After watching the Shadow and Bone series on Netflix, 2022 became the year of Leigh Bardugo for me – and although I didn’t connect equally to all of her work, overall I’ve very much enjoyed this adventure. I started out with the original Shadow and Bone trilogy, then moved on to the Six of Crows duology, took a brief detour to read the first of the Alex Stern Series, and now I’ve rounded out the year with the King of Scars duology.
For me, these two novels ranked far above the original trilogy, but didn’t quite reach the heights that the Six of Crows duology did, as far as “obsessive-page-turning-staying-up-too-late-to-find-out-what-happens-next” and “I-would-die-for-each-and-every-one-of-these-characters” goes. That said, I absolutely love that Bardugo has given herself the freedom to revisit characters that she clearly fell in love with in the original trilogy, and I hope that she continues to build out the Grishaverse (and it seems as if she plans to)!
King of Scars
King of Scars opens shortly after the close of the original trilogy and Six of Crows duology (so if you don’t want to be spoiled for details about either, stop reading now). The new king of the newly-reunited Ravka, Nikolai faces the challenge of healing the deep wounds caused by his country’s recent civil war, as well as finding ways to strengthen Ravka’s economic situation and safe-guarding against aggressive bordering countries. He also occasionally turns into a bloodthirsty monster, breaks out of the castle, and wreaks havoc in the countryside – which is somewhat complicating his attempts to solve the Ravka’s issues. King of Scars also brings back a couple key characters from other Grishaverse novels: Zoya, erstwhile antagonist turned fiercely loyal soldier in Shadow and Bones (now the General of the Grisha and Nikolai’s right-hand), and Nina the broken-hearted and thoroughly transformed former heartrender from Six of Crows (now a spy working in Fjerda, Ravka’s deeply anti-Grisha neighboring country).
Bardugo’s writing is always strongest when focused on her characters and their journeys, particularly the ways that accumulated trauma manifests in both invisible and (highly) visible ways. She cleverly uses the fantastical setting to bring to the forefront all of the emotional and physical blows that we’ve seen these characters suffer over the course of the various series: Grishas’ powers shift in unexpected ways, a consummate politician finds himself losing control in spectacular and dangerous ways, and alliances shift on both geo-political and personal levels.
It’s a joy to see characters that I’ve grown to love in other contexts come together and interact in new and interesting ways, while trying to solve a very different problem than in the other novels. While other books in the Grishaverse often found the character struggling with high stakes and life-or-death situations, King of Scars finds them carrying the weight of governing an entire country while constantly questioning whether they are making the best choices for themselves, their legacy, and all of the lives that are now tied up in their success or failure. While still firmly in the YA genre, it is overall a much more mature work.
Rule of Wolves
Opening directly following King of Scars, Rule of Wolves sees all of the threats on the horizon of the first book come quickly and thoroughly into focus: battle lines are literally drawn, enemies that we believed were already vanquished explode back into prominence, and even the smallest miscalculation has potential to carry catastrophic consequences.
We still primarily follow the same three characters: Nikolai (The King), Zoya (The General), and Nina (The Spy). Even more characters from the extended Grishaverse make appearances, including a few from Six of Crows that made me downright giddy.
While at times the weaving plot points and influx of Grishaverse characters threatened to overwhelm the plot, I thought Bardugo kept control of the material (and kept my attention rapt) by focusing on the characters’ interpersonal and internal struggles just as much as on the larger-than-life conflicts swirling around them.
If you’ve enjoyed other books in this series, in King of Scars and Rule of Wolves Bardugo says “yes, and…” to all of the themes she’s been playing with throughout: power, trauma, sacrifice, vulnerability, grief. If that sounds heavy, it certainly can be at times. However, the snappy and occasionally hilarious dialogue and the clear delight that many of the characters take in each other’s company kept the books from feeling weighed down or over-serious for me.
Throughout the Grishaverse’s series, I’ve found myself remembering the pure joy of reading that I had when I was first discovering the fantasy genre in elementary and middle school, and I’ve had the same “can’t put it down” feeling that I had when reading Harry Potter and the Wheel of Time for the first time. If you’re a fantasy fan, I highly recommend at least picking up this series and seeing if it connects with you – there have been some bumps along the way (especially in the first trilogy), but overall it’s been an incredibly fun ride.
Bingo Square: Monster, because of the exploration of what can make a human appear, feel, and/or actually be monstrous