King of Scars: Battling mortal enemies and demons in the Grisha universe

King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsKing of Scars by Leigh Bardugo science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsKing of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

King of Scars (2019), the first book in Leigh Bardugo’s NIKOLAI DUOLOGY and part of the ongoing saga in her GRISHA universe, begins not long after the events in Crooked Kingdom. Readers should ideally have read both the original SHADOW AND BONE trilogy and the SIX OF CROWS duology before picking up this book; there are a lot of references to prior events and previously introduced characters. We return to the country of Ravka, setting of Shadow and Bone, where Nikolai Lantsov is now king. His efforts to mend the major rifts and problems that trouble his country internally, and strengthen it against foreign invaders, are endangered by a lingering curse from the Darkling that has begun manifesting again in recent months. On many nights, Nikolai transforms into a winged, bloodthirsty demon, terrorizing the countryside.

Zoya Nazyalensky, his beautiful but caustic Grisha general, and his loyal servants have been protecting Nikolai’s secret and chaining him at night to his bed, but the demon within him is growing in strength each day. It’s only a matter of time before someone is killed by the demon. Strange but disturbing miracles in various places in Ravka, and the appearance of a young monk, part of a cult that worships the Darkling, lead Nikolai, Zoya and their friends on a journey to seek a way to permanently defeat the demon lurking within Nikolai.

In the meantime, a group of three Ravkan Grisha is on a spy mission in the neighboring enemy country of Fjerda, a place deeply hostile to Grisha. They’re searching out Fjerdans who have Grisha powers and are smuggling them out of the country. One of these Ravkan spies is Nina, the Grisha Heartrender with deadly powers from the SIX OF CROWS duology, who is still mourning the loss of her Fjerdan lover Matthias. Nina and her two cohorts head toward the Fjerdan town of Gäfvalle to investigate rumors of curses and poisoned rivers, and find a hidden conspiracy festering in an old factory outside of the town. But what can three Grishas do against so many enemies?

King of Scars is a clear step above the original SHADOW AND BONE trilogy: better written, more intense and much more creative. It doesn’t reach the heights of the SIX OF CROWS duology, though my judgment on that may change once this Nikolai story arc is wrapped up in the second book, yet to be published (or even named). King of Scars is fairly fragmented in its plot: the two main story arcs never tie together in this volume, and there’s a rather odd section in a desert palace in another dimension that I was never entirely on board with. And after a powerful start the narrative drags somewhat in the middle before picking up again toward the end. I didn’t have any trouble putting it down a couple of times for a day or so, but there was never any question in my mind about whether I would finish the book.

Leigh Bardugo

The best chapters in King of Scars are truly powerful. Zoya has been a Mean Girl in the prior books, but as her personality, her strengths and weaknesses, unfold in this novel, she becomes a sympathetic character who we can root for. Her devotion to her country and her king, Nikolai, is admirable and tinged with an attraction between the two of them that both hesitate to act on, seeing the futility of a relationship between them. Her story arc is marked by a heart-wrenching flashback chapter that reveals key events and relationships in her past, why she is the person she is. Like Nikolai, Zoya has both external and internal scars.

After all this time, she still had not found an end to her grief. It was a dark well, an echoing place into which she’d once cast a stone, sure that it would strike bottom and she would stop hurting. Instead, it just kept falling. She forgot about the stone, forgot about the well, sometimes for days or even weeks at a time. Then she would think Liliyana’s name, or her eye would pause on the little boat painted on her bedroom wall, its two-starred flag frozen in the wind. She’d sit down to write a letter and realize she had no one to write to, and the quiet that surrounded her became the silence of the well, of the stone still falling.

Nina’s plotline involves a group rescue mission against extremely long odds, and a more personal rescue mission as she grows close to Hanne, a rebellious young woman lodging at the same Gäfvalle convent where Nina and her friends are staying. Hanne is hiding secrets of her own from her family and friends. It seems clear that there’s a romantic attraction slowly growing between Hanne and Nina, which I found a little disconcerting, especially coming on the heels of Nina’s deep mourning for Matthias and a tearjerker of a scene where she finally lays his (magically preserved) body to rest.

King of Scars ends with a surprise twist that I found equal parts frustrating, intriguing, and horrifying. I’m not sure I liked that ending, but I’m definitely planning on reading the next book!

Published in January 2019. Face your demons…or feed them. The dashing young king, Nikolai Lantsov, has always had a gift for the impossible. No one knows what he endured in his country’s bloody civil war—and he intends to keep it that way. Now, as enemies gather at his weakened borders, Nikolai must find a way to refill Ravka’s coffers, forge new alliances, and stop a rising threat to the once-great Grisha Army. Yet with every day a dark magic within him grows stronger, threatening to destroy all he has built. With the help of a young monk and a legendary Grisha general, Nikolai will journey to the places in Ravka where the deepest magic survives to vanquish the terrible legacy inside him. He will risk everything to save his country and himself. But some secrets aren’t meant to stay buried—and some wounds aren’t meant to heal.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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4 comments

  1. “On many nights, Nikolai transforms into a winged, bloodthirsty demon, terrorizing the countryside.”

    Well, THAT’S awkward.

    I have only read SIX OF CROWS and I liked it very much. I should probably read its sequel and then pick up this one. I love her descriptions and I enjoy her characters. Thanks for reviewing this, which reminded me these are out there!

    • I liked the Six of Crows sequel, Crooked Kingdom, even better than the first book, so definitely I’d recommend reading it!

  2. I wanted to like the Shadow and Bone trilogy, but it never rose above “average YA” for me — not like Bardugo’s amazing short fiction. However, should my reading schedule magically clear itself, I’ll give her novels an honest second attempt, primarily because you like them so much. :)

    • The Shadow and Bone trilogy was pretty standard YA fantasy, but I feel like Bardugo raised her game to a whole new level with the Six of Crows duology.

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