Review: King of Scars

Warning: spoilers ahead

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This book starts off slowly, which made me slightly anxious. That’s not to say the beginning is bad, but it did feel slightly anticlimactic, especially following all of the hype that has surrounded King of Scars from the moment it was announced.

It’s in a tricky position; set in a well-established and beloved universe, prominently featuring multiple fan-favourite characters from two separate series, the bar for quality of writing has been set pretty high following the success of the Six of Crows books.

Confession: I read the Grisha books after Crooked Kingdom (mostly so I would know what was going on in this book). I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed reading the trilogy. It’s definitely got a different tone to the Six of Crows books; rather than following a rag-tag group of outsiders in their efforts to survive and make that coin, it’s a self-consciously elevated tale of light vs dark, featuring extravagant magic, princes in disguise, and the highest of stakes.

King of Scars is a maelstrom of a book that for me, takes the best of the Grisha series and uses the rich character history and worldbuilding that’s taken us to this point to make it better.

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One point of excitement was the revelation that the novel would be partially narrated by Nina Zenik, member of our favourite criminal crew and Grisha heartrender. Nina’s sections could have made up their own novella. It made the book feel slightly disjointed to me, as her POV was the only one unconnected to the other plotline as well as taking place in a completely different location. Also, this structure actually made me want to speed through the Nina bits to get back to the action after a particularly tantalising cliffhanger, which is terrible because I love Nina in this book and her journey towards emotional healing (and the references to our favourite Dregs!).

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From scattering their petals over Matthias’ grave (sob) to her Kaz-worthy trick at the end of the book, even though Nina has returned to working for Ravka, it’s clear that her experiences in Ketterdam have changed her. Nina’s ability to have chemistry with anyone is a wonder to behold, and her attraction to Hanne is beautifully written.

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For me, the pinnacle of this book is the desert training section. It’s a sublime scenario, and neatly removes the characters into a space where they are forced to confront their metaphorical dragons (how good was that line about dragons not always being metaphorical). Who doesn’t love a good training montage? I really appreciated the nature of Nikolai and Zoya’s emotional progressions and growths, which felt refreshing in comparison to other heroes’ fatal flaws (more on that later).

I appreciated the fallibility of their mentors – making the point that literally no one is perfect or exempt from the temptations of selfishness and power, even Saints. The characters of the Saints are brilliantly realised and create the opportunity for some proper grand fantasy imagery, and their introduction into the story was an utter surprise.

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I didn’t hate Zoya at the start but didn’t exactly like her – to me she came across as the typical perfect ‘ice queen’ who is mean for seemingly no reason.

But in King of Scars we get to learn her backstory and her character is fleshed out, though there is no attempt to soften it in the process. Zoya’s not an inexperienced ingenue who has just fallen into this world of magic and politics, she’s worked hard for many years, is insanely powerful, and has earned her position.

What really made me fall in love with her was the way she constantly calls out the bullshit of patriarchal society throughout the novel. She’s surprised at her pleasure in seeing Alina being celebrated by the people, making a welcome change from the idolation of powerful, selfish, ruthless men like the Darkling and the Apparat, and has one of the best lines of the book:

“Who would speak for Liliyana, for Genya and Alina and Baghra if she did not? Who will speak for me?”

Nikolai is literally in awe of her and it’s so great. His choice of adjectives is telling; rather than describing her face as beautiful, he calls it “extraordinary”. Zoya clearly feels something for him as well, but both are held back by a sense of duty. I didn’t expect to fall in love with this couple, but I did.

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And then there’s Nikolai. He’s the golden boy with a thousand masks and a deep well of insecurity about being a Lantsov bastard that has never gone away. The most interesting aspect of Nikolai to me is his primary driving force, and how unusual it is. Princes and Queens abound in YA fantasy fiction, but it’s not often that their character and actions are so deeply determined and driven by their role as leaders of their country. Sure, they care about their people, whether it’s being a more compassionate ruler than their predecessors or defending their land from threats, but that’s the thing; the focus tends to be more on the individual level and solving the more immediate problems.

Nikolai cares for more than just saving people’s lives and averting disaster, he is constantly striving towards an abstract ideal, a vision of his country in a better state than it is at the moment. He’s not pursuing a golden age that never existed, something all too common in political leaders, but someone who knows his country is flawed and wants to make it better.

If you’re ever doubting yourself or feeling like you’re not worth it, listen to these wise words from Nikolai Lantsov that may be my favourite line of the book (I’m actually being serious):

“And he would never, ever turn his back on a wounded man – even if that man was him.”

My favourite character of this book is probably Isaak, and the ending ruined me. I love the trope of an ordinary background character getting roped in to the main characters’ hijnks; there’s a reason why “Love and Monsters” is one of my favourite episodes of Doctor Who. The image of all of the Grishaverse characters standing around this poor man trying to teach him how to be Nikolai is also very funny.

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That ending may have alienated some people, but I love love love it.

Not just because “OMG Darkling” but the dramatic implications: throwing him into the mix is like having a living, breathing Chekhov’s gun walking around making snide remarks. Also, it’ll be interesting to see how he’s written at this point in the Grishaverse and what other characters think of him outside of Alina’s, unique, perspective.

I’m intrigued to see where the jurda parem storyline goes, and the implications of what Nina has done. I want to see Zoya being a powerful dragon-woman she was born to be, and Nikolai being Nikolai and talking about spiders in suits.

Leigh Bardugo continues to impress with her writing and impeccable character construction, and despite some hitches in this book, I am very interested to see how the conclusion of this duology plays out.

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The header is an image of the symbol of Louis XIV of France, known as “The Sun King”, on the golden gate at the Palace of Versailles. Credits: Pixabay

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