King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1) Review

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Book: King of Scars (Nikolai Duology #1)

Author: Leigh Bardugo

BECHDEL TEST: Pass-Nina talks Hanne through her tailoring.

Content Warnings: Drug addiction, loss of a loved one, grief, captivity, slavery, implied past sexual assault, torture, bullying, fatphobic comments, mentions of previous stillbirths, attempted pedophilia, suicide and war themes, attempted child marriage

King of Scars was one of my most anticipated releases from last year but me being me, of course I didn’t get around to it, so I was really excited to finally read the first of Nikolai’s books this year. Sadly, I did find it kind of disappointing, it felt more like just set up for the second book in the duology rather than telling a great story in it’s own right, and Nina’s POV felt very disconnected from the other characters in the book, almost as if Leigh Bardugo had these two ideas for two different stories and had mashed them together because she really wanted Nina to be in this book. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

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. 

I just want to say at the top of this review that though Leigh Bardugo has said she wrote this to be accessible to new readers, so that you can enter the Grishaverse at any point, I would definitely advise reading both the original Grisha Trilogy and Six of Crows duology first as I think there’s a lot that probably won’t make sense if you haven’t.

So I already mentioned my biggest issue with this book at the top of the post, it’s SO DAMN SLOW. The entire book basically just feels like a book full of build up to the actually exciting stuff happening in the next book, and at 514 pages, it’s far longer than it probably needs to be. The often lengthy chapters also didn’t help matters.

The other main issue is Nina. Now I love Nina, she’s one of my favourite Grishaverse characters but she just doesn’t seem to really fit here. Zoya and Nikolai are both together in Ravka, working toward the same goal so it makes sense that they would both have a POV. Nina is in Fjerda doing something completely unrelated and as much as I enjoyed seeing her, her storyline doesn’t seem to fit here. I get the feeling Leigh had this idea of a story for Nina but there wasn’t really enough of it to make a whole book in its own right, so she attached it to Nikolai’s story, even though it seems kind of out of place.

Having said that, I did really enjoy Nina’s parts of this story. Her journey with grief after the end of Crooked Kingdom was really beautifully done, and I loved getting to see her use her new parem influenced powers more as she’s still really only just developing them in Crooked Kingdom. It’s also great to see her being confirmed as canonically bisexual!

I loved Zoya, we don’t really get to see her all that much in the original trilogy and after enjoying her in Ruin and Rising, I was really excited to see more of her in King of Scars. I’m happy to say that on this front, Bardugo really delivered, we get to learn so much more about Zoya in this book (her backstory is truly heartbreaking) and her character development was one of the standout aspects of this book.

I did find it kind of weird that all of the couples from Ruin and Rising were suddenly married here? I mean I know it’s been three years but they’re like 20 at the oldest!

For a book about Nikolai, Nikolai kind of……fades into the background here? I mean don’t get me wrong, I love that the girls in this are so awesome, but I was just expecting Nikolai to be a lot more prominent in his own book than he actually seemed to be.

I’m not sure how I feel about some of the big Grisha power developments in this book. I mean Leigh Bardugo seemed to have created a pretty solid magic system in the previous books, and basically everything that happened with the Saints in this book overturned what we already knew about the magic system and made the last few books of world-building seem kind of pointless? I do trust that Bardugo knows what she’s doing, but I’m just not really a fan of authors throwing out the established rules of their world, six books in!

Fjerda’s backwards views about women were really frustrating to read and honestly I’m kind of over it? Hanne’s whole thing is basically “girl rebelling against traditional societies values” which feels a little been there, done that.

I can’t say I felt massively interested in either potential romance? I did feel like Nikolai and Zoya was something I wanted to see explored in Ruin and Rising, but I don’t know, I kind of like them as friends and I’m not sure I really want them to go down the romance path. Nina and Hanne kind of just feel like a redo of Nina and Matthias, with Nina getting involved with another Fjerdan who feels like all Grisha are evil and it would be nice if for once, Nina could be romantically involved with someone who accepts and loves her for everything she is.

The dialogue and banter is still great in this one, especially between Nikolai and Zoya and there are a lot of little humourous moments, but the friendship dynamics that were so key in the Six of Crows duology did seem a little weak here.

Okay so I guess I have to end this with addressing the elephant in the room. The ending. Obviously I can’t say exactly what happened because MASSIVE SPOILERS but I’m not massively happy about it. It feels like the entirety of the original Grisha trilogy was rendered somewhat pointless by the end of this book, and there’s so much going on with Ravka already, what with the threat of invasion and its precarious political position, I really don’t feel like Leigh Bardugo needed to do what she did with the end of this book. I will reserve full judgement till I read the sequel, but I’m definitely proceeding with caution!

Overall, King of Scars was an okay addition to the Grishaverse, I enjoyed Zoya and Nina and there were some great moments, but it was somewhat more lacklustre than I was expecting and I’m not sure how to feel about the impact of some of the bigger curveballs on the series we already knew.

My Rating: 3/5

My next review will be of the much anticipated Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins.