If you’re itching for more heist or gangster YA à la Ace of Shades or Six of Crows, then Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo is here to provide you with all the scams and schemes you’ve been missing.
Tavia is a street performer and confidence woman in Creije, a city that traffics in forbidden magic under the watchful eyes of the underboss. She’s good at her job but longs for a more respectable future, and she hopes that selling a new magic drug will help her pay off her indenture. But when a friend ingests the drug instead of one of her marks, she sees what kind of horrors it’s really unleashing on the streets. And so she turns to her underboss, Wesley, for answers. Wesley may not know everything, but he has other pieces of the puzzle, as does Saxony, who has a lot of secrets even for a criminal, and Karam, who mostly knows she wants to protect Saxony. Together, they have to pull off a train heist, a journey into forbidden territory, and a murder or several to stop a man who’s more evil than all four of them put together.
If this sounds like the setup for a lot of fights: it is. The action is well-paced and consistent throughout the story, balancing the equally consistent character exposition. The characters do sometimes make some odd choices, fighting when they could just explain and vice versa, but overall the motivations are pretty solid.
The prose tries too hard to be clever, which occasionally worked but more often ended up muddling the forward motion of the narrative as I tried to figure out what the heck Christo was trying to say. A more straightforward style would also have helped with the emotional impact—being straightforward almost always does. Each character has more than enough in their backstory to wrench a few hearts and break a few more without resorting to flourishes, and as the book goes on Christo does seem to embrace just telling the story.
There’s a particularly lovely sequence about three quarters of the way through that takes them all on emotional journeys through their past mistakes. This provided some truly compelling character work and made an excellent overall point about growth. All of the characters had moments of deep regret, but Christo framed the exercise as one of acceptance, not of change. The past is immutable; you can only learn from it or be consumed by it. In a genre absolutely overrun with revenge and redemption fantasies, it was nice to have such a clear and reasonable message.
There’s a super cute queer relationship that goes through some rocky terrain before getting stronger and more honest. Usually we only get break-ups and get-back-togethers in contemporary (non-fantasy), so I appreciated the realism there. Queer people don’t have to be tragic and they also don’t have to be paragons of perfect love; we don’t have to be anything. We can just be, even if it means we’re being a little messy.
I also loved the little details of the charms and spells for the most part. Having Wesley eat four-leaf clovers like candy was an inspired touch, and the littler cantrips had a lot of potential for clever uses. However, the magic quickly got too big and showy, and those little details disappeared. In its place we got lots of scenes like out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with explosions, big hits, and fast dodges. It made for decent action, but it left the magic insufficiently explained and overpowered. And it’s hard to tell a story about underdogs when it seems like one of them is a living volcano.
There were a few dramatic moments of double-cross and betrayal that sprang from the emotional core rather than the action setups, but overall everything was a little too straightforward. The bad guys were bad, the main characters were misunderstood, and nothing was surprising. It seemed like Christo liked her characters too much to really mess with them. They might have been tormented by their personal demons, but every step in their plans went almost exactly right. This made it more of a beach read than an edge-of-your-seat read, but there’s something to be said for not everything being incredibly convoluted. And there were a few twists at the end, though I was annoyed at the way they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory only to set up the second volume—does YA (and heist YA) have to be so hung up on cliffhangers?
Ten years ago, Into the Crooked Place would have been an incredibly impressive sophomore novel. It’s unfortunate for Christo that the YA market is so glutted right now, since it means that Into the Crooked Place is merely good. It’s bright and occasionally scintillating, but in the end it’s a star in a night sky full of them. I really hope Christo pushes herself and that her follow-up goes supernova.
Into the Crooked Place comes out October 8.