King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1) 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.

RATING: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

[softly, from under a pile of blankets] what the fuck was that ending?

I finished this book and the moment wavered in timorous silence, searing, null, and numb. It was as though the world was suspended for an intermission, waiting until the curtain is lifted and the next act can begin. Disbelief came first, then surprise. Then the full scope of the ending struck me with a pang of deep resentment, that this extraordinary, inexplicable thing should happen.

Look, I just want it documented somewhere that the fact we’re not conferred immediate access to the sequel upon finishing this book is borderline criminal.

So, what’s this book about?

The first book in Leigh Bardugo’s Nikolai Duology, King of Scars, picks up three years after the ending of Ruin and Rising, and catapults us into a world beginning to topple.

The Ravkan Civil war is over and the Triumvirate have forestalled carnage, at least for a time. For, against all hope, Ravka is mostly intact, and still theirs. Nikolai Lantsov, king of Ravka, wants nothing but to let the past fade, to push past the ugliness of age-old hates and soul-warping fears and start a new era. Even thoughts of the Darkling and his terrible revenge became lost beneath the placing of one foot before the other.

But with his people being stolen from within his very borders and devious forces conspiring against him, Nikolai is too weary for triumph, and aware at every moment how quickly it could all go wrong. Every day is a new struggle to manage the sulks of princes and the fine glass tempers of kings, to yoke adversaries to his purposes and keep them straight in their furrow.

Soon, a grimmer reality gains its hold, at once yawning at Nikolai’s feet: Nikolai hadn’t realized how deep the Darkling’s power had gone inside him, hadn’t realized that it was still inside him, coiled up, ready to lash out in violence and rage. No matter what they did, he and the Triumvirate couldn’t uproot the raw, wretched demon from his soul. Instead, they held it like a secret between them, and it burned like fire.

Terrified by Ravka’s precariousness, its thready breath, the Triumvirate settle into the jarring certainty that if they’d hoped to save their country…they had to save their king first.

Periodically, a threat is brewing inside of Fjerda and Nina Zenik, now a Ravkan soldier, is sent to investigate it. With home behind and an uncharted future looming out of the fog, too distant to see clearly, but coming closer all the same, Nina is taunted with phantoms of the beloved dead. But if she wanted to save her country, she must let the ache of grief and anger lay muted in the back of her mind. And even that proves to be easier said than done.

“This country gets you in the end, brother. Don’t forget it.”
“Not us,” he said. But Dominik was already gone. “I’ll do better,” Nikolai promised, just as he had so many years ago in Mitkin’s classroom. “I’ll find a way.”

Personally, I thought King of Scars was absolutely superb.

Five books set in the Grisha-verse, it’s impressive how Bardugo still manages to find new angles from which to scrutinize the workings of her magic. Her gifts of imagination are staggering, and while I was too accustomed to the Grisha world to be surprised by any of the trappings, I wasn’t too jaded to find them beautiful.

Unlike the Six of Crows duology, King of Scars is a tale told on a much less heroic scale. The plot comes late, but it comes naturally and easily. I love how we gradually come to notice the strings Bardugo is pulling through the frame, and how that kept me completely riveted. Time skipped a beat. It skipped an unknown number of beats, as I drank everything in a daze.

But even more than the developing mosaic of Bardugo’s world, the tensely escalating threat level and the craftily honed, quiet slicing of the understated prose, what really pushes King of Scars from very good to great are the deep undercurrents. It’s the attention and care that Bardugo pours into her characters, their failures, their successes, their actions in the face of repeated trauma and their responses to the heat and pressures, that truly pays off. It’s Bardugo’s greatest gift to let the reader breathe life into her characters, to create them from whatever bare-bone information they’ve been given. Her characters’ minds lay open to you and there’s a sense that they’d been stripped down to their essence, revealed in all their unspeakable beauty and their unbearable fragility. And I absolutely loved it. 

In King of Scars, we meet new characters and old characters come into much sharper focus and step whole into the page. We even see old villains in new lights, our fascination with them takes on a sinister character and we wonder if we can ever really forgive them.

King of Scars is mostly told from three different perspectives: Nikolai’s, Zoya’s and Nina’s. So let’s talk about them!

  • Nikolai Lantsov

Why did it matter to him what became of Ravka? Broken, needy, frustrating Ravka. The grand lady. The crying child. The drowning man who would drag you under rather than be saved. This country that took so much and gave nothing back. Maybe because he knew that he and his country were the same.

Nikolai’s throne dwells within a lie; it is built on a foundation of quicksand. He is a bastard, but he wears his family name as a mantle of responsibility, not a cloak of entitlement. For so long, he’d hung onto that filament of purpose—serving his country—and that purpose had been like a rope thrown into a sea, saving him from drowning.

But what happens in this version of the world in which he suddenly became hero and monster in one?

Nikolai has a way of wearing everything on the inside, showing no hint of anything but exuberant charm and smiles. He wore many guises—“the obedient son, the feckless rogue, the able soldier, the confident politician” —and he himself would tell you to trust none of them. But those who mistake him for anything other than a weapon are fools of their own breed. With his truths and with his lies, Nikolai had turned one wheel against another against another and in due course, so many stubborn wills were harnessed again and again to his purpose. And it was interesting to note how Nikolai has never granted himself leniency on that account, or any other: he despises his endless ambition and his self-serving streak. He admits that it’s “the height of arrogance” that he’d imagine his rule over Ravka as a fist clenching a tangle of threads, and if he opened it, the threads would slip free.

In so many ways, King of Scars is the story of Nikolai confronting the worst aspects of himself, in an unsettlingly literal sort of way. Used to his own unthinking endurance, Nikolai now has to contend with the weakness. We see past his blooming youth to all the messy details of life that he trailed behind him every day. We see the scarred king, tired beyond endurance, fighting against the windmills of adversity in a lonely battle. We see the man who might have filled the place at the center of himself with the answer to who he was since he’d become king, but who had lost so much more. We see a puppet with one string remaining, one hard kick and he could shrug off the earth’s bonds and reach the roof. Nikolai Lantsov has his own arsenal of horrors; the dark thing sheltered inside him was the least of it.

There’s something so startlingly recognizable about Nikolai’s inner battles. I was still turning it over in my head when my best friend—with whom I buddy-read this book—called it “a lowkey metaphor for depression.” And it was exactly what was needed to shine a light on the jumble of thoughts whirring inside my mind and make it gleam. I, then, realized that the only difference is that Nikolai’s darkness took the shape of a demon. It coalesced, black of skin, fire-eyed and huge. And what teeth it had, what a howl. And, Nikolai, too, could only make war with it. War with the impossible. War with the monstrous thing seething within him. Nothing less than war. Every single day.

Chapter 30, in particular, held my heart paralyzed within my chest. We read as Nikolai engages in a conversation with the demon that’s taken hold inside him, and there was this moment when he knew, with stark clarity, that the vicious words the monster hurled at him did not come from it but from his own innermost self, guilt-poisoned, anxiety-ridden, and fear-ravaged—the fear that had been with him ever since he had words to put around it: that he would never be enough, that the country he loved so dearly would never love him back, that he was nothing more than a leftover piece of something broken. It was so immensely arresting to read that chapter and witness as his thoughts curved and rose, gradually widening, until Nikolai is emboldened by the luculent realization that “he would never, ever turn his back on a wounded man—even if that man was him.” That line struck a deep chord inside me and I had to stop and let it really sink in. I honestly think there’s nothing that could capture the essence of Nikolai’s character more accurately than that single truth, flayed and freely given.

Nikolai had always understood that he and Ravka were the same. He just hadn’t understood how: He was not the crying child or even the drowning man. He was the forever soldier, eternally at war, unable to ever lay down his arms and heal.

  • Zoya Nazyalensky

Zoya’s character is so fascinating to me. She’s a goddess cinched to human shape and I am in awe of her.

Bardugo doesn’t shy away from the more painful realities of those who have been hurt and abused by the Darkling. And Zoya is one of them. Zoya was a weapon in the Darkling’s grip, a tool of vengeance, and a sop to his pride. She, like many others, was as clay in his hands, and he’d poisoned her faculties for trust and love until they were so tangled with hate and guilt and shame that she hardly knew one from the other.

Zoya survived her abuser, she’s come so far only to behold the most wretched thing: the Darkling’s followers, in their inexpiable ignorance–or perhaps worse, their cold indifference–have built a monument to his crimes, the crimes Zoya had suffered, and declared him a saintly soul. This isn’t a mere tragic backstory. Knock down the magical elements and there are real, important issues here, foremost among which is how we often reward violence with exultation instead of making sure the abusers’ names remain forgotten. “Who would speak for Liliyana, for Genya and Alina and Baghra if she did not? Who will speak for me?” Zoya asks.

It was also heartrending to see how Zoya begun to wield her cynicism and irony as shields to protect her softer feelings. The kinder said she was cruel. But others spoke of someone with only witchcraft in her veins and no warmth. The more you spend time inside her thoughts, you realize that the thing to which Zoya assigned the name of “rage”—and only rage—was not actually that. It was only the mask it wore, because fear was weakness, and Zoya had sworn to never again be weak.

This clever, illuminating contrast between the girl we meet—and not entirely warm up to—in The Grisha Trilogy, and the woman Zoya has become in the wake of tragedy, is deeply arresting.

“Zoya of the lost city. Zoya of the garden. Zoya bleeding in the snow. You are strong enough to survive the fall.”

Zoya also offers a very interesting counterpart to Nikolai’s character. Both of them kept their minds captive at the surface, only very rarely allowing it to sink into the terrifying and unknowable deep. But even when their innermost thoughts stayed hidden from each other, they still noticed the weight of the secrets the other carried, even if they didn’t know the shape of the secret itself. I loved their dynamics so much. How they became inseparable, like the lines of a couplet that would lose their grip on their meaning out of context. I love how they had this unspoken agreement to not bullshit each other, to never back-pedal or soften or sugarcoat. I honestly ship them so much, and I can’t wait for them to realize that her suffering and Nikolai’s, tangled together, could actually, somehow, countervail each other.

  • Nina Zenik

There are some people you’re always going to be a little bit in love with. Your high school sweetheart, your college sweet heart, Nina Zenik, the first partner you live with. Just accept that it’s totally normal and go on with your life.

First of all, Crooked Kingdom’s ending still brings the taste of tears, and King of Scars returned me to the sharp angles of that pain within the first few pages. I cried so much reading Nina’s chapters, utterly incapable of not feeling the tremors of the quaking grief within her.

Nina Zenik is still the same Nina—and she isn’t. She is still the fiercely, defiantly alive Nina whose heart beat on the edge—the girl who blows up the door when she can’t find the key. But if you’d met Nina in Six of Crows, you’d notice how the sunnier parts of her were still lodged in the crease of her first heartbreak. I was struck by the idea that soft people can become dangerous when you destroy the things they hold dearest. Nina has been through so much, and from those leftover shreds of her, the little pile of tatters, poured forth an ocean’s worth of grief and sorrow and anger. And my heart hurt for her because everything she did in this book, she did through a haze of trauma.

However, King of Scars doesn’t end on a grim and dreary note for Nina. I was left with a hopeful sensation in my heart, as a stirring of embers. And still as in love with Nina as I was when she was told it was unnatural for women to fight and replied, “it’s not natural for someone to be as stupid as he is tall, and yet there you stand.” Also, I’m definitely here for the momentous thing, slowly but surely, taking shape between her and a certain someone.

Overall, I’m so glad Leigh Bardugo is aware of her own mortality and is churning out a new series every year. Like, yes queen!! make use of the book publishing industry available now to add to your legacy!!!!

3 thoughts on “King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1) by Leigh Bardugo”

  1. Ah, this is such a beautiful review! And I love that wounded man quote, too. It was so jarring to read. I super relate to Zoya and her need to not feel helpless again because I’ve also had times in my life wherein I’ve felt like nothing I could do would make me adequate. I, too, noticed how Nina’s sunny side was a bit darkened by what happened to her in crooked kingdom. but the fake miracle scene was one of my favorite -second only to chapter 25- moments in the book!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I always love reading your reviews! Hell yes to the promise of Nina having another relationship with someone – even just their friendship would be awesome too. Still traumatised from that endinf, but I’m trying to forget it and make it to 2020 😭


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