Major Spoilers for all of the Grishaverse, including, Crooked Kingdom, King of Scars, and Rule of Wolves. Seriously, if you haven’t read the books, read this article at your own risk, or unless you love spoilers.
I was pretty late to the party as far as the Grishaverse is concerned. I started reading at the end of April and have just recently finished Rule Of Wolves, Leigh Bardugo’s seventh installment in the Grishaverse as a whole, and the second book in the King of Scars duology. I was kind of worried going into this series, as some of my friends who’d read it before me reported massive amounts of emotional damage, but I couldn’t put it off any longer, and I really just wanted to know what happened.
I’m going to be honest with you right now, this series DESTROYED ME (in the best way possible). I think I ugly cried at least five times while reading these books, and with the series being approximately one thousand pages long, give or take, that would average out as about one ugly cry every two hundred pages. Leigh Bardugo’s books are vastly different from a lot of other YA fantasy that I’ve read, mostly for one huge reason. Nobody is safe in a Leigh Bardugo book.
What I mean by this is that nobody gets plot armor. They can die, be injured, maimed, etc., at any point in their story arc, beginning, middle or end, and not even being a main character or love interest is insurance that they’ll make it to the end. Not to mention, there’s almost always a war of some kind going on, so I wouldn’t say it’s a cheery beach read.
Still despite all that, this series leaves off with a sense of hope. Even though all the characters have an awful hand dealt to them, and though the universe continues to be cold, cruel, and uncaring, the characters in the King of Scars duology still find a way to live, and to live happily, at that. The grief, the pain and the trauma from the events in their lives never go away, their scars never fade completely, despite all of that, they can still move forward, can still face the future, no matter what it might hold.
“Nikolai has 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 his arms down and heal...but he knew this much: he would not rest until his country could too. And he would never, ever, turn his back on a wounded man — even if that man was him.”
— King of Scars
Being the titular character, (the King of Scars), Nikolai Lanstov has a lot to deal with in this book. First of all, his country is pretty much falling apart, and even though that’s never happened to me personally, I can imagine that that would be rather stressful. He also has to fight claims about his parentage — that he isn’t really royal, that he’s the product of an affair that his mother had with a prominent merchant — claims which might well be true. Oh yeah, he also has to face his demon. Yes, not demons, just one demon, one very real demon that is living inside of him that ALSO has a hunger for human flesh. So…I guess he’s in real need of a vacation.
Surprisingly, his character arc comes to a pretty satisfying conclusion at the end of the first book. When performing an obisbaya (a demon cleansing ritual that involves stabbing yourself in the heart with a thorn branch and then sitting your monster down for a chat), Nikolai is able to face years worth of pain that had been sitting on his shoulders, while also gaining control of his demon and forming what seems almost like a begrudging alliance. He comes away from this ritual with a new understanding of himself and of his country.
This scene was probably one of my favorites of the entire series. I liked it especially because he doesn’t end up fully vanquishing the monster. It is still a thing that stays with him through the second book, sitting heavy on his shoulders at first but eventually becoming a twisted sort of ally. Even though Nikolai has to spend the rest of his life living with a dark beast inside of him, that life is still fully worth living.
“In stories, love healed your wounds, fixed what was broken, allowed you to go on. But love wasn’t a spell, a benediction to be whispered, or a cure-all. It was a single, fragile thread which grew stronger through shared hardship and honored trust. Zoya’s mother had been wrong. It wasn’t love that had ruined her. It was the death of it. She’d believed that love would do the work of living. She’d let the thread fray and snap.”
— Rule of Wolves
Zoya Nazyalensky has had a rough past. We find out that her mother tried to have her married off at the age of ten, when she ran off to the Little Palace, only to spend the rest of her formative years being manipulated by the Darkling, a mass murderer who also killed her aunt (what a guy!).
Because of all of this, she’s a rather closed off and traumatized person, hiding her heart behind sharp barbs and cutting sarcasm. She is a brave general and a talented Grisha, but the one thing she can’t seem to do is let others in.
The world doesn’t ever let up on her, either. She witnesses the death of one of her closest friends halfway through Rule of Wolves, Zoya can’t help but think that it may be love that ruins a life. She hides her feelings for Nikolai, scared of what revealing her true self might mean. Zoya has a secret garden, in which she plants a flower for every fallen friend. About three quarters of the way through Rule of Wolves, her garden is spilling over, no longer fitting within the walls in which it is hidden.
After getting some major power ups from some Saints, the one thing she has to do is open herself up to the possibility of love — and the possibility of grief. Even though she seems to have no reason to trust, no absolute assurance that things will be okay, she still is ready to do the most terrifying thing — love, no matter what the cost may be.
“They would build a new world together. But first they had to burn the old one down”
— King of Scars
We follow Nina Zenik about a year after the events of Crooked Kingdom, and she is now working as a spy in Fjerda, helping persecuted Grisha escape and giving them safe passage to Ravka. She is still mourning the death of her lover, Matthias, and carries the weight of her loss everywhere she goes. Again, I mean that literally. She’s hauling his dead body everywhere with her while she travels, still trying to find his final resting place, not willing to let him go. She finally manages to lay him to rest after only a couple chapters, but his presence (or lack thereof), stays with her for the rest of the series.
Over the course of the series, Nina comes face to face with the brutality and bigotry that Fjerda has to offer. Cruelty buffets her from all sides, both towards Grisha, and to Fjerdans themselves. Nina meets the child of Jarl Brum, the head of the Druskelle, merciless witch hunters who have made it their mission to wipe out Grisha. Hanne Brum is staying at a convent in which Nina is hiding out. Hanne is miserable, not only hiding their true identity as a gender-nonconforming person (in the book Hanne is very obviously trans-coded, and while Rule of Wolves ends with a sort-of coming out scene, Hanne never specifies the exact details of their identity, which is why I’m sticking with the pronoun “they”). This isn’t Hanne’s only secret. They’re also a Grisha.
Over the course of the series, Nina and Hanne infiltrate Fjerda at it’s very core, witnessing everything from the casual cruelties of men in power, to horrific acts of war. Every moment of violence and act of cruelty pushes Nina farther and farther away from the mission that Matthias left for her, to “save some mercy” for his people. How is she supposed to show mercy to the same people who would have her killed in a heartbeat?
Even so, she pushes through, sparing those who can be saved and...dealing with those who can’t. Instead of turning bitter and cruel like those who hurt her, Nina continues pushing forward with Hanne by her side, and they both try to rebuild in a place that may not always deserve rebuilding.
“I am strong enough to survive the fall”
— Zoya Nazyalensky, Rule of Wolves
I think that the King of Scars duology could almost be described as a sort of “anti tragedy”. Instead of letting the world crush them, instead of giving in to the very understandable despair they could have felt, the characters in this duology instead decide to face the world head on, finding strength they never knew they had even when all hope was lost.
is a young writer from Ottawa, Canada. When he isn’t in school, he enjoys reading, writing, crochet, and playing with his two cats. Their favourite genres are horror and fantasy, and they enjoy all things strange. You can find him on Instagram at @nate_fahmi.