Published by Imprint on January 29, 2019
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.
I won’t lie, I initially struggled to get into this book when I started it. Part of the problem was the bias I brought with me from Bardugo’s other books. I found the original Grisha trilogy okay but I was not head over heels in love with it. I read it long after its original publication and I felt out of the loop and out of kilter with other people’s opinions (I don’t think Mal is that bad, for example, but I’ve read a lot of reviews that mention reader’s having an issue with that character).
In contrast, I really love Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom. Although they were set in the same universe as the Grisha trilogy the locations , characters and plots felt fresher.
King of Scars, meanwhile, returns us to the Ravka of Shadow and Bone and puts the spotlight back on familiar faces from the original trilogy.
But despite my reservations I really did end up enjoying King of Scars by the time I finished it. Read in conjunction with the previous Grishaverse books, this entry in Bardugo’s canon works really well at satisfyingly maturing the world and characters from the original trilogy in a way that helped bring them in line with the joy I got from Six of Crows.
My favourite thing about King of Scars is the character work. I liked that, whilst our protagonists are still young, they have had to noticeably grow, develop and handle the consequences of events they went through in previous books.
We get three main perspectives: Zoya (the general), Nikolai (the King) and Nina (the Spy).
For Zoya and Nikolai a few years have past since the end of Ruin and Rising (enough time for them to establish routines but not enough to feel secure). At the beginning of King of Scars, we are presented with the current state of play: Alina’s old Grisha allies have put all their eggs in the ‘Nikolai as King of Ravka’ basket, which would be just fine if he wasn’t battling a monster who takes over his body and mind during his sleep (Jekyll and Hyde style).
That is the central issues of the Nikolai/Zoya chapters. It’s a great arc for Nikolai because his inner monster is the physical embodiment of the emotional and mental stress he internally faces every day in regard to his right to rule. The monster is the living metaphor for Nikolai’s internal crisis. Yes, it’s origins are just straight up magic but you can’t ignore the poetic symmetry of it all. We know from previous books that his blood claim to the throne is doubtful (to put it lightly) but nevertheless he is the one sitting on the throne with the weight of his country’s future on his shoulders.
As in the first Grisha trilogy Nikolai is as witty and charming as ever on the face of things, but his internal conflict with the monster fleshes out his character beautifully. I respected his ongoing devotion to portraying himself as the king he believes his people need, no matter the depths of his personal struggles.
Zoya, meanwhile, has also matured in leaps and bounds from how she is presented in the Shadow and Bone trilogy. Though, in part, her character development owes a lot to the fact Bardugo gave her a voice of her own in this one rather than us only seeing her through the lens of being Alina’s rival.
In King of Scars Zoya is at Nikolai’s right hand as a general and confidante. Zoya, to me, becomes a queen in everything but name. Her politics are now entirely about putting her country first, not her personal gain. I was taken by surprise by where her journey took her, actually. Whilst there have always been higher powers at play in the Grishaverse I don’t think I’ve ever seen it more dramatically demonstrated than it is in this novel. I think Zoya is the one most impacted by this new complication and it completely shakes up the whole Grisha system.
The Nina chapters, meanwhile, are quitea separate story from Zoya and Nikolai’s. For Nina we jump back into her story reasonably close to where we last saw her at the end of Crooked Kingdom. Grief, finding the strength carry on, and forge a new future, are the main themes of her journey. She really has to dig deep to discover who she is independent of the relationships she made in Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom. Not to mention how she defines herself as a Grisha given the change to her powers. She has to work through all of this whilst working deep undercover in another country.
Whilst Zoya and Nina’s stories are separate they both compliment each other thematically. They both act as a good lens for examining the cultural biases and prejudices in the world Bardugo has formed. Through them we get to see the changing roles for women and how different countries are at different stages of development . We also get to examine further the theme of prejudice towards Grisha. In both women’s story lines we have to revise our conceptual understanding of Grisha from the somewhat simpler system we were presented with in Shadow and Bone.
I did end up enjoying King of Scars a lot and appreciated the ways in which Bardugo deepened the Grishaverse. I don’t want to start ranking it against Six of Crows yet just because I need to read the sequel before I cast final judgement. There are a lot of open doors left in this narrative by the final chapter, with new ones opening left, right and centre.
Have you read King of Scars yet? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.