King of Scars
by Leigh Bardugo
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.
So King of Scars was probably one of my most anticipated reads of 2019 and I was finally able to collect my copy from my local bookshop and read it in one day.
I suppose you could if you really wanted to, but I wouldn’t recommend reading this book if you haven’t already read the other books in Bardugo’s Grishaverse, there’s just so much backstory you’d miss out on and the backstory’s worth having for this book.
It’s been around three years since the Darkling was defeated and Nikolai, now the king of Ravka, is still haunted by what he suffered at the Darkling’s hands during the civil war. Quite literally. When we meet him again in King of Scars the creature Nikolai became in Ruin and Rising has begun to re-emerge at the same time as a bunch of ‘miracles’ that have started to occur across Ravka, and the rise of a new religious order who believe the Darkling should be deified as a saint.
Nikolai needs to find a cure for what’s happening to him, especially now that the creature is starting to take over his body more frequently, before the enemies closing in on Ravka’s borders find out his weakness, invade and tear Ravka apart from the inside. The country has suffered enough already. The only ones who know about his condition are the Grisha closest to him, including the leader of the Second Army, Zoya, who was probably my favourite character in the original trilogy and was also a point of view character in this book and I LOVED her.
Don’t get me wrong I love Nikolai too, his wit and sense of humour are the best, but I have a thing for mean women who aren’t antagonists. Zoya isn’t a nice person – she’s trying to rebuild an army that lost most of its forces during the civil war, so she can’t afford to be nice – but that doesn’t mean she’s a villain, and I loved finding out more about her past and why she is the way she is. What I loved even more, however, was her chemistry with Nikolai.
THESE TWO. MY HEART. I adored their banter and the fact that they’re such good friends but there’s clearly something else there, too, that neither of them have quite realised yet or don’t want to admit to and I loved the two of them together. Especially as they’re two characters who’ve become friends since we first met them in the original trilogy, where they didn’t really know each other at all; Bardugo’s done a wonderful job of developing a close, believable relationship ‘off camera’ since we last visited Ravka.
Zoya ends up accompanying Nikolai on his quest to where the Shadow Fold once was to try and cleanse his body of this demon, and there’s not much more I can say without going into spoiler territory. All I will say is Nikolai and Zoya’s story ended up taking on a very traditional high fantasy twist, with old gods and even a dragon, which I don’t tend to expect outside of medieval-inspired fantasy but which worked really well here. I enjoyed their storyline a lot and their relationship a lot and I can’t wait to see more of them in the next book.
We’re not only in Ravka in this book, however, as we also travel to Fjerda where my beloved Nina, who I fell in love with in Six of Crows and was the main reason I wanted to read this book, is working as a spy for the Ravkan crown. She promised Matthias that she would take his body back to Fjerda and that she would try to stop more Fjerdans from giving in to blind hatred and persecuting the Grisha the way their country does, putting herself in grave danger in the process. If she were to be discovered she’d meet an incredibly grisly fate.
She’s in Fjerda with two other Ravkan spies who are smuggling Grisha out of Fjerda and into Ravka, not only for their own safety but so that Ravka has more Grisha for the Second Army. When she begins to hear voices calling for her help, she manages to convince her fellow spies to detour to a small Fjerdan town where the locals have been complaining that the river water is contaminated. Posing as traders, they manage to find shelter in what’s essentially a nunnery where Nina befriends one of the novitiates, Hanne.
Nina’s storyline in this book is dark, and I loved it. When Matthias asked Nina to help people like him we assume he meant to help convince the Drüskelle to stop torturing and murdering Grisha, but instead Nina ends up finding a calling helping the women of Fjerda as, compared to Ravka, Fjerda’s society is an incredibly patriarchal one and, Grisha or not, women are patronised and mistreated. She’s still struggling with the aftermath of Matthias’s death and struggling with the promise she made him – how can she help Fjerda when a part of her still hates Fjerda for raising Matthias the way that it did and then taking him from her? – but there are still glimpses of that bubbly girl who savours toffees and waffles and doesn’t apologise for taking up space in the world.
To be honest the book as a whole is essentially an exploration in grief and trauma, and how different people react and cope differently to different kinds of trauma. Nina is still dealing with Matthias’s death and the torture she continues to see inflicted on Grisha in Fjerda; even though Nikolai’s people know he was tortured in the war and refer to him as the ‘King of Scars’, he’s unable to find a way to cope with the trauma he experienced without appearing weak to enemy forces, meaning the creature in him is able to feed on what is essentially his PTSD; Zoya is still angry and ashamed that she idolised the Darkling for so long and didn’t see it coming when he used his power to prove a point and killed her aunt and many other innocent people in the process.
This isn’t a happy book, but it isn’t a bleak book either. There is always hope, but people can only be hopeful if they’re given an opportunity to be, and that means they need time to grieve, too. I thought Bardugo struck the balance between a punch to the gut and a warm hug beautifully, and I laughed several times while reading this. Like I said, Nikolai and Zoya’s banter is the best.
There’s also so many tips of the hat in here to other characters from the wider Grishaverse which made it so much fun to read, and whenever Nina mentioned any of the other Dregs it made me so happy. I love them so much, and after Nina’s year in Ketterdam I loved that she hadn’t gone back to Ravka and forgotten all about the friendships she made there and everything she was able to do there.
And then… then that ending was a thing. And that’s all I’m going to say because I want to keep my review as spoiler free as possible. All I know for certain is I don’t know how I feel about that ending and I need to know what’s going to happen next and now I have to wait a year to find out and I don’t know how I’m going to cope.
… Guess I’ll just have to re-read Six of Crows.