3.75 out of 5 stars
As ever, Bardugo writes a wild ride: supernatural, glossy fantasy with a sharp gothic edge and style to spare.
I love the Grishaverse, and Nikolai was my favorite character in the Shadow and Bone trilogy. He holds up in this first of two books centered around him, though I was very surprised to find he wasn’t my favorite character in King of Scars.
Nikolai Lantsov, King of Ravka, survived the end of the Darkling’s reign – but not unscathed. The Darkling left behind a shadow of his power, manifested as a winged demon that lives inside Nikolai and fights for dominance over the King. When it wins, it soars free over Ravka, inhuman and lethal. To combat the creature, Nikolai has help from his Grisha: former Darkling fangirl-turned-loyal commander Zoya, Genya the tailor, David the engineer, and Tolya and Tamar, soldiers of the Sun Saint. All bear the scars of fighting alongside Alina Starkov to defeat the Darkling. Hoping to put Ravka to rights, they all must aid Nikolai in facing his demon – and that means confronting a past they have not yet managed to put behind them.
Meanwhile in Fjerda, that backward, female-subjugating, witch-hunting, terrified but brutal country (Are we talking about 2019 America?), Nina Zenik fights her own battle. With Nikolai’s blessing, she’s finding and saving Grisha in hiding. This B-plot is a lovely homage to the Six of Crows duology, and it’s impossible not to adore sassy, snacking Nina. Her heroics are equaled only by her intelligence, and I can feel the joy Bardugo gets from writing her.
Still, Nina’s not my favorite character either. I was shocked to find it was Zoya. Zoya the ‘mean girl’ from the Smoke and Bone trilogy, the predictable, perfection-seeking sycophant who was a bit too on-the-nose for a series with so much creativity. She was the cookie cutter character of a thousand YA novels: gorgeous, grandstanding, annoying AF. (I’m looking at you, Zara Dearborn/The Infernal Devices.) Zoya got her shit together by the end of Smoke and Bone – also quite predictable. Here, she gets to shine. We see inside her hows and why, feel the shame and humiliation beneath her aggressive armor. We know her as Nikolai does, and feel the carefully delineated trust and bond between them. And ship them, of course. Ship them to allllllllll the way to the seashore.
I won’t spoil anything, but King of Scars gets weird. And awesome. You definitely do not see where this is going. Then, way after the whoop! of a surprise shift in the action, there’s a firecracker of a twist. I “barked” a disbelieving laugh that would have made Sarah J. Maas’s overused adjective proud. The second book in this series is going to be a doozy – and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more old friends from the Grishaverse turn up.