King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

Attention all. This will be a hype review.

I would add this is the first book of Bardugo’s I’ve fully read. I tried Shadow & Bone and found it didn’t do enough for me and – possibly a sign of minor prejudices – had an unwelcome whiff of the love triangle. I heard good things of Six of Crows, but not good enough to go out and read it. By the way, expect spoilers for these books.

Then one day, Sara at the Fantasy Inn was going into raptures over King of Scars (or it might have been Rule of Wolves) and bemoaning a lack of anyone to share it with. On a whim I picked it up, and that’s how I discovered one of my new favourite books.

Why? Let’s approach this from a different angle of personal history. I got into this genre through Tolkien and Warhammer, but the books that established me as a fantasy fan rather than a fan of just a couple of things belonged to that 80s/90s explosion in Epic Fantasy. Brooks, Feist, Eddings, Jordan, Lackey, Weis & Hickman, Kerr, Pierce – I read a huge amount of what these authors had to offer before going to university. It wasn’t the only strand of fantasy I devoured but big fun fantasy is part of my reader DNA. Some people drift away from that, I didn’t. It is not my only taste but I have a definite yen for familiar plots, for big archetypes, for witty lines and powerful character dynamics and big shiny magics doing big shiny things.

Ever since getting actively back into looking for new fiction, about five years ago, I’ve struggled to find fantasy like that I’ve enjoyed. The authors I’ve liked have sailed different streams, and the authors in those streams have left me cold. I found myself wondering if I had indeed changed, or the genre had changed, or something.

Until now.

I mentioned I hadn’t read the preceding books. While this means I am missing some context, I think this has actually made it a better book for me – or maybe even just one I’d read where I wouldn’t before. The characters in King of Scars have clearly seen some stuff and done some things together. I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed reading them form that tightness, but I do know I love reading about them now they are that tight.

The plot mostly revolves around Nikolai, the titular King of Scars and monarch of Ravka, and his closest advisors as they try to bring their country back to prosperity and security after a brutal civil war. There are two catches; the number of neighbours who don’t share that wish, and the growing demonic possession inside Nikolai. There’s a side-plot around Nina Zenik, a spy and Grisha (magic user) operating in nearby Fjerda with a mission of helping fellow Grishas escape to Ravka. I have to admit that by the end of the book I’m not sure what Nina’s plot add to King of Scars other than awesome scenes and a way of helping control the pace of the main plot, but that’s good enough for me as awesome scenes are awesome.

Questions of plot and pacing are rather interesting with this book. I know Fabienne at Libri Draconis has referred to this book as “basically fanservice held together by something someone generous might call plot”. I’m not sure she’s entirely wrong but by the standards of mid-Wheel of Time or Feist’s Conclave of Shadows or Eddings’ the Tamuli, there’s more than enough plot to work. Or some of Butcher’s Codex Alera. Big fun Epic Fantasy has never had a good relationship with plot. Maybe by the standards of Bardugo’s earlier works it doesn’t hold up well – hell, I’ve just admitted that a major PoV character’s arc seems utterly superfluous – but taken solely as an Epic Fantasy, the plot does its job.

Its job is to provide a stream of interesting problems that develop in a sensible way from each other, this allowing Nikolai and co to flex and emote all over the place, which they do. Nikolai is flippant, arrogant, and far too charming – but with an iron sense of duty, making him one of my favourite character archetypes. Zoya, his general and effective closest friend (not that either would admit it), delivers her lines with a deadpan expression and the sort of conviction that moves mountains. Their bond, their riffing off each other, is money. It’s the sort of character dynamic they should teach the kids about in school (I like Of Mice and Men, but I suspect kids would like this more).

Nina doesn’t really have that connection to one particular person but she doesn’t need it. She’s her own one woman show of processing grief, processing change, balancing duty against personal desires, with a very solid ensemble around her in terms of allowing her to demonstrate that range. Also, her scenes are awesome balances of emotional journeys and compelling action.

Most of Bardugo’s scenes are. If we want to talk major author strengths, I think the ability to insert high emotional stakes without feeling over-dramatic is a good place to start. So’s writing superheroic magic scenes in general. Zoya gets the best of them – her fights with Nikolai’s inner monster are great, and so are those with a dragon – but nobody does poorly. And when the action slows, we get scenes of wonderfully insouciant dialogue instead. It’s a win-win scenario.

I’m sure there are things that Bardugo doesn’t do fantastically during this book, or that might trip up another reader, but I don’t care. I was too busy enjoying the fuck out of myself and wondering what was coming next. I could have probably figured out what was going to go wrong in some cases, but didn’t want to. Great fiction is about buy in, immersion.

King of Scars is very great fiction. It is a book that oozes charisma and a good time. It’s got swagger. If it has flaws then like its lead, Nikolai, it works with them with such bombastic bonhomie and fervour that it turns them into strengths.

The last time I called a book of the year early, it got pipped late in the dead by another contender. Well, fine, I’m all up for reading a better book than this in 2021. But right now, I’m not anticipating that.

Image credit for the W&W logo to Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

2 thoughts on “King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

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