Book Review: KING OF SCARS by Leigh Bardugo

Title in white on golden crest
Genre: Fantasy
Age Range: YA
Star Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Series: Yes - book 1 of Nikolai Duology, book 6 of GrishaVerse

*SPOILER ALERT: contains SPOILERS for previous books in the GrishaVerse*

Synopsis:

king of scars

THE BOY KING. THE WAR HERO. The prince with a demon curled inside his heart.

The people of Ravka don’t know what Nikolai endured in their bloody civil war and he intends to keep it that way. Yet with each day a dark magic within him grows stronger, threatening to destroy all he has built.

Zoya Nazyalensky has devoted her life to rebuilding the Grisha army. Despite their magical gifts, Zoya knows the Grisha cannot survive without Ravka as a place of sanctuary – and she will stop at nothing to help Nikolai secure the throne.

Far in the north, Nina Zenik wages her own kind of war against the people who would see the Grisha destroyed. Burdened by grief and a terrifying power, Nina must face the pain of her past if she has any hope of defeating the dangers that awake her on the ice.

Ravka’s King. Ravka’s General. Ravka’s spy. They will journey past the boundaries of science and superstition, of magic and faith, and everything to save a broken nation. But some secrets aren’t meant to stay buried, and some wounds aren’t meant to heal.

Synopsis taken from the cover of my copy (I prefer it to the one found on Goodreads). Add it to your Goodreads shelves here.


Thoughts:

There’s always a danger when books get over-hyped that the book itself can’t live up to the hype. KING OF SCARS is a good book, but few books can live up to the dizzying levels of hype it’s attained – and it doesn’t.

Note: I have done my best to avoid spoilers, but you can probably infer a few. I’m pretty sure you can work out the “big, final shocking reveal” from my comments. I thought about leaving it out entirely, but I had a few issues with it that I wanted to raise. I’ve put <<>> around that paragraph and italicised it.

I absolutely loved the first half of this book. It made it really hard to give this book a star rating because the first half was great but the second fell flat.

Nikolai and his charm, wit and swagger are so much fun. He is everything I loved about him in SIEGE AND STORM, and more. The more vulnerable side that was hinted at in the original Grisha trilogy was explored further. However, I really appreciated that he was never cast in the part of tragic hero. He remains strong – not in your brooding hero with all those absolutely infuriating ‘masculine’ traits (*cough* toxic masculinity *cough*). Rather, he’s portrayed with an emotional depth. He knows he’s loosing control of his mind and will, but is determined to go on and do the best he can before it’s too late.

The banter and way he plays off Zoya, Genya, David et al is really quite funny. David made me giggle the most, and I see myself in him a lot. I just hope I’m not that bad.

Zoya and Nikolai have a great dynamic. Romance can be inferred, but it’s never outright stated, but it’s their friendship that’s celebrated – the quiet way they work together. W get Zoya’s backstory (in a rather exposition-dump-ish way), but it finally explains why she’d help Alina rather than back the Darkling even though she was one of his favourites.

To my joy, this book has the twisty, political scheming planned with all Nikolai’s flair that felt reminiscence of SIEGE AND STORM, but also the SIX OF CROWS duology. After the big, mid-way ‘game-changer’, I loved the way Genya, David et al planned and stayed the course. Isaak was a surprise when he popped up as a POV character, but I found myself eager for his chapters.

The second half of the book, the Nikolai/Zoya story at least, was rather confusing. I’m not quite sure what happened for most of it. Without spoilers, it was too many revelations and twists in one go.

Weirdly, despite all these twists and revelations, the pace really slacked off. It felt like they could quite easily move on/attempt GOAL (I’m sorry, I’m not sure how else to refer to it without spoilers), but that all these other scenes were crammed in between to delve into Zoya’s backstory and power.

I was reading hoping GOAL would happen because it’d be either the climax or a push into the climax. I also wanted Nikolai to rejoin Genya, David et al because I missed his witty charm and the way he played off them.

<<When the GOAL  came, it was… huh? The outcome of those scenes (in which Zoya took a chapter detour elsewhere despite Nikolai fighting for his life and not appearing to succeed) feels like it really undercuts the conclusion of RUIN AND RISING, negating all the sacrifices of that book. The more I think about it, the more it feels like a decision taken because of the fandom than anything else.>>

The direction the magic system takes is interesting and bold – I’m just not that sure how much I like it. This might come down to the fact that the revelations all came in the second half where I was wandering through in a state of confusion. This is a world/series that has been going since 2012 (I think), so it has to change or feel stale. KING OF SCARS has certainly upended the magic system. I think I’ll reserve judgement until I see how the characters/world reacts to the new magic, and what it leads to.

Nina’s story felt entirely separate to the main story, linked only by the world and a final chapter revelation. It was an interesting story line, but could have been removed from the book without making any difference to the main story. Maybe she’ll become more important in the second book but it felt like a SIX OF CROWS story (minus the amazing group dynamic and sheer cunning plans) in a SHADOW AND BONE story. A little jarring.

A few tiny nitpicks now:

Many other characters make cameos, but not Alina. She is referenced a lot, and they mention Keramzin as a stop on the journey. They never get there because of the second half. That disappointed me a little, but I also understand this being a new series and not wanting to appear to pander to fans.

Related to above, there are quite a few ‘easter eggs’/references to other books, characters etc. They’re designed almost as little ‘rewards’ to fans for picking them up. Particularly in Hollywood, this is called intertextuality, and is nothing new. However one or two ‘revelations’ relied on you knowing the other books for it to be important.

For example, Leoni is the girl Jesper’s mother saved that led to her death (discussed in CROOKED KINGDOM). I wouldn’t have picked that up if I hadn’t read CROOKED KINGDOM the day before. It would have felt less ‘special’ otherwise, simply a ‘oh, look how the Grisha suffer because others are scared of them’ effect would have been conjured from Leoni’s motivation to help Nina.

As with SIX OF CROWS and CROOKED KINGDOM, the first chapter was from a completely different character to the others, one who never came up again. It’s a prologue in disguise, though it sets up the danger of Nikolai’s demon.

Take of this review what you will. KING OF SCARS is a fun read, with a smashing first half and an intriguing Isaak/Genya et al second half story line. The problem, I think, is that it was so hyped it had no chance of reaching it – and a massive fan base that needed appeasing.

I will be reading the sequel when that comes out, because I want to see how the world adapts to the events – and I love Nikolai’s charm and the banter. However, I will try to read it with lower expectations and do my best to ignore the hype.


Read my reviews of other books by Leigh Bardugo:

For Young Adult:

The GrishaVerse (this series):

DC Icons:

For Adult:

Alex Stern:

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