterdam will recognize it immediately:
“. . . most of the buildings in this part of the city had been built without foundations, many on swampy land where the canals were haphazardly dug. They leaned against each other like tipsy friends gathered at a bar, titling at drowsy angles.”
I also liked the way social commentary is woven into the story:
The merchant Van Eck says to Kaz, “I try to find men honest work.”
Kaz laughed. “What’s the difference between wagering at the Crow Club and speculating on the floor of the Exchange?”
“One is theft and the other is commerce.”
“When a man loses his money, he may have trouble telling them apart.”
Kaz Brekker is a wonderful protagonist. Unlike other “bad boys” of young adult literature, he actually is “bad,” but he has his reasons, and there is never any question of reader sympathy for him. And his relationship with Inej, one of his gang, is quite enchanting:
“He needed to tell her . . . what? That she was lovely and brave and better than anything he deserved. That he was twisted, crooked, wrong, but not so broken that he couldn’t pull himself together into some semblance of a man for her. That without meaning to, he’d begun to lean on her, to look for her, to need her near.”
And Inej, to Kaz:
“I will have you without armor, Kaz Brekker. Or I will not have you at all.”
The other relationships among the six are as interesting and nuanced, and never seem in the least bit unrealistic or contrived. The possible exceptions to the complex characterizations are the villains of the piece, such as Pekka Rollins, the merchant Van Eck, and Jarl Brum, a Nazi-like commandant. All of them are purely bad, and while their characters are not inconceivable and certainly have historical precedents, their portrayals stand in contrast to the many-layered depictions of the six main protagonists.
Evaluation: I put off reading this for quite a while because I saw it described as a “heist book” in the style of “Oceans Eleven.” It is so much more than that. The plot and pacing are terrific, and you won’t want the story of the main characters to be over. Fortunately, it isn’t. A second book follows.
Published by Holt Books for Young Readers, an imprint of MacMillan Publishers, 2015
New York Times Notable Book of 2015
2016 Teens’ Top Ten Nominee
★ Starred Review – Kirkus
★ Starred Review – Publisher’s Weekly
★ Starred Review – Voya
★ Starred Review – School Library Journal
★ Starred Review – The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books