KING OF SCARS (Nikolai duology #1) - by Leigh Bardugo

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Published: January 2019 - Pan Macmillan.
Genres: Young adult / epic fantasy / romance. 
Pages: 527.
Triggers/Content Advisory: Gory descriptions / violence. 
Format: Hardcover.
Source: Thank you so much to Pan Macmillan SA for sending me this book in exchange for an honest review. I voluntarily read & reviewed this copy. All thoughts are my own.

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.

Bardugo has done it again. As soon you turn the first page in a new book she's written, you know and look forward to everything she does so astoundingly well. And, still you're blown away. I love her novels, I love Nikolai, and I couldn't wait to read this book.

The writing is flawless. Yes, I love Bardugo's style, but trying to put bias aside, her prose truly is genius. Her sentences are so well structured, her characters' personalities shine through without exposition, and her dialogue shines with energy, subtext, and character. The humour makes you laugh out loud, and I especially love the banter - Bardugo does banter so well. Some of my favourite scenes were when the characters were arguing and interacting, because their verbal sparring is simply so entertaining.

The plot isn't as complex as I expected. The action and fight scenes are epic, for sure, and there are twists that will clutch at your heart and leave you reeling (especially towards the end). But personally, I think it could have been so much more. I wish the characters had led the plot more than they did, because it's not as character-driven a novel as I think Bardugo's books generally are. Although she still manages to pull it off because she's an excellent writer, it's not as strong as her previous novels.

 Most women suffer thorns for the sake of the flowers, but we who wield power adorn ourselves with flowers to hide the sting of our thorns.

 Stop punishing yourself for being someone with a heart. You cannot protect yourself from suffering. To live is to grieve. You are not protecting yourself by shutting yourself off from the world. You are limiting yourself.

You can't go wrong when you have a protagonist like Nikolai and Leigh Bardugo is writing him. Nikolai's sass, his vulnerabilities, his charm, his scars, his intelligence - everything about him is so thoroughly explored, and we get to see so many different sides of his personality. He's an infuriatingly lovable hero.

Every other character is three-dimensional within a few seconds of their introduction. I don't know how Bardugo does it, but she gets you head-over-heels obsessed with characters within the space of a mere few sentences. Not only that, but the characters are instantly alive on the page. They're compelling and deep, and it doesn't even appear like she's trying! That's what makes it brilliant.

I also love how we see characters from the previous Grisha books. Genya, David, Zoya, Tamar, and Tolya are all here, and each one is interesting and multidimensional. The character chemistry, too, is exceptional. The strongest, most entertaining scenes are the interactions between the group.

Zoya is a lead character in this book. She has her own point of view, and she's easily become one of my favourite characters in the Grishaverse. She's cold, she's ruthless, she's beautiful, she's smart, and she's fiercely hiding her vulnerabilities. I love her friendship with Nikolai, and hope to see more from them in the second book. I'm not sure how a romance would work out (the feelings are there, but they're both very different people with their own complicated demons to deal with) but I ship it all the same.

We also get a point of view from Nina, who was obviously a member of the Dregs and one of the Six of Crows' duology's leading characters. I admit I was surprised by her chapters. I shouldn't have been, (because they make sense considering her journey) but compared to Zoya and Nikolai's chapters (which are full of biting wit, action, and intrigue) Nina's chapters are quieter and slower. She's still grieving Matthias' death, and that grief is a poignant part of her development in this novel.

King of Scars is a dark, engrossing fantasy epic from Leigh Bardugo. With her trademark wit, jaw-dropping twists, and irresistible characters, she's crafted another explosive episode into the Grishaverse. I can't wait for Book 2! 

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