King of Scars

Warning: I assume this review is going to contain spoilers for the previous books in the Grishaverse. But if you’ve not read them yet, that’s really on you.

The boy king, the war hero. The prince with a demon curled inside his heart. The people of Ravka don’t know what Nikolai Lantsov endured in their bloody civil war and he intends to keep it that way. Yet with each day a dark magic within him grows stronger, threatening to destroy all he has built.

Zoya Nazyalensky has devoted her life to rebuilding the Grisha army. Despite their magical gifts, Zoya knows the Grisha cannot survive without Ravka as a place of sanctuary – and she will stop at nothing to help Nikolai secure the throne.

Far north, Nina Zenik wages her own kind of war against the people who would see the Grisha destroyed. Burdened by grief and a terrifying power, Nina must face the pain of her past if she has any hope of defeating the dangers that await her on the ice.

Ravka’s king. Ravka’s general. Ravka’s spy. They will journey past the boundaries of science and superstition, of magic and faith, and risk everything to save a broken nation. But some secrets aren’t meant to stay buried, and some wounds aren’t meant to heal.

20190222_144911-01

I held onto a book voucher I received before Christmas so I could buy King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo on its release. I have a tendency to be down on series in general and spin offs in particular, but where Bardugo is concerned all of my qualms go out the window. The truth is I would read a book about Nikolai Lantsov literally hanging out in his PJs (it’s an image that appeals to me) but Leigh would never do us like that. King of Scars is a thrilling page turner and another welcome addition to the politically complicated, war-torn Grishaverse.

King of Scars is a beefy book. Coming in at just over 500 pages, I had pacing concerns going in but none of them were warranted. There are two pretty much entirely separate storylines running throughout – Nikolai and Zoya dealing with political crises (and the whole Nikolai being part demon thing) in Ravka, and Nina deep over enemy lines on a Grisha rescue mission in Fjerda. These two distinct but equally vital narrative lines kept the story moving at a-pace and I even found myself dreading the end. Bardugo writes people I always want to spend more time around.

Like most of Bardugo’s writing, King of Scars is really about facing your demons (literally, in some cases). Nikolai has to face how he has been changed by war, and accept those changes rather than fighting for a version of himself that doesn’t exist anymore (again, in addition to dealing with the literal flying blood-thirsty demon he turns into at night. I don’t think if I’ve ever shared this before but I have a long held theory that Nikolai is basically Oz from Buffy the Vampire Slayer); Nina has to face her grief (the revelation at the beginning of King of Scars that she has not yet buried Matthias’ body is particularly heart-breaking) without letting her anger consume her once good intentions; and Zoya… well, she could start by admitting she has one heck of a crush on a certain war hero king.

As much as I love Nikolai and Nina (and I really, really do), it was Zoya who captivated me most in King of Scars. I love a complex mean girl, and Zoya’s hardness, harshness and drive to do what’s best for her kingdom (and make up for her one-time loyalty to the Darkling that she doesn’t even need to apologise for because I think we can all admit we were initially taken with that guy) all wrapped up in a mess of survivors guilt, trauma and distrust of.. well, everyone, appealed to my squishy, drawn-to-the-emotionally-unavailable, heart. The way her early experiences of perceived weakness factor into her relationship with power as an adult, a relationship that is defined by the girl beating the shit out of herself for all the times she believes herself to have failed, made for heart-wrenching reading. Zoya is the definition of a closed book, and as a reader I relished the moments she did open up almost as much as Nikolai did.

All I can say is I’m thrilled this is a duology. By the end of King of Scars there is one hell of a mess to unpick, a war to stop and some ships that had better bloody sail.

(looking at you, Nina and Hanne. Nikolai and Zoya and obvi going to happen)

Bonus moments:

“Oh David,” Genya said, taking his hand. “You’ve never threatened to murder anyone for me before.”

– Generally that feeling of seeing all my babies grown up. I was 19 when these books first started and though I know the ages don’t exactly match up, part of me feels like I grew up with these guys so seeing the gang at least half married off and happy gave me serious FEELS.

– Everybody shutting Tolya down whenever he tries to recite poetry. It. Kills. Me.

– Every time Zoya mentions killing the Apparat. Just let the girl do it. I am begging.

Advertisements

The Incendiaries

Trigger warning: sexual assault

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet during their first month at a prestigious university. Phoebe doesn’t tell anyone that she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy transferring in from Bible college, waiting tables to make ends meet. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Haunted by her loss, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group – a secretive cult tied to North Korea – founded by a charismatic former student with an enigmatic past involving Phoebe’s Korean American family. Will struggles to confront the obsession consuming the one he loves and the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape. When the extremist group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

The Incendiaries is a powerful love story and a brilliant examination of what can happen to people when they lose what they love most.

20190215_142345-01

The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon is a vivid and deeply unsettling novel about loss. I enjoyed it in the way you enjoy every story you know will end badly – through half-closed eyes, ready to look away at any moment but never quite able to.

Kwon’s writing is gorgeous, at once poetic and deeply specific as her characters spiral slowly further out of reach. Though the novel is theoretically split into three perspectives: Will’s, Phoebe’s and cult leader John Leal’s, all commentary really comes from Will as he tries to get into the minds of his girlfriend and the cult leader he believes took her from him. This leant the entire novel a layer of unreliability that really spoke to the subject matter – ultimately sometimes we will never understand the events that lead people we love to leave us. Often we are left with only theories and that’s what The Incendiaries feels like – Will’s theory.

The summary describes the book as a “powerful love story” but I wouldn’t call it that so much as a searing break up novel. Will is not a good boyfriend. He arrives at the university having recently transferred from bible college after losing his faith, and, thus unmoored, attaches himself to Phoebe like she’s his new religion. He’s grieving the loss of the God who kept him going through poverty and an unstable childhood – until one day, He didn’t – and deeply inadequate, a scholarship student in a school full of rich legacy kids. He hides his part time job and his proselytising past and revels in his own shame even as he lies to Phoebe about it. In the end it makes sense that Will would recognise John Leal as a fraud – it takes one to know one, I guess.

Ironic then, that the ex-born again would fall in love with a girl about to fall herself into the clutches of another fundamentalist belief system. Phoebe is also grieving and unmoored by the loss of her mother. She clings to partying, then Will and finally, newfound religion. She comes off so desperate to belong again to something that she’ll give herself to anything, which mostly means men who manipulate and abuse her trust in a range of violent and upsetting ways. Perhaps worst of all is that she isn’t even allowed to tell her story herself – we get it second hand, half imagined by the ex-boyfriend she clearly wanted nothing more than to escape.

Which isn’t to say she is not responsible for her actions, as much as Will tries to push that narrative after the devastating bombings Phoebe is implicated in hit the news, but that ultimately Phoebe remains to us throughout what she is to Will: mysterious, hard to reach. Probably dead.

The Incendiaries is a novel of dark foreboding perfect for fans of The Secret History. Kwon’s beautiful writing hooks you in and demands your attention if not your sympathy as she explores the disturbing tale of that which inspires people to acts of evil.

I’ll Meet You There

If Skylar Evans were a typical Creek View girl, her future would involve a double-wide trailer, a baby, and the graveyard shift at Taco Bell. But after graduation, the only thing separating Skylar from art school is three months of summer… until Skylar’s mother loses her job, and Skylar realises her dreams may be slipping out of reach.

Josh had a different escape route: the Marines. But after losing his leg in Afghanistan, he returned home, a shell of the cocksure boy he used to be.

What brings Skylar and Josh together is working at the Paradise – a quirky motel off California’s Highway 99. Despite their differences, their shared isolation turns into a friendship and, soon, something deeper.

20190208_153629-01[1]

I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios is a butterflies-inducing, heart-rending summer romance. With complex families, traumatic backstories and more quirky scene setting than you can shake a stick at – my personal favourite being the Paradise, the movie-music-eighties themed motel Josh and Skylar both work at – it is a YA novel straight from the school of Sarah Dessen and I loved it.

Skylar Evans is desperate to leave the shitty town of Creek View. Unfortunately, just as freedom, in the form of leaving for college, finally appears on the horizon, her life starts to fall apart. Her mother loses her job, relapses into alcoholism and starts dating a creep. Forced to pick up two jobs to keep the lights on for both of them, Skylar is clearly losing the fight to get through to her mother and finds herself faced with a painful choice: leave her mother to ruin her life (again) with her horrific new boyfriend, or give up her dreams in the hope she can save her.

Enter Josh. The arrogant, womanising a-hole Skylar went to high school with breezes back into town after a tour of Afghanistan with the Marines. Except the Josh who returns to Creek View is not the same guy he was when he left. The victim of an IED, he’s making the difficult adjustment back to civilian life having lost a leg and a best friend, suffering the duel effects of his injury, grief and continuous struggle with PTSD.

Skylar and Josh’s lives get tangled up through their jobs at the Paradise Motel and, you guessed it, they fall in luuuurve. The push and pull of their budding romance is delicious, with the dual narrative – it’s like 90% Skylar, 10% Josh – adding authenticity to their growing feelings for each other while also allowing the full complexity of Josh’s PTSD storyline to play out.

This book is full of FEELINGS, from Skylar and Josh’s evolving relationship to Josh’s trauma to Skylar’s beyond frustrating dynamic with her mother, and it is a testament to Demetrios’s writing that I really felt all of it. Whether it was Josh wrestling with what his prosthesis meant for his sex life or tentatively inviting Skylar to dance in the rain it was equal parts devastating and elating reading.

What refreshes me most about books like this is the willingness to dwell is what is Not Okay. The centre of this story is, of course, the romance, but surrounding it are a series of complicated and messed up situations that aren’t necessarily solvable. One of the most difficult and heart breaking lessons of growing up – and I think, probably, life – is coming to peace with the fact that there are some situations that won’t ever be okay, at least not in the form you had always imagined. For Josh, it means coming face to face with the horrors of his war experiences and the devastating losses he has suffered and come out believing he deserves the chance to move forward. For Skylar, it is the very different but utterly awful realisation that sometimes you have to choose yourself or, to paraphrase Mary Oliver, save the only life you can save, even if that means letting go of the only family she has left.

I’ll Meet You There is gorgeously romantic, unapologetically messy, packed with feeling and the perfect read for your literary Valentine’s Day celebrations.

January favourites

Time to wrap up the only month of the year we describe as “long”.

How was your January?

Mine was mixed. As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I lost my job back in December (budget cuts) and so I’ve spent January looking for work (there isn’t much around) and finding freelance jobs (that pay very little money) so I’ve been busy, albeit, broke.

BUT I am not yet destitute and I’ve gotten to do some pretty interesting stuff this month. I met a jaguar when out in my journalistic capacity. I mean, there was a single chain link fence between me and the jaguar (thank the lord), but that is a lot less fence than there usually is between me and a jaguar. When we went up to the ‘keepers only’ part of the enclosure for my jaguar meet-and-greet, my tour guide/the owner of the zoo told me that he was going to have to politely ask that I kept my hands well away from the wire and I was like sir, that is NOT going to be a problem. I like my fingers attached to my body.

20190121_130418[1]
He, on the other hand, abides by no such rules 
Anyway. Time for my favourites.

Stationary fave: 2019 diary

20190202_171517-01[1]

My mum got this for me because she wants me to feel excited for my new freelance lifestyle, as I suppose I might if it had happened on purpose. I was sceptical at first, but this thing is GREAT. It has your standard day of the week set up, but it also has a tear off shopping list section, a meal planning section, monthly calendar-style grids (perfect for keeping track of random deadlines) and monthly planning pages. As someone who is very much a list-maker this appeals to my style of organisation on every level. I LOVE it.

To watch: Salt Fat Acid Heat, Netflix

salt fat acid heat
Photo: Netflix

This show, based on the cookery book penned by its host, Samin Nosrat, is a freaking DELIGHT. I fell in love with Samin when she appeared on Call Your Girlfriend towards the end of last year, and her cookery show is every bit as adorable as she is. In SFAH, Samin takes viewers through the basics of cooking and shares her belief that every recipe boils down to the four elements of the show’s title. What I enjoy most about this show is watching Samin eat. She gets such pure, uncomplicated joy from food and I love it.

It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut with cooking, to treat it like another inconvenience at the end of a long day, but watching SFAH makes me enjoy the process again, and really revel in eating whatever it is I’ve made. Even if you’re not a cookery show person (I’m actually not – the power of Samin drew me in) you should still watch Salt Fat Acid Heat. It’s sweet, relaxing, gentle viewing and feels like the perfect antidote to what a nightmare the world is right now.

To watch: The Punisher, Netflix

frank
I’m so attracted to this man it is becoming a problem.

Jon Bernthal’s performance in this bloody, problematic and morally grey (lol. Understatement of the year) show continues to utterly captivate me. The supporting cast are immense, from Amber Rose Revah’s traumatised, morally compromised Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani to Ben Barnes’ unhinged, amnesiac Billy Russo, everyone in this show is at the top of their game and don’t deserve the cancellation that is surely coming for them.

To listen: Longform

longform

If you’re interested in journalism you need this podcast in your life. I can’t believe I didn’t know about it until now! Longform is a series of interviews with journalists about their writing process, how they got to where they are and how they tackled some of their most famous stories. It is fascinating, and I really can’t recommend it enough. Episode 325 would make a great starting point – an interview with Lizzie Johnson about how she came to cover wildfires for the San Francisco Chronicle.

What have you been loving this month? Have you watched The Punisher or Salt Fat Acid Heat? I’d love to hear your thoughts.