The Six Of Crows: Are They As Their Namesake Suggests?

How much does this ragtag group of thieves and swindlers live up to the reputation of the corvids they're named after?

The books Six of Crows and the Crooked Kingdom form the Six of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo; the duology follows a group of thieves and criminals from the Barrel in Ketterdam (loosely inspired by Amsterdam) who are trying to pull off the heist of a lifetime and earn the freedoms they strive for.  The books are told in a close third-person POV following six characters: Kaz, Inej, Jesper, Nina, Wylan, and Matthias, on their journeys as the six crows from Ketterdam. 

Netflix aired a new series in April 2021 combining the Six of Crows Duology with Bardugo's other trilogy Shadow and Bone which is set in the same universe.  As Shadow and Bone take place two years before the events in Six of Crows, the crows were given a new storyline for viewers to follow, and Netflix pulled it off very successfully.

So, following Netflix's official confirmation that Shadow and Bone will be getting a second series, it seems only logical to take a closer look at the loveable rogues from Ketterdam and see just how many characteristics they share with the crow emblem they act under.  The figure of the crow is prevalent in mythology, rich in symbolism, and thought to have particular skill sets, just like Leigh Bardugo's characters...

The six of crows characters compared to real crows

1. Crows have dark feathers and Kaz wears black

So, a while ago-and by that I mean since medieval times-rather than advancements in science being at the forefront, superstition was the domineering force.  Religious leaders in America and Europe placed emphasis on the importance of praising the light and condemning the darkness, and somewhere along the way, this was translated into condemning crows too.  

According to the author of Truth and Symbolism: Mythological Perspectives of the Wolf and Crow Karen Elizabeth Bukowick - aka someone who knows a lot about this stuff - the crows’ dark plumage meant that, just like black cats, they 'came to be considered representatives of Evil' (p.18). 

In Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows Duology, Kaz Brekker’s dark clothes are one of the many reasons he stands out from other gang leaders, and the first and most obvious similarity Kaz shares with the crow.  Kaz isn’t one to follow the crowd and you wouldn’t catch him dead in any 'gaudy waistcoats, watch fobs studded with false gems, trousers in every print and colour imaginable,' or anything that's the current fashion trend for other gang leaders in the Barrel (Bardugo, p.25).

 Instead, Kaz opts for a more menacing black wardrobe fitting to accompany his reputation as a demon and instil fear in others.  He also uses it to mock the upstanding merchants in Ketterdam, which reflects the playful nature of crows who have been known to pull on the tails of wolves just for fun.  I’m sure Matthias would have something to say about that.

Kaz Brekker from six of crows duology- netflix and fan art

2. Leaving the Garden of Eden taints crows, leaving his father's farm taints Kaz

It turns out that not only were Adam, Eve and all the animals kicked out of the Garden of Eden when the snake (who may or may not have been the demon Crowley from Good Omens) seduced Eve into eating the apple but, according to Ukrainian Christianity, they were changed too.  The crows used to be ‘white and had a very sweet call,' but because of that pesky snake they 'began eating carrion, which turned them black and soured their voices' (Bukowick, p.20). 

In Six of Crows, Kaz's backstory, like pretty much everyone in Bardugo’s world, is a tragic one. Like the crows in Eden, when Kaz first comes to Ketterdam he is sweet, innocent, and pure. However, after being scammed by Pekka Rollins he is forced to live on the streets.  If that’s not enough, he also contracts the Queen’s Lady Plague, the same disease that kills his brother Jordie (Saints Bardugo, give the boy a break).

 Although he survives the illness, unlike the Kaz of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone played by Freddy Carter whose voice is polished like your grandmother’s silver, Kaz of the books is left with a ‘rock salt rasp,’ a wardrobe devoid of colour, and a ruthless attitude (p.17).  

3. Crows are associated with darkness 

Because of these religious teachings and superstitions warning people away from anything associated with darkness, 'the crow became an unwitting victim' of society (Bukowick, p.18). Just as Kaz, Inej, Jesper, Nina, Matthias, and Wylan-the six crows-are all 'unwitting victims' of Ketterdam and the Barrel in some capacity, whether they've been prisoners, homeless, or lost loved ones, they go through a lot.  (I’m starting to suspect Bardugo is a bit sadistic).

Netflix's Shadow and Bone series poster
image source: kobo

Even Leigh Bardugo herself repeatedly associates her characters with shadows.  Inej is described as a figure that 'emerged from the shadows' (p.91) and having the ability to 'melt into the shadows' (p.21), while Kaz is likened to 'a shadow in a riot of colour' and that’s just the first hundred pages (p.78).

4. Crows are symbols of death 

As well as the superstition that they represented evil, for thousands of years crows were also viewed as symbols of death-again especially in European and American cultures (Native American culture being an exception).  ‘Ancient folk tales claim that crows can smell death through the walls of a house, and a crow flying into or perching on top of a house indicates that someone living there will soon die’ (Bukowick, p.18).  

This probably stems from the fact that crows are scavengers, eating carrion to survive-including other crows and humans! They’re always surrounded by the dead.  A reputation that is not improved by their habit of hanging around churches and graveyards.

A graveyard becomes the habitat of Leigh Bardugo’s crows as well, apparently, a tomb is a perfect hideout from which to plot their next moves in the second book, Crooked Kingdom. As if they couldn’t get any closer to death, an extra morbid detail revolves around Nina’s heartrending abilities. 

As her power changes and is only effective on corpses, she steals and grafts dead flesh onto people in pleasure houses and gambling parlours to make it appear as though a plague has broken out.  Just as crows steal dead flesh to eat.  Sorry if you’ve lost your appetite.

On the other hand, Inej makes you think of death simply at the mention of the epithet given to her by Kaz and popularised by the inhabitants of the Barrel: ‘the Wraith.’  A wraith is an apparition or spectre that usually manifests shortly before or after someone dies, the former in Inej’s case considering she’s the one doing the killing.  

While in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, we see Inej battling with the weight of her religious beliefs and morals vs her freedom, followed by her reaction to killing for the very first time-an emotional journey beautifully portrayed by Amita Suman-by the time Six of Crows comes around Inej has carried out her first kill and reached a level of acceptance, stating that she’s ‘murdered for the Dregs, stolen, brought down bad men and good’ leaning into her title of 'Wraith' more than ever (p.73).

Six of Crows duology's Inej Ghafa- Netflix and Fan art

And then there’s Kaz.  Poor unfortunate Kaz; not only does he contract a plague that permanently alters his voice, but he’s also mistaken for dead and loaded onto the Reaper’s Barge among Saints knows how many bodies.  Just as crows eat dead bodies to survive, Kaz uses the body of his dead brother to keep him afloat long enough to reach the shore.  

Unlike Hank in Swiss Army Man-played by Paul Dano who befriends a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe), and the crows whose lives improve, Kaz is left scarred developing haphephobia (fear of being touched), and the mentality that ‘survival wasn’t nearly as hard as he’d thought once he left decency behind’ (p.335).  I mean, he literally steals candy from a child, and if that wasn’t enough, he throws the kid’s trousers in the canal!  

5. Crows are possessive over territory

What with all the connections to death crows were thought to have, it might seem unsurprising that the collective noun for a group of crows is a ‘Murder;’ however, there are actually more ideas behind the name than you might think.  

Europeans believed that ‘groups of crows would try other crows that had come onto their territory, as if in a court proceeding, and kill them if they were found guilty’ (Bukowick, p.19).  Very democratic for a group of birds, quite progressive too…if it weren’t for all the alleged killing.  This belief has not been proven to be true, though crows do get very territorial and chase off any intruders.

This possessiveness over territory is illustrated at the beginning of Six of Crows when Kaz and the Dregs confront a rival gang the Black Tips, who had been ‘making trouble for the Dregs all year, encroaching on Fifth Harbour’ without permission (p.26-7).

 At first, everything is civil; however, when it becomes clear the Black Tips aren’t going to cooperate, and have broken the parley rules, Kaz switches from negotiator to judge, jury and executioner.  He not only forces the Black Tips to back down and pay the Dregs reparations, but he also doesn’t hesitate in having Big Bolliger (one of his seconds) shot after finding him guilty of betraying the Dregs and switching loyalties to the rival gang.

Despite feeling sympathy for Big Bolliger, Jesper and Inej respect Kaz’s decision and leave him to bleed out (as do the other Dregs members).  You could say that Big Bolliger is no longer part of their murder and so is just another stray bird to be tried.

myths of crows being subjected to trials

6. Kaz and Inej deal in information like crows in Norse Mythology

During these negotiations, Kaz uses information supplied to him by Inej, another trait they have in common with the crows of myths and folklore.  Crows were often regarded as gatherers and conveyers of information and, according to Michael Ferber, author of A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (another guy who knows a lot), were ‘occasionally said to be the companion or messenger of Apollo’ (Ferber).

More popular crows are the two featured in Norse Mythology belonging to Odin: Huginn and Muninn, Thought and Memory.  They represent the ‘faculties of the mind that quickly fly over space and time,’ serving Odin by bringing him information from all over the world (Ferber).

Although Inej is known for her incredible athletic ability, her usual objective is to sneak into the homes, offices, and territories of rival gangs and other significant figures and collect information for Kaz, just like Huginn and Muninn.  

‘Inej knew the strengths and weaknesses of every member of the Black Tips, not to mention Harley’s Pointers, the Liddies, the Razorgulls, the Dime Lions, and every other gang working the streets of Ketterdam’ (p.24).  As Kaz likes to say, he doesn’t trade in coin: ‘I trade in information’ (p.31).  A terrifying thought for any politician.

Kaz also has an incredible memory, as Inej notes he ‘did the Crow Club tallies in his head’ and when reading, ‘each sheet would go into his memory with barely a glance’ (p.70-71).  This not only links to Muninn (Memory), but real-life crows too; crows live for an extremely long time relative to other birds and a lot of animals, living for around forty years.  

As such, ‘it is especially important that they are capable of remembering and learning. Crows can acquire an extremely large amount of information’ (Bukowick, p.22).  So much so that it can be weird for people who live near them; Bukowick describes it as feeling like you’re ‘being stalked by a black shadow’ (Bukowick, p.22), and if that doesn’t sum up the feeling people must get when they meet Kaz and Inej, what will?

Huginn and Muginn crows of thought and memory from Norse Mythologyn

7. Crows in myths have a propensity for disguises

Having said that, many of the people the band interact with aren’t even aware that they’ve just met a group of misfits from the Barrel as the crows have a propensity for disguises, which coincides with another major symbol the crow falls under the Trickster.  

One of Aesop’s Fables tells of an eagle having trouble cracking open a nut and is advised by a nearby raven (raven and crows often being interchangeable) to fly as high as it can and drop the nut on the rocks.  The eagle follows the raven’s advice and it works, but before the eagle has time to fly back down to the nut the raven swoops in and eats it (Bukowick, p.40).  

An Athapascan Native American Tribe tale has another example, as a crow disguises itself as a rich man in order to marry the daughter of an old couple and steal her away (Bukowick, p.43).

Leigh Bardugo is constantly making the crows dress up to meet the occasion, whether it be in prison rags, guard uniforms, keftas, or Komedie Brute costumes and the release of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone permits us to see some of these outfits and the antics that accompany them-brought to life.

In order to sneak into the Little Palace, Inej and Jesper disguise themselves as performers with Marko’s Travelling Troupe and allowing us to witness more of Inej’s acrobatic skills and Jesper’s (Kit Young) gunslinging prowess.  

A real treat was being able to see Kaz dressed as a ‘renowned’ sculptor, acting in a way that those who have read the books know he would find utterly humiliating, complete with a large flamboyant bow tie and beret, because even artists in Os Alta wear berets, right?

It’s not just the clothes that transform the crows though, Nina can speak many languages and is a talented actress able to cut the ‘wise Grisha Priestess act’ at the drop of a hat, with even Kaz admitting that she ‘missed her true calling on the stage’ (p.82).  

A glimpse of this is seen in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone when Nina (Danielle Galligan) and Matthias (Calahan Skogman) talk about where they might like to go, and Nina pulls out the accent of the Wandering Isles-presented as Irish, Danielle Galligan’s native accent (meaning she had to adjust her accent for the show, amazing).  

In the book, Kaz also gets Nina to use her tailoring abilities, roping in poor Wylan as well.  Kaz gets Nina to tailor Wylan to look like Kuwei (an almost permanent change for the unlucky kid, I might add), so they can fool Jan Van Eck and reveal his true nature.

Nina Zenik from Netflix's Shadow and Bone series

8. Crows are tricksters

More than clothes and voices, Kaz manages to pull off even bigger tricks-he is Kaz after all.  When preparing to sail to Fjerda the crows arrange to meet at a ship called the Ferolind; however, they are attacked by rival gangs before they can set sail.  

Of course, Kaz expected this and the actual Ferolind is in another berth, pulling a kind of bait and switch.  He uses a similar scam breaking into the Ice Court as they switch out six prisoners and take their places, acting like something he and Jesper call a bunk biscuit.  

9. Crows are clever and resourceful

The crow’s status as a trickster could come as a result of the species’ uncanny intelligence and people becoming unnerved by the idea that they may be capable of more than people are aware of.  For example, crows are one of the few animal species able to use tools.  

The advice the raven gives the eagle in the Aesop’s Fable is a legitimate tactic used by crows to break open nuts and mussels, they’ve even learned to place their food along roads so that cars will run over it and break it open for them!  They use twigs to draw out insects and larvae from bark and as markers for stores of food they’ve buried, squirrels could probably learn a thing or two from them.

As a Fabrikator, Jesper uses his abilities to help the crew by making lock picks and other tools.  As his Fabrikator status isn’t known to many during the time of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, a lovely little easter egg is included for those who have read the duology, hinting at his abilities when it is revealed that Jesper was the one to fix Kaz’s cane after it is broken.  

More than that though, Jesper is known for his gunslinging abilities, and he wouldn’t be able to show off his shooting skills if he didn’t have the right tools to hand, i.e his ‘pearl-handled revolvers’ (p.233).

In Shadow and Bone Jesper’s speed is truly shown as he distracts some guards by shooting the sign behind them, holstering his guns without them seeing him, even though he’s standing right in front of them when he does it!  Very impressive work from Kit Young considering he didn’t have long to practice with the guns; Jim (Gene Wilder) from the film Blazing Saddles would be proud.  

Netflix's Jesper and Jim from Blazing Saddles

Like Jesper, each member of the crow crew has a particular skill set and as such require very specific tools to carry out their jobs.  Kaz constantly has some lock picks on him, as well as his trusty cane and gloves.

Inej is always wearing her rubber slippers so she can climb anything, not to mention an array of knives on her at all times, with Amita Suman wearing a whopping fourteen during Netflix’s Shadow and Bone.  

Although primarily a Heartrender, Nina has a tailoring kit that she uses to tailor various members of the Dregs and to disguise Matthias when they reach Fjerda.

 Wylan possibly uses the most equipment, what with all the ingredients and chemicals needed to make all the different explosives he carries around, items that become all the more important as Wylan starts becoming more confident in his skills, something that will hopefully be great to see on screen in upcoming seasons of Shadow and Bone.

10. Crows are highly adaptable

As well as crows being intelligent enough to use tools and resources, their intellect also makes them highly adaptable, able to adjust quickly to changing environments, and no one has to adapt more than Matthias.  

If managing to stay alive after being shipwrecked wasn’t enough, he has to cope with the fact that the only other person to survive is a Grisha, a being he has been groomed to fear and fight.  Then he is hit with another bombshell as he spends time with Nina and realises that what he has been taught may not be accurate, having to adjust his whole world view a turmoil of emotions that Calahan Skogman communicates admirably in Shadow and Bone.

Just as he’s coming round, he gets branded a slaver and thrown into prison where he not only fights for his life but also manages to pick up Kerch along the way.  Once he’s out, he has to contend with the fact that he has to work with the person he believes deceived him to betray his country and people to gain his freedom.  Just your average Sunday, really.

Netflix's Matthias Helvar from Shadow and Bone

11. Crows leaving signals the end of the monarchy, Kaz & co. leaving signals the end of Per Haskell

Talking about betraying countries, an English legend states that if the ravens living at the Tower of London flee the grounds, it signals the fall of the current monarchy and ‘to this day, the ravens at the Tower of London have their wings clipped to keep them prisoners’ (Bukowick, p.18).  

As Kaz and the others play a significant role in the success of the Dregs gang and the Crow Club, when they come back the gang is in disarray and Per Haskell even sides with Pekka Rollins-literally the guy Kaz hates the most-turning the Dregs against them.  However, Kaz being who he is quickly starts rectifying that situation and finally seizes control of the gang. 

So basically, Leigh Bardugo’s six corvid misfits are a lot more like crows than you probably thought they were, crows have a much richer background than their infuriating cawing lets on (they're kind of awesome actually), and I have a lot more knowledge about crows than I will probably ever need in a practical situation.

Six of crows character designs

If you haven't seen Shadow and Bone yet, what are you doing reading a spoiler-filled article about it? Go check it out! Here's the trailer:

If you're intrigued by my brief mention of Amazon's Good Omens, check out the trailer.

Want to know what the hell Swiss Army Man's about? Trailer.

Can't stop thinking about Jim from Blazing Saddles? I've got you covered with the trailer, enjoy.

A graduate from UEA with a BA in English Lit. with Creative Writing. An aspiring writer and editor, loves anime/manga, films and books.

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