"KING OF SCARS: Nikolai Duology (Book 1)," by Leigh Bardugo, Imprint, 528 pages (f)
SALT LAKE CITY — Welcome again to the Grishaverse, a magical world tinged with steampunk and countries reminiscent of Russia, China and Scandinavia. The sixth book (seventh if you count "The Language of Thorns," a collection of short stories) set in this universe, "King of Scars," combines the free-flowing magic of the first series and the high-stakes plotting of the second.
King Nikolai is the handsome and charming ruler of Ravka, a country that has been in turmoil for hundreds of years and has finally found an uneasy peace. Nikolai isn't completely healed from the war that ended three years ago — some nights he transforms into a horrific flying monster.
As the transformations start happening closer together, Nikolai comes close to hurting subjects and close friends. Additionally, financial and political pressures from neighboring countries loom prompting Nikolai — in true fantasy fashion — to undertake a journey in hopes of defeating his inner darkness.
Meanwhile in the north, Nina Zenik is entrenched in an undercover operation helping smuggle Grisha (magic wielders) out of Fjerda where, when discovered, they are burned as witches — or worse. Her newly discovered powers call her to a village with a result that nods to Bardugo's best-selling heist tale "Six of Crows."
As with "Six of Crows," "King of Scars" does a good job providing an entry point for those who are new to the Grishaverse. Here, Bardugo explains powers and reintroduces characters, although new readers can expect some spoilers for previous books in the series.
While "King of Scars" and, we can assume, the forthcoming second book in the "Nikolai Duology," gives plenty of page time to familiar faces — most notably ice queen Zoya and brazen Nina — it also introduces some new ones like zealous Yuri, leader of the Cult of the Starless Saint, and Hanne, a Fjerdan young woman rebelling against her country's strict gender roles.
The magic, a high point in the series, is magnificent in this installment. It delves deeper into the origins — or "the making at the heart of the world," as the series' characters often say — while exploring the saints and their connection to what they call "small science." In the midst of all of this, scientists are researching the pernicious drug "jurda parem," a substance that wildly amplifies a Grisha's power but enslaves them to a keen addiction.Comment on this story
With the influx of dystopian YA novels in the book market, the genre can skew bleak and the Grishaverse isn't immune to the prevailing darkness. There is a certain fairytale grimness, and the images of people in the throes of addiction are horrific. Despite this, there is a humor and lightness, especially with characters like Nikolai and Nina, that helps balance the grittiness without making it feel too saccharine.
In true Leigh Bardugo fashion, there are a number of twists and turns and the ending is a bit of a cliffhanger, but delightful characters and the enchanting world will ease the pain and keep you looking forward to the next book.
Content advisory: "King of Scars" contains fantasy violence.