57 pages 1 hour read

Leigh Bardugo

King of Scars

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


New York Times best-selling author Leigh Bardugo continues the adventures of her Grishaverse characters in her 2019 novel King of Scars. Picking up three years after the events in the Shadow and Bone trilogy, King of Scars follows the journeys of King Nikolai Lantsov, General Zoya Nazyalensky, and Ravkan spy Nina Zenik as they navigate life after the civil war. Motivated by regret and resentment, they learn that faith and self-acceptance have transformative powers. The King of Scars story continues in the sequel, Rule of Wolves (2021). Bardugo’s other novels include: The Language of Thorns, The Lives of Saints, the Shadow and Bone trilogy, and the Six of Crows duology. In 2021, Netflix produced an adaptation (also titled Shadow and Bone) that is based on both trilogy and duology.

This study guide references the 2021 paperback reprint edition by Square Fish, an imprint of MacMillan Publishing.

Plot Summary

King of Scars concerns inner demons—the regrets, the resentments, the dark secrets that hide inside everyone—and what happens when they surface. Written with a third-person omniscient narrator, the perspective changes with each chapter to follow the thoughts and actions of a single character. King of Scars follows four characters: Nikolai, Zoya, Nina, and Isaak. For Ravkan King Nikolai Lantsov’s storyline, Bardugo touches on politics and economics and what it takes to wisely rule all, while Nikolai searches for a cure for the monster inside him. Isaak piggybacks off of Nikolai’s story by acting as his stand-in while Nikolai is on his quest for the cure. Isaak learns about royal expectations, the heavy weight of politics, and the price of ruling. Meanwhile, Zoya struggles to move past her hatred—of herself and those who harmed her—and Bardugo illustrates the importance of self-acceptance and forgiveness through Zoya’s storyline. Brokenhearted mourning Nina, who can hear the spirits of the dead, converses first with her dead husband, Matthias, then the female Grisha calling her to investigate their deaths. Bardugo gives Nina a story of loss, vengeance, and oppression, leading to a commentary on religion, class, family, and love.

The book has a clear division. The first half takes place in Ravka and Fjerda with Nikolai and Zoya’s chapters describing their quests to overcome their monsters (both literally and figuratively), and Nina’s chapters following her quest in Fjerda to find answers about missing girls and poisonous rivers. The second half finds Nikolai and Zoya trapped in the Shadow Fold with three Saints—Elizaveta, Grigori, and Juris. Nina puts her plans to action as she and her comrades sneak into a factory to rescue imprisoned Grisha women being drugged and impregnated by Fjerdan soldiers. The second half also introduces Isaak’s chapters as he takes the place of Nikolai, impersonating the king to cover for him while he’s gone.

Nikolai battles his monster during an ancient ritual attempting to separate man and monster. Only one will survive. He nearly dies but is saved by Zoya. With the help of Juris, Zoya faces her fear and breaks the bounds of Grisha power. In a twist of fate, Elizaveta reveals the Darkling’s dead body, which she intends to animate with the spirit of Nikolai’s monster. Zoya burns the body with her new unlimited Grisha power, but the spirit transfers to a young monk instead who is a devoted worshipper of the Darkling. In the end, the Darkling returns to life, taking over the monk’s body. Simultaneously, Isaak, fabricated to look like Nikolai, hosts the king’s big party with guests from all nations. He falls for Shu Princess Ehri and spends quite a bit of time with her. As it happens, the princess is also not who she seems: She is actually a Shu guard named Mayu, commissioned to assassinate the king. Once alone during a clandestine rendezvous, she stabs Isaak in the chest with a Fjerdan dagger then stabs herself as he bleeds out.

Over in Fjerda, Nina, on a mission to smuggle out Grisha fugitives, hears voices calling her to the town of Gäfvalle where girls go missing and the river is toxic. She and her two partners, Adrik and Leoni, investigate and stay at the local convent. Nina uncovers a greater problem: The factory up the hill is experimenting on Grisha women. With the help of Hanne, a young novitiate from the convent, they sneak in and rescue the women. Nina teaches Hanne how to use her own Grisha powers and how to manipulate the sexist culture around her. Once the mission is over, Nina accompanies Hanne to the Ice Court to meet with Hanne’s father, Jarl Brum. Nina uses her new position to intercept information about a Fjerdan assassination plot against Nikolai and the rise of a Lantsov cousin claiming the throne.

Bardugo packs a lot into King of Scars. Exploring religion, politics, and oppression, the fantasy adventure is rife with intrigue and espionage. Regret and resentment motivate the characters, but they learn that faith and self-acceptance have transformative powers. Leaving things hanging in the balance, the plot picks back up in the sequel, Rule of Wolves.