UH. WHAT WAS THAT ENDING?! This was a great welcome back to Ravka and to Nikolai, who was pretty much the major reason I rated the original trilogy so high by the end. I also loved that this was a Zoya book, because I never not loved Zoya from the very beginning. Nikolai may be the King of Scars, but Zoya is my undisputed Grisha queen. I did knock half a star off because I felt there was a disjoint in Nina’s story and the other POVs. Don’t get me wrong, I loved reading Nina’s story, too, but by the end of the last third of the book, I thought maybe it was best that her epic was in a separate novel/novella. Hell, make her story another duology, I’d totally read that too! In any case, I was hoping I’d love this book, and I did!
Spoiler Alert: This is kind of a direct continuation of both the Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows duology, so it makes sense to read both series for a lot of the story to make sense. So that being said, spoilers for the previous books!
KING OF SCARS
by Leigh Bardugo
Imprint, January 2019
YA high fantasy
Rated: 4.5 / 5 cookies
Face your demons… or feed them.
The boy king. The war hero. The prince with a demon curled inside his heart. Nikolai Lantsov has always had a gift for the impossible. The people of Ravka don’t know what he endured in their bloody civil war and he intends to keep it that way. Yet with each day a dark magic within him grows stronger, threatening to destroy all he has built.
Zoya Nazyalensky has devoted her life to honing her deadly talents and rebuilding the Grisha army. Despite their magical gifts, Zoya knows the Grisha cannot survive without Ravka as a place of sanctuary—and Ravka cannot survive a weakened king. Zoya will stop at nothing to help Nikolai secure the throne, but she also has new enemies to conquer in the battle to come.
Far north, Nina Zenik wages her own kind of war against the people who would see the Grisha wiped from the earth forever. Burdened by grief and a terrifying power, Nina must face the pain of her past if she has any hope of defeating the dangers that await her on the ice.
Ravka’s king. Ravka’s general. Ravka’s spy. They will journey past the boundaries of science and superstition, of magic and faith, and risk everything to save a broken nation. But some secrets aren’t meant to stay buried, and some wounds aren’t meant to heal.
After the wreckage of my soul that was the result of reading Crooked Kingdom, I mostly braced for what I was about to get into in King of Scars. That said, there wasn’t much to cry about in KoS, though there was certainly a lot to squee over despite my lack of need for tissues.
The story of King of Scars picks up some three years after Alina’s story ends in Ruin and Rising, the third book of the SaB trilogy. Ravka is still recovering from the civil war that had almost torn the country apart, and Nikolai finds himself trying to keep the gears of his country together as king. With the help of his Grisha Triumvirate, Nikolai has to find a way to continue taking Ravka into the direction of progress, even if he has to play a game of high-stakes chess with all the countries in the world.
Unfortunately, he has to do this on top of worrying about whether the monster inside him is going to continue to make its appearance. And at some point, not even his most powerful Grisha general will be able to help him keep the darkness in.
The POVs of KoS are more reminiscent of the Six of Crows duology, which I loved because that meant getting not only Nikolai’s perspective, but Zoya’s as well. And Nina’s, too. (But we’ll get to that in a bit). I know in Alina’s perspective in the original trilogy, Zoya comes off as harsh and your typical mean girl. But the truth is, Zoya is very much indeed harsh and mean, and I never actually hated her, despite Alina’s perspective painting her in a negative light. In fact, I came to adore Zoya, especially by Siege and Storm (and I totally was calling the ship in SaS way before this book came out! Wishful thinking me…). By CK, Zoya was already a Triumvirate badass with Azula-level powers (this is a compliment, I swear! I love Azula…), but KoS completely turns her into the true Grisha queen. And I stand by this.
Of course, more Nikolai goodness is always great, too. He’d been a favorite character since his stylish appearance in SaS, and I admit I almost lost my shit with what happened to him in the beginning of Ruin and Rising. At the time I was reading RaR, King of Scars was just announced as Bardugo’s next book, so I knew Nikolai would manage to survive (to what extent is a different story). I loved his banter and his perspective, and he’s such a fun character to read, because he’s kind of that nerdy, lovable, charming, adventurous cad with a heart of gold and a head of pure determination. He’s the opposite of the usual tall, dark, handsome broody sort that I normally gravitate towards (*coughKazcough*), but I’ve always found that there are two types of male archetypes that I love in fiction: the TDHs and the ones that make me laugh (Nikolai, Carswell Thorne from the Lunar Chronicles series, and Silk from The Belgariad are just some of the few in this category).
The worldbuilding continues to suck me in. Ravka and its surrounding countries have rich histories steeped in fairy tales. Bardugo really loves to weave fairy tales and fairy tale-inspired stories into the Grishaverse. And because I love me my fairy tales, this was absolutely perfect. But that wasn’t even all! Nikolai is a man of progress above all things, and by Six of Crows, a lot of the world was moving into that Age of Industrialism. It continues through King of Scars, which reminded me somewhat like pieces of Republic City in The Legend of Korra. There’s so much technology living side by side with the Grisha’s small sciences, and this type of progress really helped the story along.
And yet, even with the age of technology that Ravka and most of the countries in the Grishaverse are undertaking, there’s clearly still a lot of magic involved. Magic beyond the “small sciences.” Magic that’s, like, friggin’ Avatar the Last Airbender-level kind of awesome, and I am all for this.
Not to mention the fact that there are so many types of women living in the Grishaverse, dealing with different types of situations that go beyond sexual aggression. That’s what I’ve loved about Bardugo’s books: you couldn’t box these women into categories even if you tried. They’re all girls that deal with their own barrel of problems, they’re all different, but they’re all relatable and aspirational. They’re not “not like other girls,” because they’re girls you want to be like. Give me one girl who wouldn’t want to be powerful like Zoya, politically savvy like Genya, cunning like Nina, strong like Tamar, caring like Leoni, fierce like Hanne, intelligent like Nadia, idealistic like Ehri, and, hell, even independent like Elizaveta. And those are not even all the capable women in this book or the Grishaverse!
The only thing that kind of detracted from the story for me was the back-and-forth of the Ravkan POVs to that of Nina’s. I felt it was really disjointed, and there was little relation to what Nina was doing up north in Fjerda with what Nikolai and Zoya were trying to get done in Ravka. I feel like Nina’s perspective is mostly a lead-up of what’s going to happen in Rule of Wolves, but I could have done without it. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Nina Zenik, and her story up north was really good character development for her. I could never get enough of Nina. I just felt like her tale could have been a novella or novel that could have been part of a separate duology (which I would so have read). Near the end, Nina’s POV broke apart the narrative that was taking place with Nikolai and Zoya, and I almost found myself wanting to skip them and then go back to them later once I finished the main storyline.
4.5 out of 5 cookies! King of Scars certainly didn’t wreck me emotionally, but it did fry my brain a bit, especially that ending. I’ll be reading The Lives of Saints first, but you can bet I’ll probably get Rule of Wolves read before the year is up!
(Also, my image of Nikolai is now Cullen Rutherford from Dragon Age Inquisition and I am so scared of who they’re going to cast as the too-clever fox on the Netflix series!)