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.
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!
There’s nothing like settling down with a Leigh Bardugo novel – she’s exceptionally good at world-building, character development and elegant turns of phrase that seem designed to appeal to my very specific tastes. There’s a fairy tale darkness to the tone and atmosphere, though the wry banter of her world-weary characters is a thread of lightness through whatever grim challenges they face – and there are plenty.
Set in what Bardugo calls the Grishaverse, but which is better described as an alternate-world Russia shot through with fantasy elements, the story largely focuses on the nation of Ravka. Ruled by young King Nikolai Lantsov, who is desperate do right by his country and make amends for the sins of his family, he relies on a select group of Grisha (individuals endowed with magical abilities) to lead Ravka into a prosperous future.
But there’s a dark magic curled within his heart, one that has a terrifying transformative effect that puts all those around him in grave danger. Along with his Commander, the Grisha Zoya Nazyalensky, he struggles to hide his terrible secret while managing the delicate art of statecraft.
But the story of King of Scars is actually divided into three distinct plots: the first dealing with Nikolai’s fight against his literal inner demon, the second with a group of young spies searching for fellow-Grisha in a hostile country, and the third with a young soldier who is called upon to be Nikolai’s decoy while the king is indisposed.
Amazingly, all these plots are just as compelling and intriguing as each other – usually variety leads to unfavourable comparisons, but when one chapter ended and opened on a different point-of-view, I was both sorry to lose the momentum of one storyline and excited to see the next one advance. That’s pretty rare, and it certainly kept me turning pages.
As it happens, this is the sixth book set in Bardugo’s Ravka, preceded by the GRISHA trilogy and the SIX OF CROWS duology. I have to admit that I’ve yet to read Six of Crows, which probably would have provided a better introduction to some of the recurring characters and important events mentioned here, but it’s not necessary reading to follow the nuances of this story. I do however, strongly recommend you read the GRISHA trilogy before this, as King of Scars assumes you know the complexities of what the Grisha are and how they operate, and the political/cultural landscape of Ravka and its surrounding countries.
But everything I love about Bardugo’s work is present here: the warmth and wit of her characters, the rich imagery and detailed world-building, the focus on our collective relationship with stories, faith, ideas and culture – and how these things can change over time, for good or ill.
It felt great to be back in Ravka, and with these familiar characters. The only problem is a long wait until the next book!