Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo
Rule of Wolves, the second half of Leigh Bardugo’s NIKOLAI DUOLOGY, picks up right where King of Scars left off and flings the reader headlong into the story. In other words, if it’s been a while since you read King of Scars, you’d be well advised to refamiliarize yourself at least a little with its plot; if you haven’t yet read that book, don’t start with this one.
The Russia-inspired country of Ravka and its king, Nikolai Lantsov, are beset by threats from both without and within. To the north, the wintry country of Fjerda, which rejects the magical Grisha as evil, is making preparations to invade, and Fjerda has a substantial edge in war technology over Ravka. Nina Zenik is an undercover spy in Fjerda, now in a position of trust in the household of Fjerda’s chief military commander, Jarl Brum, but Nina’s growing attraction to Jarl’s daughter Hanne is a distraction and a danger to them both, with Hanne intended for a strategic marriage, perhaps even to Fjerda’s ailing prince. To the south, Queen Makhi of Shu Han has already tried to assassinate Nikolai, and her mutated khergud warriors have magical powers and unmatched strength.
Add to that:
- Nikolai’s possession by a bloodthirsty flying demon, which still sometimes takes over his body;
- the threat posed by the Darkling, who (as it developed in King of Scars) isn’t as dead and gone as everyone had assumed;
- a magical blight that appears randomly and destroys everything and everyone it touches;
- a competing contender for the throne of Ravka, a Lantsov relative whose followers assert that Nikolai isn’t the rightful ruler because the prior king isn’t his actual father; and
- Nikolai’s unspoken (and politically impossible) growing attraction to his beautiful and iron-willed Grisha general, Zoya.
All in all, Nikolai and Ravka … and the readers of this series … truly have their hands full. Bardugo juggles all of these plot lines fairly deftly, with each chapter jumping to a different viewpoint character and connections between the different plotlines becoming apparent as the story develops. The geographic scope of Bardugo’s Grisha universe has expanded greatly over the years, and in this seventh book she takes full advantage of her prior worldbuilding. The Grishaverse novels have become increasingly adult-oriented and intricately plotted with each book, and Rule of Wolves is the most epic in scale yet. It’s a complex story with many moving parts, not to mention a few crowd-pleasing cameos from characters from prior Grishaverse books.
The military threats to the north and south of Ravka drive most of the plot of Rule of Wolves, with warfare strategizing, spy adventures, and actual battles taking the forefront. However, romantic tension in the Nikolai-Zoya and Nina-Hanne relationships provide a bit of a break from the focus on war. Nina, who is still recovering from the loss of her Fjerdan lover Matthias, finds healing with Hanne and transitions to a bisexual (or perhaps a gay-for-you) character. At the same time, Hanne has a trans identity that she is gradually coming to terms with, against vast societal and family pressure, and Zoya has a secret mixed racial heritage that may upend her life plans.
The resolution of all of these romantic, personal identity, and military issues struck me as a bit too pat in the end, and the broad scope of the novel, like King of Scars, doesn’t completely gel into a cohesive whole. It’s still an absorbing, enjoyable story, though, and I recommend it to fans of Bardugo’s Grisha works.
The very ending of Rule of Wolves leaves the door wide open for future adventures in the Grisha world, but Bardugo, whose earlier books are the basis for the recent Shadow and Bone Netflix series, says that she’s saying goodbye to this world for now. She comments in an interview with the Orange County Register that “there are other universes and worlds I want to explore.” It will be fun to see where Bardugo’s imagination takes us next.