When I was a kid, I learned not to exist. I could shrink myself down into the smallest physical fraction of my body possible and hide in that space. That’s what I would do when I was walking down the stairs of my elementary school, one step at a time, hands clutching the handrails, as other kids pushed me out of the way. I made myself small, and left my body—which was shaky, uncoordinated, with muscles that didn’t work like everyone else’s and couldn’t seem to master stairs—to become as nonexistent as possible.
The only place that I really existed, that I let myself expand, was at home with my mom and our books. My mom, like me, was disabled, and it was something that was celebrated in our house. Yet despite the way that books have held me up over the years, it’s rare to find myself completely in a book. As a queer, disabled woman, I’m often disappointed to find that characters that are like me are killed off, magically cured, or otherwise disposable in the end.
Yet Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows and its sequel Crooked Kingdom, which came out this past September, taught me to give myself space instead of hiding.
In Six of Crows, six characters plan an impossible heist that is both extremely high risk and high reward. Criminal prodigy Kaz assembles a crew, including spy Inej, sharpshooter Jesper, convict Matthias, magic-user Nina (a Grisha Heartrender, someone who can control and damage internal organs), and Wylan, the son of a wealthy merchant. In Crooked Kingdom, the six return to the gritty city of Ketterdam to enact an equally implausible plan: rescue one of their own from Wylan’s merchant father, Jan Van Eck; ruin Van Eck’s reputation; and secure the reward money he promised them for the first book’s heist job.
Many of the characters have intersectional experiences that Bardugo treats with nuance, complexity, and care. Both books showcase a range of experiences, showing that disability and mental health are not homogenous experiences. Vicious leader Kaz and spy Inej both have symptoms that are consistent with PTSD, although they experienced vastly different forms of trauma. Kaz also limps as a result of an improperly healed broken leg and walks with a cane, but his relationships to his physical disability and his PTSD are not identical. His physical disability is treated like a “declaration,” and readers are told in the story that he made his cane into a symbol of pride, that he is stronger for having been broken. Even though he exists in a world with magical healing, he never asks to have his disability healed, and it isn’t brought up.
Bardugo writes in multiple perspectives, which does a great deal of justice to her characters’ lived experiences. As a reader, I could relate to Wylan’s shame as he learned to embrace his learning disability (an inability to read), but also grasped for Kaz’s unflinching pride in his cane. As a cane user, it was powerful for me to see someone so boldly declare his disability a non-negotiable part of him. Kaz is a disabled character who is complex, badass, and decidedly attractive: there’s one delightful scene in which compulsive gambler Jesper curses himself for not checking out a naked Kaz. In a world where disabled people are regularly denied our autonomy and sexuality, a moment like this is almost unheard of.
Kaz has physical limitations as well. While his experience can’t speak to all cane users—and he and I don’t share the same disability—it does show that a character can be badass and disabled, that limitations aren’t inherently bad. Many of the characters’ journeys are about limitations, as Jesper deals with his gambling addiction and what reads like ADHD, and Wylan faces his internalized ableism about his reading disability. As a disabled reader, I found myself nodding along and smiling. 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. Our disabilities are important, but aren’t always a factor.
Kaz’s relationship to his PTSD differs from his relationship to his physical disability and his cane. His gloves, a physical symbol of his trauma, are less a declaration than his cane is, and a lot of his emotional growth throughout the series is in his learning that letting people in doesn’t equal weakness. Inej also deals with PTSD and the aftermath of rape as someone who was sex trafficked. In her, we’re given a character that—although she is as badass and fierce as Kaz, and a better fighter—has a different lived experience. Kaz and Inej are two sides of the same coin, and as a rape and trauma survivor, I found their morally dubious handling of what it means to live after trauma to be refreshingly honest.
The series also offers us queer characters that aren’t doomed. Jesper and Wylan, while they never officially feel the need to come out in the book’s fantastical setting, are definitely queer, and pursue a relationship with one another, all the while dealing with issues of disability, internalized ableism, and mental health. In the book’s criminal Ketterdam, homophobia isn’t brought up. It’s an important choice that every author must make while constructing an alternative reality, but it’s an important and purposeful one. In Bardugo’s world, Jesper and Wylan don’t need to come out to their friends. They don’t need to announce their relationship and deal with the fallout. It’s treated with as much weight—and the underlying complications of the fact that they’re all criminals whose lives are at stake—as every heterosexual relationship.
When I opened Six of Crows, I expected that I would like it. I didn’t expect how much this book, and its sequel Crooked Kingdom, would hook me and not let me go. These characters became allies to me in a world that has never made space for me to exist, that has wanted me to remain small. A few weeks before reading Crooked Kingdom, I bought a new cane and named it Kaz, because I want the world to know that I am proud, queer, and disabled, and I am stronger for having been broken.