Book Reviews · Fantasy · Teen

Review: King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

Face your demons… or feed them.

The people of Ravka don’t know what Nikolai Lantsov endured in their bloody civil war and he intends to keep it that way. Yet each day a dark magic in him grows stronger, threatening to destroy all he has built.
Zoya Nazyalensky has devoted her life to rebuilding the Grisha army. Despite their magical gifts, Zoya knows the Grisha cannot survive without Ravka as a place of sanctuary – and she will stop at nothing to help Nikolai secure the throne.
Far north, Nina Zenik wages her own kind of war against the people who would see the Grisha destroyed. Burdened by grief and a terrifying power, Nina must face her past to have any hope of defeating the dangers that await her.

Ravka’s king. Ravka’s general. Ravka’s spy.
They will risk everything to save a broken nation. But some secrets aren’t meant to stay buried, and some wounds aren’t meant to heal.

*This review will contain spoilers for the Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows duology*

What an exciting new series! Leigh Bardugo has certainly come a long way from her first book, Shadow and Bone, which had a great premise and a very exciting world, but was full of worn-out tropes and somewhat shallow characters. This new duology follows Nikolai, now King of Ravka, trying to bring an age of peace to his country, but is beset by nations on all sides, and by the darkness within. Three years have passed since the Shadow Fold was destroyed and the Darkling defeated by Alina Starkov, but whatever force Nikolai was infected with has reared its head again, and at night the king turns into a shadow creature that longs for human flesh. Zoya and the rest of the Grisha Triumvirate – comprised of the familiar faces of Genya, David, Tolya, and Tamar – are doing their best to keep this hidden and find a way to cure it, but things are getting out of hand.

At the same time, miracles seem to be sprouting up all over Ravka, and a new group called the Cult of the Starless Saint has arisen and are demanding the Darkling be made a saint. Their leader, Yuri, is brought into the palace by Nikolai to try and placate the crowds, and the king quickly realises that he might be able to use Yuri’s knowledge to rid himself of the monster within him. This will take Nikolai and Zoya back to the Unsea, to the place in which the Darkling first created the Fold and was then defeated centuries later.

‘Ravka was his first love, an infatuation that has begun in his lonely boyhood and that had only deepened with age. Whatever it demanded, he knew he would give.’

I’m not always a fan of when a series brings back a villain that has already died, but in this case the Darkling hasn’t actually returned and it is his memory, his actions, and the remnants of his power are what hangs over Ravka and over Nikolai. I appreciated this because it shows the long-term effects of this great good vs evil war; the darkness may have been defeated, but unlike the sweet fairytale ending of Ruin and Rising (in which Alina and Mal get to retire to a cottage and the kingdom seems happy) the problems don’t magically disappear because the villain has died. In the same way, though the Crows managed to free Kuwei from the Fjerdans and the knowledge jurda parem is in the hands of the Grisha, there are still threats to the Grisha’s lives, still the danger of kidnapping and murder by the Fjerdans or by the Shu for their experiments. I really like the way this series brought in so much more of the politics of the Grishaverse.

We see this in Nina’s storyline as well. She is undercover in Fjerda, working to smuggle vulnerable Grisha out of the country to offer them safety and build up Ravka’s Second Army. Even in a place that hates Grisha, though, effigies to Sankta Alina are spouting up, and tension is building between soldiers and villagers, especially in a town to the north where a factory has been set up, and where Nina can hear the voices of the dead calling to her. Nina’s points of view were heartbreaking; she is not only in Fjerda on a mission, but she has been trailing the body of her love Matthias (kept intact by Fabrikator magic) and is looking for a place to lay him to rest in a country that branded him a traitor. Throughout her chapters there are moments in which she hears Matthias’ voice in her head, and it’s as if they are still having a conversation, and that hit me hard. It’s also a bit of a shock to the system to see a character that previously has been so cheerful and full of life even in hard circumstances, become so grey, which is augmented by the way her powers were changed by jurda parem so that she no longer sense life but death.

‘For a moment, Nina had stood alone with death on the docks, two weary travellers, long time companions.’

There are also a few new characters introduced in this story, and I enjoyed all of them, as well as getting to know Zoya more. She is a complex character, which we see hints of in the first Grishaverse trilogy, but Bardugo really develops her in this new series. Her and Nikolai’s relationship, built on the desire to improve their country and the trust they have in one another was really nice to read, and there are parts of her arc that definitely went in unexpected directions!

In fact, the last thing I’ll say is that one of the things that really elevated this book for me, along with the development of the world, the politics, the banter, and the characterisation, was the plot twists. There was more than one moment that had me raising my eyebrows in surprise at the turn of events, and I thoroughly enjoyed that feeling. Now my only tragedy is that Rule fo Wolves is only out in hardback and I can’t ruin my collection of grishaverse paperbacks, so I’ll have to wait a while for the conclusion to the story. Or maybe I’ll buy the ebook to read it in the meantime.

Book Info

Published: 5th March 2020 (paperback) by Orion
Genre: fantasy, YA
Pages: 514
Series: King of Scars duology, book one
Narration style: third person past tense, multiple points of view
Format read: paperback
Copy owned: yes
Trigger Warnings: blood, violence, body horror, death, poison, torture, addiction, grief

Have you read King of Scars? I would love to chat about it with you if you have!

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