Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.


Tattoos appear throughout the novel as markers of belonging. Each of the street gangs in Ketterdam brands its members with a distinctive tattoo, such as the crow and cup tattoo of the Dregs. Likewise, girls from the Menagerie receive a distinctive feather tattoo. Such tattoos indicate the group to which an individual belongs, although belonging is not always voluntary. In the case of Inej, her tattoo from the Menagerie was forced upon her, just like her servitude there. When she leaves the Menagerie, her first act is to seek out someone who can remove the tattoo. The scars left behind remind Inej of her enslavement at the Menagerie, symbolizing her inability to fully heal from the psychological scars of her captivity. After joining the Dregs, she declines to get the crow and cup tattoo because she does not want to feel beholden to the gang.  

Kaz sports the crow and cup tattoo as well as one other, a mysterious letter R. Only he knows that the R stands for Rietveld, his real last name. The R reminds Kaz of home, the only place he truly belonged. But he considers Kaz Rietveld to be the weakest part of himself. He conceals the tattoo from others, just as he buries his past, leaving others to speculate about his true loyalties.   


Addiction appears throughout the novel as a powerful force that renders people powerless to act in their own interests. When the Grisha are under the sway of jurda parem, the drug endows them with monstrous powers, but their dependency makes them captive to the whims of those who control the supply of the drug. Desperate for their next fix, the dosed Grisha follow the commands of merchants and Fjerdan commanders who control the drug, even if it means destroying their fellow Grisha. Even worse, the drug quickly destroys their bodies, killing them after just a few doses.   

Jesper’s gambling represents another form of addiction in the novel. Despite his loyalty to the Dregs and his skill as a gunfighter, his inability to pass up a card game puts himself and the rest of the crew at risk. Deep in debt, Jesper nearly gets the team killed when he tells his debtors he’s about to come into to a large sum of money. Through his boasting, he inadvertently tips off Pekka Rollins to the Dregs’ plans, leading to the ambush that nearly kills Inej.  


Each member of Kaz’s crew has experienced some form of displacement and longs for a return home. Kaz grew up on a farm and came to Ketterdam only after his father died, orphaning him and his brother Jordie, who died soon after. Nina and Inej were both captured, removed from their homes, and brought to Ketterdam involuntarily. Matthias was separated from his countrymen by the shipwreck, and later by his imprisonment in Hellgate on charges of slave trading. He also lost his family and hometown when a Grisha army burned his village in Fjerda to the ground. Jesper left his home and family in Novyi Zem voluntarily, but he can’t go home because his family doesn’t know that he has used their farm as collateral for his gambling debts. Wylan was disowned by his wealthy father, Van Eck, on account of his illiteracy, and is forced to make his own way on the streets of Ketterdam. In many ways, the heist offers these displaced and unmoored characters a distraction from their homesickness. It provides them with the camaraderie and common purpose that is otherwise lacking in their lives because of their loss of home and family.