REVIEW: King of Scars (Book 1) by Leigh Bardugo

Note: There won’t be any King of Scars spoilers, but I cannot make that promise for the rest of Bardugo’s Grishaverse books.

… if you loved a thing, the work was never done. 

– p.445, King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

My first introduction to Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse was through Six of Crows, which I mainly read because of Bardugo’s fantastic interview with Disability in KidLit. Six of Crows, of course, lived up to the hype. I was a little nervous when the Nikolai Lantsov duology was announced, but was mostly intrigued: first, by the prospect of reading Nina again, and second, by the prospect of meeting Nikolai. Both are such charming characters in Six of Crows.

So, I marathoned the Grishaverse trilogy to get a better sense of the history of the characters we meet here and yes, I can confirm that while King of Scars is completely readable without having read either of Bardugo’s other series, you will not be wringing the maximum amount of enjoyment out of this book—and it has so much to offer: fear for the characters you know now, love for the characters from previous books, a weird ache every time someone mentions a name you missed reading, a flash of understanding when a character says or does something you remember them doing before. I would recommend reading the rest of the series, if only because I’d like you to suffer the variety of bittersweet emotions I suffered.

Now, on to the book: Nikolai Lantsov is a young and new king whose country’s wealth and army is greatly diminished after years of civil war and rebellion. But now that the threat posed by the Grisha known as the Darkling has been quelled, Nikolai’s country has a real shot at peace. But trauma—as Zoya, Nikolai’s general, would say—is like fear, a phoenix that rises again and again. But when trauma brings out a whole new creature in Nikolai, he must race against time to find a cure.

And that’s just the primary plotline. Over the span of the book, Bardugo carefully weaves together the fantasy aspects of her novel with political intrigue. The result is a rich tapestry of complex motivations driving equally complex countries and characters. The mastery with which Bardugo brings threads from her previous books and strengthens them with new threads and colours feels like a kind of magic in itself. The lushness of the Ravkan palace, the icy setting of Fjerda, the sense of drama the Shu bring, the greedy merchant council of Kerch, the unsettling Starless Saint fanatics—you can almost smell and see and feel everything.

Even though our main concern is the safety of Nikolai and his country, Ravka, Bardugo gives us enough insight into the surrounding countries to actually also want the best for them. And while this is a low bar, it seems worth mentioning that no, race isn’t used as a short-form for which countries are “good” and which are “bad”. Each comes with its own complicated struggles and its own incredible people and by the end of the book we are meant to feel and hope for all of them. The characters are also as diverse as the ones in Six of Crows and we get a more nuanced look at what these characters’ identities mean to them: whether they are dealing with trauma, or have a physical disability, or are just, you know, casually, biracial or bisexual or both or more.

I wish I could say I had some real critique to balance out this review, but I do not. Maybe I would have liked more information on the relationship of the Suli—a nomadic people—to the Ravkan government, but that’s more of a wish-list, kinda like how I wished someone would dab at my eyes with a tissue as I read King of Scars

Basically, it is worth your time to read this, especially if you are a fantasy person or a political/royal intrigue person or a thriller person. It is also worth your time to read every Grishaverse book to get to this one. Highly recommended. 

*I also need everyone to confirm that they too highlighted every mention of a certain wraith and her master thief.

**I fully typed out King of Sarcasm at first, not even noticing I’d done something Stupid(TM).