“On My Feet With a Knife in My Hand”: Inej Ghafa and a New Kind of Strong Female Character
“I like it when men beg. But this isn’t the time for it.”
This is how we’re introduced to spy, acrobat, and assassin Inej Ghafa in Six of Crows, the first of a duology by Leigh Bardugo (with its sequel, Crooked Kingdom). Unflappable even when pressing a dagger into the side of a potential enemy, Inej has just silently navigated her way through the cramped, dingy streets of Ketterdam—the fictional hub of trade and crime that provides one of the key locations of Bardugo’s novel—when she succinctly and calmly confronts a member of the city’s seedy underbelly. Part of a ragtag crew cobbled together to perform an incredible—and potentially fatal—heist, Inej is known as the Wraith, and throughout the series, she continually demonstrates the strength of silence inherent in this title: the power of going unnoticed, of being overlooked and underestimated.
When I first heard that Six of Crows was going to be released in 2015, I immediately preordered it, added it to my Goodreads To-Read list, and speculated about its plot with feverish anticipation. Having already devoured Leigh Bardugo’s previous series, The Grisha Trilogy, I was more than ready for the compelling characters, complicated relationship dynamics, and vivid world-building I was sure were in store. I knew going into reading the book that it would center around an ensemble cast of characters, the Dregs, who are assembled by teenage thief and gang leader Kaz Brekker. What I didn’t expect was for one character to immediately stand out as a new kind of strong female character, someone who is both a fighter and a thinker, both cautious and proactive. Someone who never allows herself to be defined by her relationships, who stands out even when her greatest skill is to recede into the darkness. That character, as I’m sure you can guess, is Inej.
Raised in a Suli family of acrobats, Inej is captured by sex traffickers at the age of thirteen, becoming indentured to Kerch brothel owner Tante Heleen. After escaping Tante Heleen’s Menagerie, Inej relies on her previous acrobatic training, along with her watchfulness, speed, and stealth, to independently support herself in an inhospitable city. Inej also survives by clinging to the faith and traditions of her home, naming each of her many knives after a saint and reciting prayers to herself in moments of danger or uncertainty.
When he is first considering her as a potential ally and co-conspirator, Kaz tells Inej that he is looking for someone “who can be invisible, who can become a ghost.” Thoughtful, quiet, and able to scale seemingly impossible surfaces, Inej is more than capable of “becoming a ghost,” and yet she is in no way a mercenary assassin. Instead, Inej has a deep sense of loyalty and integrity. Her shiftiness and wary distrust of those around her belie a deeply caring and compassionate nature that doesn’t sacrifice empathy for ferocity. Inej is such a compelling character precisely because she doesn’t mistake brute force for strength or reckless risk-taking for bravery. She’s heroic in a way that is both obvious and covert. It is one of Bardugo’s greatest tricks that Inej so often seems to be a Wraith even to the reader. As a character, Inej can feel unobtrusive or even forgettable next to the larger-than-life grandiosity of her fellow crewmembers, including quick-tongued sharpshooter Jesper, ferociously flirtatious Heartrender Nina, vengeful convict Matthias, and privileged demolitions expert Wylan. Even to the reader, Inej can appear to lie low, lulling us into a false sense of ease and familiarity before startling us once more.
Though she is protective of her independence, Inej is also fiercely loyal to those closest to her. Throughout both books, she navigates a subtle and uneasy romance with Kaz, a relationship in which she unfailingly asserts her owns needs, demanding respect, equality, and honesty, walking away when she doesn’t get it. She’s caring and emotional, but simultaneously principled and strong willed—traits that ensure her storyline is never defined by her relationship to a man. After all, Inej is just as close to her collaborator and friend Nina Zenik as she is to Kaz. It is in this relationship between two strong, emotional, and fierce woman that the full extent of Inej’s integrity, skill, intelligence, and compassion are on display.
As a bad-ass covert fighter; as a protective friend and crew member; as an independent young women grappling with a difficult past; as a woman of color living in a hostile, predominantly-white city, Inej is one of the strongest and most dynamic female characters to emerge from young adult literature in recent years.
In her own words, “I may die. But I’ll die on my feet with a knife in my hand.”