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 have been anticipating this book for nearly four years. I remember finishing the Grisha trilogy and then reading an interview in which Leigh Bardugo promised a Nikolai spin-off someday. I freaked the hell out and kept my eyes peeled for an announcement from that moment on. Four years later, King of Scars was finally in my hands.
Even so, I was nervous for this release. I wasn’t a huge fan of Wonder Woman: Warbringer in 2017. What if I had matured past Bardugo’s writing? What if Six of Crows had been her pinnacle?
Until further notice, I’m considering Warbringer a fluke. King of Scars is fantastic. I love these characters, I love this plot, I love the themes— I love everything. I honestly don’t even know I have it in me to write a well thought out review. I just want to gush wordlessly. But that’s not what a blogger does, so I’ll try my best.
So, the characters. The book is told from four points-of-view (five if you count the first chapter): Nikolai, Zoya, Nina, and Isaak. I really like how flawed each of these characters are. But they’re not just flawed, they’re self-aware. Nikolai is stuck in an impossible situation (or should I say improbable), but he knows he can plot himself out of it. Sometimes this forces others into difficult positions, but he always places Ravka first.
Zoya is cold and almost cruel, but she will always do what’s right. She has little room for pity, even for her own tragic past. Nina is struggling to put herself back together and save the Fjerdan Grisha. She makes impulsive decisions, but uses the lessons she learned in Ketterdam as an asset. Isaak just wants to do right by his king, but is also hopelessly naïve.
Other notable characters include Hanne, a Fjerdan convent girl who dreams of flouting societal conventions. She often poses as a soldier, but lacks the training and worldliness necessary to make any changes on her own. Then there’s Yuri, a fanatical monk who heads a cult for the Darkling. He believes whole-heartedly in his faith, but also idolizes a murderous megalomaniac.
The character arcs are both beautiful and heartbreaking. I especially enjoyed Nikolai and Zoya’s arcs and how they grow to parallel each other. I’m also enjoying the budding romance between them. It’s so slow burn that they haven’t even realized they have feelings for each other yet.
I’m also interested to see how the relationship between Nina and Hanne develops. Right now, they are friends and allies. However, Nina is incredibly attracted to her and Bardugo said Nina’s next love interest would be a woman. I can’t wait to see how their union plays out in the next book.
The plot is fairly slow, especially at the beginning. I love slow-paced books, so this worked well for me. Plus, I love these characters and am concerned for the fate of Ravka and the persecuted Grisha. Even once the main plot kicks in, it still takes its time getting to the climax and shocking ending.
That doesn’t mean there’s no action. On the contrary, Bardugo has become a pro at balancing character introspection, dialogue, and action. She also writes great action scenes, especially when magic is involved.
King of Scars is a largely character-driven story. It’s their decisions and reactions that drive the plot forward. Even when a character makes a questionable decision, it makes sense because they’re so flawed and broken.
The ending made me so angry. This isn’t because it’s bad, but because it has such a strong emotional impact. It makes you frustrated and desperate for the characters. I can’t say it’s the direction I wanted the story to go, but I felt the characters’ fear and fury so viscerally I have to forgive it.
Thematically, King of Scars explores what makes a monster and what makes a human. There’s a refrain throughout the story: “I am the monster and the monster is me.” This manifests in various ways, each positing that perhaps there is something one and the same between the two. It also discusses control and awareness. Can we take control of our demons? How much do they drive our actions? It’s a fascinating dissection of humanity with no clear-cut answer.
I can’t say much more about this book without devolving into general raving. King of Scars was absolutely worth waiting four years for. It’s emotional, it’s funny, it’s raw. Bardugo has vastly improved as a writing since her debut series. This book will easily make my best list this year. In the meantime, I will be waiting with bated breath to see what happens to my kol rezni and his friends in the sequel.
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