Review: 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.

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

I finished this book and the moment wavered in voluminous silence. And then, the whole world rushed in. Disbelief came first, then surprise. Then the full scope of the ending struck me with a pang of bewildered anger, that this unexpected and extraordinarily horrid thing should happen only for the story to just… stop.

So, as I said, what the hell.

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 collapse.

The Ravkan Civil war is over and the Triumvirate have successfully forestalled carnage, at least for a while. 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 become 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 wary for triumph, and aware at every moment how quickly it could all go wrong. Soon, a grimmer reality gains its hold, yawning at Nikolai’s feet: Nikolai didn’t realize how deep the Darkling’s power had gone inside him, didn’t realized that it is still inside him, coiled up, ready to lash out in violence and rage. No matter what they did, the Triumvirate couldn’t uproot the howling demon from his soul. Instead, they held it like a secret between them, and it burned like fire.

Terrified by Ravka’s precariousness, its slender breath, the Triumvirate settle into the certainty that if they hope to save their country…they must 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 wants to save her country, she must let the ache of grief and anger lay muted in the back of her mind. Some ghosts, however, are harder to silence.

“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.

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 readily. I love how we gradually come to notice the various strings Bardugo is pulling through the frame, the dispersed fragments slowly assembling into a picture; the anticipation kept me completely riveted.

But even more than the developing mosaic of Bardugo’s world, the intensely escalating threat level, and the quiet slicing of the understated prose, what really pushes King of Scars from very good to really great are the deep undercurrents. It’s the attention and care that Bardugo pours into her characters—into their failures, their successes, their actions in the face of hideous trauma, and their reactions to threat, conflict and uncertainty—that truly pays off. It’s Bardugo’s inerrant talent for allowing her reader to breathe vivid life into her characters through laying open their minds for the reader; the sense that the characters are being stripped down to their essence, revealed in all their glassy fragility, their unbearable vulnerability.

King of Scars is mostly told from three different perspectives: Nikolai’s, Zoya’s and Nina’s. And I want to talk about each one of them.

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.

Let’s start with Nikolai Lantsov.

Nikolai is an intensely fascinating character. A prince who had clawed his way into being king, but whose throne is built on a lie, on a foundation of quicksand. A bastard who wears his family name, not a gold-lined cloak of entitlement but, as a lead-lined mantle of responsibility. A man who, for so long, had hung onto a single filament of purpose: to serve his country, and that purpose had been like a rope thrown into a churning sea, saving him from drowning. And lately, a noose around his neck.

King of Scars asks a most intriguing question: what happens to such a man in a version of the world in which he suddenly becomes hero and monster in one?

The answer is more complicated.

From his appearance in the S&B series, Nikolai had a way of wearing everything on the inside, showing no hint of anything but exuberant charm on the outside. 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. Those who mistook Nikolai for anything but a finely-honed weapon were fools of their own breed. With his truths and with his lies, Nikolai always managed to draw so many stubborn wills into his purpose as though he were winding up a thread. And in this book, it was interesting to note how Nikolai never granted himself leniency on that account, or any other: Nikolai resents his endless ambition and despises his self-serving streak, and he will be the first to tell you that it is “the height of arrogance” to imagine that Ravka’s survival depends on his rule.

In so many ways, King of Scars is the story of Nikolai confronting the worst aspects of himself, both figuratively and in an unsettlingly literal sort of way. Used to his own unthinking endurance, Nikolai now has to contend with the weakness. In this book, we see past the charming royal to the scarred king, exhausted beyond measure, fighting against the windmills of adversity in a battle he keeps insisting to fight alone. 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 everything else. We see Nikolai Lantsov—really see him—past his arsenal of horrors to the dark, terrible thing sheltered inside him.

There was something so startlingly recognizable about Nikolai’s inner battles that I was still turning over and over in my head when my best friend—with whom I read this book—called it “a lowkey metaphor for depression”, and a light bulb went up in my mind. I realized then that the only difference is that Nikolai’s darkness took the shape of a demon, flame-eyed and huge. A monster Nikolai do nothing but make war with—war with this inexplicable thing, war with this monstrosity seething within him. Nothing less but 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 sudden, stark clarity, that the vicious words the monster hurled at him did not come from it; they came from him, from Nikolai’s own innermost self, guilt-poisoned, anxiety-tortured, and fear-ravaged. The fear that had been with Nikolai ever since he had words to put around it: that he would never be enough, that he would fail, that the country he loved without respite would never love him back, that he was nothing more than a leftover piece of something broken. It was incredibly emotional to witness as Nikolai’s thoughts curved and rose, slowly widening, until Nikolai, emboldened by the simple realization that “he would never, ever turn his back on a wounded man—even if that man was him”, finds the strength to not dissolve into the terrible weight of the voice inside his head. That line still strikes such a deep chord inside me. That single truth, bruised and flayed and freely given, contains immeasurable solace, and is, I believe, at the core of Nikolai’s character.

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.

Bardugo also doesn’t shy away from the equally wounding realities of those who have been hurt and abused by the Darkling, amongst whom is Zoya.

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, to be shaped into the obedient form he desired, and the Darkling, like all abusers, had particularly relished destroying all her faculties for trust and love until they were so tangled with shame and hatred and guilt that she hardly knew one from the other. But Zoya survived her abuser, but just when she thought she could finally commence the process of healing, a wretched reality comes at her an avalanche: the Darkling’s followers built a monument to his crimes—the crimes Zoya had been made to endure—and declared him a saintly, misunderstood soul. His violence was rewarded with exultation, with remembrance, while Zoya’s suffering was met with cold indifference. “Who would speak for Liliyana, for Genya and Alina and Baghra if she did not? Who will speak for me?” Zoya chillingly asks at one point.

This clever, illuminating contrast between the girl we meet—and not entirely warm up to—in The Grisha Trilogy, and the woman Zoya becomes in the wake of tragedy, is heartbreaking too. So were careful distances Zoya kept from herself and the rest of world. From herself and Nikolai. Zoya 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 venture into the lightless depths. But even when their innermost thoughts stayed hidden from each other, Zoya and Nikolai still noticed the weight of the secrets the other carried, even if they couldn’t discern the shapes of them—and I lived for those fragile moments between them, full of aching and fear-laced unspoken longings and distances between two people who were hurting in open sight of each other instead of with each other.

Finally, no review of this book will be completely without a mention of the queen of my heart: Nina Zenik.

First of all, Crooked Kingdom’s ending still brings the taste of tears to my mouth, and King of Scars returned me to the sharp, wounding angles of that pain within the first few pages. Nina Zenik is still the same Nina—and she isn’t. She is still the fiercely, defiantly alive Nina whose heart always beat on the edge. The girl who tears a whole into the wall 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 painfully lodged in the creases of her first heartbreak, and I couldn’t dislodge from my mind the idea that even the softest-hearted people can become quite 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 griefs and gaping absences, poured forth an ocean’s worth of fury and poison-tipped sorrow. Everything Nina did in this book, she did through a haze of trauma, and I cried so much reading Nina’s grief-soaked chapters, so utterly tortured by reminders of her loss, that I sometimes had to stop and put a merciful distance between myself and the pages just so I can breathe. The only solace I could find was in her interactions with a ~certain~ someone and the momentous thing slowly taking shape between them, which left me with a stirring of hope in my chest.

A hope that I’m tightly clutching in my fist as I (impatiently) wait for the sequel…

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3 thoughts on “Review: 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

    1. YES YES EXACTLY! This book hit me harder than I’d brace myself for and ugh it was SO GOOD I need the sequel two weeks ago


  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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