Title: King of Scars (2019)
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Orion Children’s Books
Read: 29th January – 5th February 2019
Genre: fantasy; young-adult
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
“Face your demons… or feed them. 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, the young king 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 Squaller, 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.” (Synopsis from publisher)
Anyone hoping for a loud, busy, pulse-racing, action-packed book may very well find themselves disappointed by King of Scars; rather, what this book offers is an honest exploration of the different ways people cope with trauma and how it affects the way they interact with the world. On the one hand, we have Nina, a girl grieving for the death of her love in Crooked Kingdom, dragging his body around his homeland because she promised him to lay his body to rest back with his God but she can’t quite let go just yet, trying at the same time to spy on the very country from which he originated and who continue to perpetuate terrible crimes against her people. On the other hand, we have Zoya, a powerful Grisha who has worked her way up through the ranks to become a General, commander of the Grisha, and I think we can say trusted confidante of the King himself but still bears the weight of having served under/for the cruel Darkling for so long. And, finally, we have Nikolai, the king of this book, complete with all his physical and mental scars from the civil war that erupted in Ravka because of the Darkling, and with the irrevocable monstrous urge inside him that plagues him – it’s a trauma he continues to try and hide beneath a winning personality and an easy smile, but it’s slowly winning. This isn’t the heist-filled, action-packed story we see in the Six of Crows duology, it’s not even the slow and sinister seduction of Alina and her powers by the Darkling and his shady ways of darkness as in the Grisha trilogy, it’s something which benefits from the rich political, social, and personal worlds which Leigh Bardugo has built up over the course of all her outings in the Grishaverse thus far.
“Stop punishing yourself for being someone with a heart. You cannot protect yourself from suffering. To live is to grieve. You are not protecting yourself by shutting yourself off from the world. You are limiting yourself.”
King of Scars is ultimately a book which I don’t feel able to critically judge, I’m in too deep, and I’m so utterly besotted with the worlds that Leigh Bardugo creates that I couldn’t rightfully rate this any less than 5-stars, even if I wanted to. Because with this book comes so much of the ones that came before it and it’s hard (nigh on impossible, in fact) for me to separate what I thought about this book from those predecessors or, indeed, the second book in this Nikolai duology that King of Scars sets up. Because it felt like that: a reintroduction and refocusing of Bardugo’s readers’ attention from Ketterdam and the found family of the Dregs gang to the Ravkan kingdom and its saints and history. The tension between Ravka and its neighbouring kingdoms is felt running throughout at the background of this book, as Nikolai now must be simultaneously soldier, ruler, and diplomat, a role he ought to shine in, but which is necessarily tested through his nightly battles with his own demons, which manifest literally as the merzost the Darkling infected him with in Ruin and Rising continues to wage war on his body, leading to the creature with its wings, fangs, and talons emerging for nighttime excursions which only his most trusted advisors know about in an effort to hide the troubles their King is fighting against, and (increasingly) losing.
“The monster is me and I am the monster.”
Even so, this book isn’t actually focused that much on Nikolai, despite the title. Comparatively speaking, the Ravkan king is afforded just as much ‘page time’ as the other point of view characters: Nina, Zoya, and (latterly) Isaak. I won’t say too much about that in case you’re for some reason reading this review before reading King of Scars but, suffice it to say, Isaak’s POV proved to be refreshing and amusing, something needed amongst all the darkness surrounding it/him. Nina’s POV was always going to be a favourite of mine; I’m one of the few readers who actually loved her and Matthias as a thing in the Six of Crows duology so I was concerned about how she would react to the events of Crooked Kingdom, and what that fallout would be. The so obvious signs of Nina’s grief in this book broke my heart, but it also sealed it back up again when I could see that, although her character and personality had undoubtedly been affected by this loss, she’d also thrown herself into helping others and trying to help Grisha trapped in a horrifically patriarchal country which subjugates women and calls it ‘respect’ and actively persecutes her kind, imprisoning and using them for their own hypocritical schemes. The way that this is explored further in this book is nothing short of sickening.
“If men were ashamed when they should be, they’d have no time for anything else.”
In perhaps the most surprising turn of events for me, Zoya became my favourite character in this book, perhaps even over Nikolai… but don’t tell him that; it might hurt his ego! Zoya was strong, badass, snarky, and every bit the general of the Grisha Triumvirate (alongside Genya and David) that Nikolai needs alongside him to help keep Ravka safe in these troubled times. I used to loathe Zoya in the original trilogy and I now can’t help but wonder how much of that was because of how much Alina hated her – as readers, we saw the Little Palace and the Grisha of the Second Army primarily through Alina’s eyes and that viewpoint carried with it some prejudices and biases. (In fact, I’ve made it a priority to now go back and re-read the Grisha trilogy with this in mind!) The relationship dynamic between Zoya and Nikolai is, undoubtedly, one of this book’s strengths as Bardugo somehow manages to create a completely believable friendship between King and commander which, largely, developed ‘off screen’ – none of this feels forced, though, and a lot of the credit must be given to Bardugo for developing the characters to this point where that feels completely believable. Going into this book, I didn’t think I could ship Zoya and Nikolai… I’ve changed my mind but, let’s face it, it’s a doomed prospect.
“ ‘Say something spiteful.’
‘Why?’ she asked faintly.
‘Because I’m fairly certain I’m hallucinating and in my dreams you’re much nicer.’
‘You’re an idiot, Nikolai.’ “
In conclusion, King of Scars was somehow everything and nothing like I expected from Leigh Bardugo’s books: it broke my heart a little bit but it also pieced it back together, only to (potentially) break it all over again with that cliff-hanger ending. I’m very curious to see where the second and last book in the Nikolai duology will lead its readers but I have absolute faith that everything Bardugo has built up this far in the Grishaverse will culminate in what is sure to be one of my most anticipated sequels.
“So you know the best way to find Grisha who don’t want to be found? Look for miracles and listen to bedtime stories.”