Title: King of Scars
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Page Count: 514
Notable Notables: Spin-off duology, exploring more with previously established characters
Recommended Readers: Fans of both Six of Crows and the Grishaverse trilogy–especially those that wanted more from the latter
I was able to finally get to Leigh Bardugo’s King of Scars, and I’m so happy I did because she took my low but timidly hopeful expectations and delivered on them in the most delicious, agonizingly slow way.
Here, we follow Nikolai Lantsov, the king of Ravka, who is trying to keep his country from falling once again into a war with enemies surrounded on all sides, balancing the threads of power along with finding ways to protect his people. Perhaps his greatest challenge, however, is to discover a way to be rid of the dark magic the defeated Darkling left within him, turning him at night into a monstrous creature devoid of reason or thought. Grisha Squaller Zoya Nazyalensky must also find a way to protect king and country no matter what the cost, even if that means sacrificing Nikolai for the sake of her people. Meanwhile, Nina Zenick is undercover on a mission in Fjerda. Deep in enemy territory, she is seeking to bury her past and find meaning in the future by saving as many Grisha as possible.
My low expectations are not indicative that I thought this book would be bad—not at all. I was looking forward to it very much, but aside from Nina, I knew it would be primarily about characters from the Grishaverse trilogy that I hadn’t entirely latched onto.
To be honest, aside from the writing style, the main thing I loved from the Grishaverse trilogy was the Darkling. He is, to date, one of the best well-written villains in YA or really anything and made the trilogy entirely worth reading.
The main thing the Grishaverse trilogy suffers from is the fact that it’s a first trilogy, riddled with what you can expect of YA first trilogy problems, namely under-developed characters, an agonizing (in a bad way) endgame romance, and imo, a dissatisfying ending. What Bardugo did with King of Scars that I hoped and had faith that she would do was take those under-developed characters and make me truly care about them.
She did, with magnificent flair.
In fact, the only real “complaint” I have about King of Scars is that it isn’t super accessible to readers who haven’t experienced the Grishaverse trilogy or Six of Crows duology. The plot carries over from both, along with the character journeys, and while this book does reference what went down in both, it’s not exactly thorough but you will be spoiled for both series. There’s no way around it.
To be honest, it’s been so long since I’ve read the Grishaverse trilogy, I didn’t remember half of what was referenced, but I still did mostly okay reading because I remembered the Big Stuff. Finishing King of Scars has honestly made me want to reread said trilogy to see what I think about it now.
At last, though, Nikolai, Zoya, Genya, and David have emerged from the shadow cast by the Grishaverse trilogy to fully come into their own, especially the former two. (I can’t say the same for Tamar and Tolya, unfortunately; they still feel like words on a page, not living, breathing characters. But this story isn’t about them, so I guess that’s okay.)
And sadly, no mention or remembrance of Alina and her legacy warmed me to her any further. This book actually made me somewhat unimpressed with her compared to how I used to regard her because here are Nikolai and the gang, trying to keep their country together and their people safe, and Alina really did just fuck off into the sunset with Mal, the worst consolation prize ever, after everything was said and done, and that’s all she wrote.
But whatever. This book isn’t about her either, and I hope it stays that way. She had her time, and if she wants to stay out of it, then by all means, please do.
Who it is about is Nikolai, the golden prince, the swindler, the schemer, the privateer. Nikolai remains the charming, personable man whose quick with a quip and outward confidence, but now that we see his point of view, we can see how uncertain and stretched-thin he is underneath it all. The balance of Nikolai’s sense of humor and his internal despair is a high point to read about, with it all wrapped up in a bow full of both hopeful idealism and shrewd ambition.
He’s come even more into his strengths in a serious way, all while trying to figure out what to do about the demon threatening to take over his body and completely consume him. I identified so much with him fearing the loss over his mind and intelligence the most as well as with how much he was struggling to keep everything together, even at the expense of himself.
Nikolai undergoes some severe imposter’s syndrome, and seeing that resonated deeply with me. He’s deeply talented and intelligent, but he still doesn’t feel like he deserves what he has, that some part of him isn’t good enough to have it, that he’s going to end up ruining everything. I think all creators have felt that—in fact, most people have felt that—but for some reason, we don’t talk to each other about how bad imposter’s syndrome can root itself deep within us all. So I’m glad Bardugo showed that with a character as larger than life as Nikolai.
That being said, I do think his growth and plot was overshadowed quite a bit by Zoya’s and Nina’s, both of which I love to death, but this is supposed to be Nikolai’s duology, after all. I’m hoping that he gets more page time in the next book because what was here was already wonderful—I just needed more of it.
Speaking of the ladies, let’s get to Zoya.
Zoya is a character that I’ve had an interesting history with. In the Grishaverse trilogy, she started out as pretty much the Bitch trope. The mean girl who was jealous and nasty to Alina. While she underwent her own growth in the trilogy, now is when I’m finally witnessing the full fruits of it. Zoya is still mean; she’s still hard, her icy, merciless exterior is not hiding a soft and gooey center, but I respect her so much for it because her goal isn’t to undermine her allies but to protect fellow Grisha and Ravka’s future, no matter what. She completely owns who and what she is personality-wise, but she still has growth to do.
The actual glimpses into Zoya’s mind and into her past are something that we never got in the original trilogy because everything was in Alina’s very limited POV. There is so much empowerment and strength in Zoya’s history; it is earnest enough without it feeling like it’s pandering for feminist points, and it is also vulnerable and real, adding depths and layers to her complexity.
I’m very excited to see how her training and bonding with Juris will continue to affect her powers and those of Grisha as a whole. In fact, between Nina’s powers changing because of parem and this new understanding of the making at the heart of the world, I feel like the Grisha powers are about to become a lot more interesting. The only thing I ask is for Zoya to not become extremely OP because of it. Really hoping Bardugo doesn’t pull a Sarah J. Maas and will continue to have rules and limitations and consequences for her magic system and how it can be used.
That being said, I didn’t think I’d be a fan of Zoya and Nikolai as a pairing, but… The way Bardugo did it completely worked. Probably because it hasn’t been rushed and is still a big question about if it will even happen. There are inklings of feelings on both sides, but neither of them are addressing them seriously because of boundaries, duty, timing, responsibilities—all very adult and mature reasons.
Man, we really have come a long way from the Grishaverse trilogy, haven’t we?
As for Nina, her story picks up where Crooked Kingdom, the previous book in the Six of Crows duology, left off, so if you haven’t read that, you’ll be lost.
Nina’s chapters as she’s trying to let go of Matthias absolutely broke my heart, but hers is probably my favorite POV to read from. Watching her grieve while also trying to find a new purpose and drive is so powerful, and it’s amazing to see her apply everything she learned from Matthias with everything she had learned from living in Ketterdam with a bunch of thieves and criminals. (No mourners, no funerals, eeeeyyy!)
I love that she recognizes Matthias’ drive and encouragement to show mercy to his people, even at their most bigoted—but Nina still settles things her way, without sacrificing who she is in the process.
Also, her bisexuality is displayed gloriously, without pomp and circumstance, without agonizing Bisexual Pain—Nina just is. Her intrigue and attraction to Hanne is just there, in feeling the urge to wrap Hanne’s curls around her finger, in recognizing her strength and beauty, in encouraging her to embrace the wild girl that Fjerda and Hanne’s father wanted to reject. I am soooo excited to see where Nina and Hanne’s journey is going and how Nina will earn Hanne’s trust.
I don’t want to talk too much about the plot of this one because it is such a treat to discover for yourself, so I’ll just say a few more brief things.
The part with Grigori, Juris, and Elizaveta was crazy but fun. Seriously trippy, but it adds another layer to the world that I didn’t even know I needed. I’m so ready for Bardugo to explore more about the Saints and the source of their powers and what they truly mean for the world at large.
Oh, Yuri. I don’t know if I like you or not, really, but I will say this: you were only the spokesperson to canonize the Darkling into a saint because I wasn’t there to do it first. Does he deserve it? No. But this is the drama and tainted holiness that I am absolutely a slut for.
I instantly feel in love with Isaak. His chapters are an absolute treat, but now I am in abject pain. Leigh, how could you???
But I forgive you, Leigh. I forgive you because you were not a coward and you gave me the thing I wanted most out of this book, foreshadowing it throughout until I was vibrating uncontrollably in my seat, and then you did the thing I hoped you would do ever since I read the synopsis for King of Scars, and maybe I can read Ruin and Rising without being so dissatisfied by it now!!!!
Anyone who hated the ending for this book is a coward, if I’m being real, and my only actual complaint is that it didn’t happen much sooner. The last two pages completed and fueled me in ways I have missed so tragically.
So yeah, I am dying for the next book. Absolutely dying. The power plays, the politics, the hatred, the fear, the war, all of it.
And I’m ready for A Certain Character to steal the show and corrupt some hearts all over again.