A Slow-ish Return to the Grishaverse: Leigh Bardugo – King of Scars

We’re back in the Grishaverse with a new duology and one gorgeous cover! I’ll keep this review spoiler-free. However, reading even the synopsis of this book gives you a mild spoiler for the Grisha Trilogy, because you’ll know of one character who survives those books. I don’t think it’s a bad spoiler, but if you haven’t read The Grisha Trilogy, I recommend you start there. I wasn’t a huge fan of the first book but they get better and better and totally sucked me into their world.

KING OF SCARS
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Imprint, 2019
Hardcover: 514 pages
Series: The Nikolai Duology #1,
The Grishaverse #6
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: Dima heard the barn doors slam before anyone else did.

Synopsis: 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.

When I heard there would be a new duology set in the Grishaverse, starring none other than my favorite side character from the original trilogy, let’s just say I got pretty excited! Then I read some early reviews which all agreed that the book started slowly – I’m fine with that, give me the slow burn, ease me back into the world, remind me of all the cool stuff that happened before. I value those reviews greatly, because they also warned me that we follow two almost entirely separate storylines and knowing what to expect can help a lot when reading such a buzzed about book. I am currently reading another book that got nothing but rave reviews and halfway through I’m already kind of disappointed, simply because my expectations were too high… So, knowing what you’re getting yourself into is a good thing.

We’re back in Ravka, Nikolai Lantsov is the new King and he’s doing his very best to rule fairly, to restore order to the kingdom, and you know… to keep that monster that’s still inside him in check somehow. With Zoya, Genya, Tolya, and Tamar at his side, he’s got a great supporting crew but  the Darkling’s legacy is not so easy to deal with. On the one hand, Nikolai has episodes when the monster gets through and wreaks havoc. He has no control, he has to be tied to his bed, and he has to keep this problem secret from the public. After all, what would the people say to a king who turns into a monster every so often? When he hears of a potential cure, it’s clear he now has a quest to go on. Adventure ensues.

What I loved the most about this storyline and its central characters was the dynamic between Nikolai and Zoya. She may not have been a very nice character in the Grisha Trilogy, but being overly ambitious doesn’t make her a bad person. She’s easily one of the most interesting people in the Grishaverse and now that she got her own POV chapters, she really grew on me. The banter between her and Nikolai was great fun to read, although I did feel that Nikolai has lost a bit of his rogue-ish charms. Which makes complete sense if you think about what he’s going through. He is now ruler of his country – a burden that surely weighs on him – and he constantly has to worry that, in monster-form, he will do something unforgivable. The cocky, slightly arrogant Nikolai is still there, he’s just tuned it down a bit.

Meanwhile in Fjerda, Nina is back from Ketterdam. She is dealing with her own problems and while they are very different from Nikolai’s, they are no less grave. If you’ve read the Six of Crows duology, you know exactly what I’m talking about, but I’ll keep it spoiler free for those of you haven’t had the pleasure of reading these two remarkable books. Nina is not the same person she was, both physically and mentally. Even her powers have changed and with them, Nina’s reason to even go on. Her story leads her through Fjerda, hiding the fact that she’s Grisha, trying to save others from prosecution. She makes new friends on the way, discovers secrets that could have devastating consequences for all of Ravka and is basically saving the world all over again.

I do have to say that Nina’s story took me a long time to get into. Both plot strings start out slowly, but with Nikolai and Zoya, at least you get the quippy banter and the tension between the two. Nina is mostly depressed (understandably so) and there is definitely a new aggressive streak to her character. As bad as I feel about saying it, I didn’t like her all that much in this book. Similar to the way Nina herself was kind of lost in the world, I felt lost in her story. It took a long time for any kind of red thread to appear that I could follow plot-wise. If there had been a lot of character development in the meantime, that would have been okay, but with Nina stagnant in her grief and no plot to speak of, her chapters were the ones I had to push myself to continue.

This wouldn’t be a Grisha novel if things didn’t pick up speed eventually. And trust me, big things happen at the end. There were a few revelations, some of which promise great political intrigue to come in the second book, and others that felt rather cheap. I can’t tell you why without spoiling it but I hope we’ll find out more in the next volume. I also hope that the new Big Bad is not who I think it is.

One more thing I have to mention is a couple of side characters: Isaak, one of the royal guards, and Princess Ehri, one of Nikolai’s potential suitors – he needs a queen, after all. Through circumstance, these two characters are thrown together in what almost turns into a Shakespearean comedy of errors (minus the comedy), but they grew on me really quickly. Compared to the other characters, they are definitely less important, but I loved meeting some new people, especially ones as interesting as these two. Their story line seemed to go one way but it, too, has a few surprises in store.

All things considered, I’m rating this book somewhere in the okay to good range. It won’t make much sense to read it if you haven’t read any Grisha books before and if you have, you’ll probably push though the boring bits, just the way I did, because you know it’ll be worth it. Well, this was a good book, but both the pacing and the plot could have used some serious work. It takes a long time to get started in the first place and then doesn’t seem to know quite where to go. I will definitely read the sequel because Leigh Bardugo is great at sequels (and endings!) but this book was only okay.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

What an ending! Leigh Bardugo – Ruin and Rising

I may not have liked Shadow and Bone very much, but I loved Siege and Storm and where the story was going. Finishing this trilogy can not have been easy for the author because the whole story could fail with a botched ending. Happily, Leigh Bardugo managed to write a fantastic end to a great trilogy. Spoilers for Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm below!

RUIN AND RISING
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Henry Holt,  2014
Hardcover: 422 pages
Series: The Grisha #3
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: The monster’s name was Izumrud, the great worm, and there were those who claimed he had made the tunnels that ran beneath Ravka. 

The capital has fallen.
The Darkling rules Ravka from his shadow throne.
Now the nation’s fate rests with a broken Sun Summoner, a disgraced tracker, and the shattered remnants of a once-great magical army.
Deep in an ancient network of tunnels and caverns, a weakened Alina must submit to the dubious protection of the Apparat and the zealots who worship her as a Saint. Yet her plans lie elsewhere, with the hunt for the elusive firebird and the hope that an outlaw prince still survives.
Alina will have to forge new alliances and put aside old rivalries as she and Mal race to find the last of Morozova’s amplifiers. But as she begins to unravel the Darkling’s secrets, she reveals a past that will forever alter her understanding of the bond they share and the power she wields. The firebird is the one thing that stands between Ravka and destruction—and claiming it could cost Alina the very future she’s fighting for.

It is such a pleasure to see an author grow better and better with every book. The Grisha Trilogy really improved with every instalment so it’s no surprise that I thought this third book was the best of them – and it even managed to nail the ending which I was quite  worried about.

The way Siege and Storm ends makes you think you’re in for a stereotypical quest story in the final book. Alina, Mal, and a handful of others need to seek out the firebird to get the third amplifier so Alina can be strong enough to finally defeat the Darkling. I have  nothing against quest fantasies but I won’t lie – I really liked how this turned out to be something quite different.

The country is at war, the Darkling holds the capital, the Grisha are gravely diminished – basically, everything is falling apart and there is very little hope that there will be peace anytime soon. Yet Alina battles on because there isn’t much else she can do, and since she has grown so much since the beginning of this story, there is no way she’ll just lie down and wait for the end without a proper fight. Her character growth was one of the most fascinating things about this trilogy. From a shy, somewhat naive young girl, she grows into herself. Although she may not enjoy the attention she’s getting and the cult that has formed around her alleged sainthood, she knows that she holds great power and that the fate of her country and the people she loves lies in her hands, at least to some degree. That’s quite a burden for a young woman, especially when all she really wants is to snuggle up with Mal and live a quiet life out of the spotlight.

Speaking of Mal: He grew on me so much during this book. In Siege and Storm, he already showed his personality (while I think in the first book he was rather cardboard), but here he rises to new heights and makes the reader see what Alina sees in him. That guy is a hero if there ever was one! The same goes for the other side characters. Genya and David, Tamar and Tolya, even Zoya who started out as nothing but a mean girl in the Little Palace. Each and every one of them got to show off their talents, their loyalty, and their importance to the story. They aren’t just window dressing, they are vital parts of every plan – and in case you forgot, that plan is about saving the world. So no pressure.

These are my gorgous hardback editions that now live happily on my shelves next to Maggie Stiefvater. 🙂

My favorite side character – and no doubt many other readers’ as well – is definitely Nikolai Lantsov. You just have to love his cocky, funny way, especially in a story about such dark themes. He is a ray of sunshine in a world filled with darkness and pain. I don’t know if he started out simply as comic relief (a job he does so, so well) but it is always clear that there is much more to him than charm and beauty. And let’s just say he goes through some crazy scary stuff in this book that I was not sure he’d ever get out of. Or if he did, he wouldn’t be the same as before.  All the more delight for fans like me that he now gets his very own duology, starting with King of Scars. YAY!

As mentioned before, the plot may begin as a not-so-simple quest that takes a surprising and heartbreaking turn. But underlying it all is an undercurrent of politics and big Life Questions. Nikolai is now successor to the throne of Ravka and with that come a lot of new questions and responsibilities, only one of which is that he needs to think about getting married and producing heirs. Because royalty. Alina understands more and more that, while she may love Mal and only think about Nikolai as a friend, a political union between the Sun Summoner and the next king of Ravka makes so much sense. In the quieter moments of the novel, when nothing explodes for a while and nobody’s life is in immediate danger, it is these questions that make  the story so damn enjoyable.

Without giving too much away, I need to talk about the ending for a bit. I was so sure I had it all figured out and I prepared myself mentally for something very, very bittersweet. In a story about war, even if the big things work out the way they were planned, you know it’s not going to be all wonderful. People die, friends are lost, lives are forever altered by the big gaping hole of losing your home or your family. But even if you get into this story fully convinced that, in the end, good will win (however you define good) and the Darkling will be defeated, there will be surprises in store for you. I may actually have misled myself a bit because I read the Six of Crows duology before this and I maaaay have come across a something spoilery. But even that didn’t rui the ending for me because Leigh Bardugo is a genius and I am now her fan forever.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Leigh Bardugo – Siege and Storm

Don’t you just love it when writers get better with every book? I didn’t love the first book in The Grisha Trilogy, Shadow and Bone, but it had potential and I was really interested in the world Barduga had created. So, after a long wait, I picked up this second part and completely fell into it. Seriously, I read Ruin and Rising right afterward and the Grisha short story collection The Language of Thorns somewhere in between. Spoilers for Shadow and Bone below!

SIEGE AND STORM
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Henry Holt, 2013
Hardcover: 435 pages
Series: The Grisha #2
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Two weeks we’d been in Cofton, and I was still getting lost.

Darkness never dies.
Hunted across the True Sea, haunted by the lives she took on the Fold, Alina must try to make a life with Mal in an unfamiliar land. She finds starting new is not easy while keeping her identity as the Sun Summoner a secret. She can’t outrun her past or her destiny for long.
The Darkling has emerged from the Shadow Fold with a terrifying new power and a dangerous plan that will test the very boundaries of the natural world. With the help of a notorious privateer, Alina returns to the country she abandoned, determined to fight the forces gathering against Ravka. But as her power grows, Alina slips deeper into the Darkling’s game of forbidden magic, and farther away from Mal. Somehow, she will have to choose between her country, her power, and the love she always thought would guide her–or risk losing everything to the oncoming storm.

Alina and Mal have managed to escape the Darkling and leave their country of Ravka behind. Trying to save up some money to make a new life for themselves, their plans are destroyed and they are captured, the Darkling’s prisoners once again. On the way back to Ravka and to whichever terrible plans the Darkling has for Alina, they get to know Sturmhond, a notorious pirate, I mean privateer. If Alina wants to bring safety to her country once more, to destroy the Fold, to defeat the Darkling, she has to take on a completely new role. Command the Second Army, grow into her power, and maybe even make a political match to give the people of her home country hope.

Second books in trilogies are often treated unfairly, I think. Sure, they often only serve to set up the big finale, but sometimes, they do much more than that. Siege and Storm, for instance, introduces one of the best characters in the entire series, the pirate Sturmhon! His charm is infectious, and Leigh Bardugo shows off just how well she can write funny dialogue. Because Sturmhond is also kind of unbearable (in addition to being charming), there is a lot of quippy banter and clever backs and forths. Given the dire situation – the country is at war, the Darkling has new ideas on how to take over and probably hurt or kill a lot of people in the process, and the people are divided – a little bit of comic relief is more than necessary. I think the author found a really good balance between serious and fun in this novel.

This is also the book that finally shows Alina isn’t just a grey little mouse who lets herself being pushed around. Sure, there are still times (lots of them) where she is out of control, where the Darkling uses her weaknesses against her to control her next move, but she visibly grows over the course of the story. By the end of this book, you won’t recognise the girl she was before. In essence, she is still herself and still longs for the same simple things, but she has grown up enough to understand that those simple things are less and less likely to happen, that she has to make sacrifices if she wants to save her country. I really felt for Alina in this book. She has to make some tough decisions and face some ugly truths and although she manages it all, she is very changed by the end.

Another strength of this book was the development of Mal and Alina’s relationship. Just like Alina has to figure out her place in the world, especially because she is the Sun Summoner, Mal has to figure out his place in her life, which is just as hard. For me, Mal only really became a character in this book. In the first part, we only learn from Alina how wonderful he is and how everybody loves him and he has an easy way with people and blablabla. Here, we actually get to see it, to understand why people are drawn to him and want to be his friends. It made me like both Alina and Mal more and made it even harder to read about them growing apart because they both know (or think they know) it’s better for everyone. As of writing this, I don’t know how the story ends, but I hope so very much that they will somehow find a way to be together.

As for the plot, ther are parts that are slow moving. Alina arrives back in Ravka at court and has to deal with politics and a new situation plus some new Grisha powers. There are plans for war and discussions with royalty and it’s not exactly action-packed. But these parts are the ones that show off Alina’s growth so beautifully, so I didn’t find them the least bit boring. Plus, at the end the book really picks up the pace again and a lot of things happen! There are betrayals and broken hearts and mysteries yet unsolved and new players in the game of power. So basically everything that makes a story great.

If (like me) you didn’t really get what everyone was so excited about after the first book of this series, then do yourself a favor and just read on. I am almost done with the third book and I can already say, it’s even better than this one. I have grown to care for these characters and for Ravka, and by now I’d even call myself a Leigh Bardugo fan.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

The Grishaverse:

  1. Shadow and Bone
  2. Siege and Storm
  3. Ruin and Rising

 

Twisted and magical: Leigh Bardugo – The Language of Thorns

I didn’t really like Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, but I absolutely loved the duology set in the same world (Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom), so I decided to give the Grishaverse another go. The second book in the Shadow and Bone Trilogy, Siege and Storm, was much better and made me finally get why there is such a large fandom for these books. Now that the Grisha bug has got me, I needed to delve into that beautiful book of twisted fairy tales set in the Grishaverse – and it was, if possible, even better than the main stories.

THE LANGUAGE OF THORNS
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Orion Children’s Books, 2017
Hardcover: 281 pages
Short Story Collection
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: In the year that summer stayed too long, the heat lay upon the prairie with the weight of a corpse.

Travel to a world of dark bargains struck by moonlight, of haunted towns and hungry woods, of talking beasts and gingerbread golems, where a young mermaid’s voice can summon deadly storms and where a river might do a lovestruck boy’s bidding but only for a terrible price.
Inspired by myth, fairy tale, and folklore, #1 New York Times–bestselling author Leigh Bardugo has crafted a deliciously atmospheric collection of short stories filled with betrayals, revenge, sacrifice, and love.
Perfect for new readers and dedicated fans, these tales will transport you to lands both familiar and strange—to a fully realized world of dangerous magic that millions have visited through the novels of the Grishaverse.
This collection of six stories includes three brand-new tales, all of them lavishly illustrated with art that changes with each turn of the page, culminating in six stunning full-spread illustrations as rich in detail as the stories themselves.

This collection of fairy tales set in the Grisha universe contains six stories, some of which are set in Ravka, some of which in other parts of the Grisha world. Most of them are recognisable as well-known fairy tales from our worlds, but because each tale has such a distinct flavor, I’m going to talk about every one of them a little. I didn’t read them in order because I discovered “The Witch of Duva” before this collection came out (and loved it!) and you can pretty much read these tales in whichever order you like. They are not connected, other than by the fact that they’re all set in the Grisha world.

Ayama and the Thorn Wood

I loved how much like a fairy tale this felt! It is about a family with two daughters, one pretty and talented, the other… not so much. Because the second daughter, Ayama, is not much to look at and the family want to showcase their beautiful daughter, they make Ayama into a scullery maid who sleeps in the ashes in front of the fireplace (ring a fairy tale bell yet?).
It is also the story of  a king and queen with two sons, one handsome and lovely, the other in the shape of a wolf with terrifying horns. Because the king is so ashamed of this second son, he has a labyrinth built under his castle and imprisons the son there.

When the kingdom, currently at war, suffers damage to their fields and livestock – said to be done by the beast that escaped its labyrinth under the castle – the king asks for a brave soul to delve into the wild forest and slay the beast. Or at least convince it to leave the people and their livelihood alone. After little ceremony, Ayama is sent on this journey and – in a lovely twist – has to save her hide from the beast by telling it stories. I won’t say more about the plot at this point, but the writing is just exquisite. It does read like a fairy tale, but one where the characters aren’t cardboard. The imagery is gorgeous, the ending was as perfect as can be. This is an excellent opening story for the collection and makes you want to read the whole thing in one sitting (which is what I did).

The Too-Clever Fox

This title was actually mentioned in the Shadow and Bone trilogy (in the second book, when Alina meets Sturmhond), so I was eager to find out what the fairy tale had to do with a pirate… sorry, privateer. It is almost a fable, the story of a trickster animal, too clever for his own good. It tells of how Koja, the fox, escapes a series of dire situations through cleverness and wit. But he has to admit, by the end, that even he can be outsmarted.

The Witch of Duva

This is the Grisha version of Hansel and Gretel and the story works so well because as readers, we all go in with a set of expectations. We know Hansel and Gretel, we know certain things that have to happen, we know how the story ends. Now while you may expect Bardugo to put a spin on things and give you an alternate ending, I bet you won’t guess the twist at the end! It’s not only a well-written story, it’s a well-written story with an excellent ending that makes you want to re-read it right away.

Little Knife

This was my least favorite story in the collection, which doesn’t mean it was bad, just not as good as the competition. It’s about a girl so beautiful that everyone – and I mean everyone! – wants to marry her. When her father sees his chance for riches, he sets his daughter’s suitors three impossible tasks, promising whoever manages them, her hand in marriage. There is a prince vying for her favor but there is also a Grisha who seeks the river’s help in accomplishing these tasks. Again, there is a nice twist at the end that I really loved, but the rest of the story fell rather flat in comparison and the characters never get to be more than what you’d get in a fairy tale.

The Soldier Prince

A story based on The Nutcracker and set in Kerch! I have loved The Nutcracker since I was a little girl so I immediately loved where the story was going. It begins with Droesser, a clockmaker, a tinkerer, a man who seemingly brings mechanical things to life. He seeks the favor of a young girl named Clara and gifts her a nutcracker to tell her secrets to.

But the story soon goes in different directions. At first I thought it was about Droesser, then about the dreamy girl Clara, who wishes nothing more than to escape to fantasy worlds with her beloved nutcracker. But it is actually about the nutcracker himself. That’s all I’m willing to say about the plot. The ending manages to be wonderful without a shocking twist, this time, and while it’s one of the longer tales in this collection, it is also a beautifully satisfying one.

When Water Sang Fire

This too is based on a real world fairy tale and when I tell you that the protagonists are mermaids, you’ll know which one. Ulla is different than the others. Where they are beautiful, she is grey and strange. All she has is her amazing voice and her gift for composing and singing music, which is how the sildroher use magic. Through this skill, she makes one friend, the beautiful red-haired Signy and in combining their voices, they catch the eye of the youngest prince, Roffe.

Only the most highly valued sildroher get to accompany the royal family when they go on land to frolick with the humans. They cut their tails to create legs, they dance and dine with humans, they bring gifts and keep the diplomacy between the two species. Ulla and Signy get to go along as Roffe’s friends and, let’s just say, things get a little out of hand. I honestly thought I knew where the story was going, and then it went a completely different way, only making sense again at the end. And I loved every page of it.

The collection

I do have to say a few more things about the collection as a whole and about the book as an object because it is GORGEOUS. Every single page is illustrated, starting with only a small illustration in a corner, which then grows as you turn the pages, adding a little bit every time. Each story also has a beautiful piece of art at the end (some of them spoilery, so beware!) and the font is different colors!!! I’ve added a taste of them in my review but really, you have to see them in person to understand just how beautiful they are. This is an excellent book to gift to someone, especially if they like fairy tales or just pretty books. It will give anyone a taste for more Leigh Bardugo fiction and, if you’re like me, it will make you want to devour all the Grisha books you can find.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!