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.

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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.

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Wonder Woman: Warbringer

She will become a legend, but first she is Diana, Princess of the Amazons. And her fight is just beginning….

Diana is desperate to prove herself to her warrior sisters. But when the opportunity comes, she throws away her chance at glory and breaks Amazon law to save a mere mortal, Alia Keralis. With this single heroic act, Diana may have just doomed the world.

Alia is a Warbringer – a descendant of the infamous Helen of Troy, fated to bring about an age of bloodshed and misery. Diana and Alia will face an army of enemies, mortal and divine, determined to destroy or possess the Warbringer.

To save the world, they must stand side by side against the tide of war.

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I picked up Wonder Woman: Warbringer a little while back on the theory that if Bardugo wrote it then it must be good, but despite that, found myself lacking enthusiasm to actually read the thing. What would it be, I asked myself? Would it just be a straight up retelling of the movie? Don’t get me wrong, I liked the movie, but I couldn’t see the point of reading it again in book form. Then I’d wonder, how does a comic book translate into a novel?

Eventually I started actually reading and realised the truth I had known all along: always trust Leigh Bardugo. She knows exactly what she’s doing.

Wonder Woman: Warbringer in many ways satisfied me in all of the areas that the movie didn’t. Far from being a rehash of the plot I was already familiar with, Bardugo took the story in a completely different direction. While there were some similarities between the two, where the movie leaned towards romance and the only girl in the gang thing (after the first fifteen minutes of the Wonder Woman movie, Diana didn’t spend a lot of time with other women, and I never saw Justice League but it looked much the same) – Warbringer was an ode to female friendship and power in various forms.

Diana has spent her whole life feeling like an outsider. Born of the earth of Themyscira, a kind of heaven for women killed in war, she is the only Amazon not to have earned her place there through battle – and death. Her mother, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, hopes that Diana will one day take over her rule, but a question mark hangs over whether she’ll ever be ready. Or worthy. Diana has never known battle or sacrifice. She isn’t as strong as her fellow Amazons.

None of them will let her forget it.

So yeah, Diana is a woman with something to prove. Problem is, when you live in what is essentially heaven there aren’t a whole lot of battles to fight, so she’s stuck desperate to prove herself but unsure how to do it, until one day fate intervenes, and Alia Keralis’ ship explodes right as it passes Themyscira.

Alia has also spent much of her life feeling like an outsider. After her parents were killed in a car accident a few years ago she was separated from her peers by her grief, and then her overprotective older brother, Jason, who became convinced that someone was trying to assassinate them both. She’s one of only a few brown girls in an overwhelmingly white school of kids who won’t stop asking her if she’s a scholarship student. And she’s kind of the embodiment of the apocalypse, which causes people to literally start beating the shit out of each other simply because she’s nearby. She’s the Warbringer, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Both Diana and Alia were strong in different ways, and watching them go on their journey and develop separately and together made me so damn happy. It’s rare we get to see super-powered woman hanging with their female friends. Yes, Jessica Jones changed things up a bit, but The Defenders took things right back to the status quo. I get the feeling that often creators don’t know how to integrate the ‘super’ element with the ‘is a woman’ element and so balance out her superness by surrounding her with masculine energy. Seeing an alternative, the friendship of two burgeoning badasses made this such a joyful read for me.

Wonder Woman: Warbringer is a pacey adventure and coming of age tale about strong women fighting for what is right and the evil that might be lurking in those closest to you. It’s a super fun read and a worthy edition to the evolving canon of Bardugo. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.

Crooked Kingdom

Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled of a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s loyalties. A war will be waged in the city’s dark and twisting streets – a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world.

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It’s hard to know where to even begin talking about Crooked Kingdom, the obsessively anticipated sequel of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology.

Much like its predecessor, Crooked Kingdom gave me ALL THE FEELINGS.  It made me laugh (and it made me sob, but we’re not going to dwell on that…), it got me so invested, I almost dropped the thing on multiple occasions from trying to turn the pages so fast. I threatened my family with bodily harm when they interrupted my reading.

And the ships. Oh my god.

To be totally honest, I veer toward the cynical and have some difficulty engaging with fictional romances (that said, once you have me I am loyal #KlarolineFOREVER*), BUT there was not a single relationship in Crooked Kingdom that I was not 100% invested in.

Jesper and Wylan were my favourite. I got Wylan – not so much in the sense that my dad tried to have me murdered (lol), but in the wallflower way. In the oh god this is terrifying but I hope it never stops sense. I loved how he found himself – and I mean like he found his purpose, his truth – in a place that he never expected to. In a boy he never expected to. Let’s be honest, every quiet person dreams of a brightly dressed hottie exploding into their lives like a car crash but in a sexy way – and that’s what happened when Wylan met Jesper. It was the small touches with which Bardugo wove their relationship that really gave me butterflies. There were momentary looks (eye contact can be sexy, okay?!), fleeting physical contact – when Jesper unwound Wylan’s bag strap on his shoulder? I melted – juxtaposed with Jesper saying something heavy handed and flirtatious, leaving Wylan blushing.

Sigh. LOVED IT.

I think what made the relationships in this book work so well was that every moment was earned. So frequently I read characters who will lay down their lives for one another seemingly on the basis of nothing. I want to feel for them as intensely as they do for each other but there is no grounding for me to do so. In Crooked Kingdom every moment is deserved, and I savoured them all. One of my favourite episodes in the whole book was when Jesper (if it wasn’t obvious already: I LOVE HIM) and Kaz fought. For the entirety of Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, Jesper has wanted Kaz’s approval. He’s wanted forgiveness for his screw ups. He’s wanted to be on equal footing. Kaz knows how badly he wants it, and he refuses to give it to him… until he does it by accident and calls Jesper by his dead brother’s name. In that second every difficult moment of their relationship suddenly makes sense and you know exactly the space Jesper occupies in Kaz’s heart (mine could HARDLY TAKE IT).

This whole scene was emblematic to me of Leigh Bardugo’s genius. She has the tension between Kaz and Jesper reach its apex, the revelation of how these boys feel about each other (Kaz stresses about Jesper like he did about his brother! Is it weird that this maybe gave me even more feelings than things that were happening with Inej?) and then completely diffuses the situation with Jesper’s dad telling the crows off like they’re children. It’s an emotional roller coaster and the whole time I was reading it I was thinking how great it must feel to be able to write like this.

Books like the Crows duology remind me why at almost 24 (oh god), I am still an obsessive lover of YA. In Barudgo’s writing there is so much adventure, growth and heart. And, honestly, this book is also comforting in the current political climate. The six crows are all of different ethnicities, religions and political beliefs, and yet they can work together as an almost unstoppable team. They can coexist with their different belief systems and even learn from them. This is no more obvious than in Matthias’ journey to overcome his hatred of the Grisha. When he actually meets the people he has been taught for so long to despise, the lessons of his indoctrination crumble. I was so impressed too, with how Bardugo didn’t pretend that his transformation was complete. Still, even as he acknowledged his love for her, Matthias found those old words like ‘unnatural’ and ‘threat’ rising to the surface as he witnessed Nina’s powers. The difference though, was that, rather than giving into that fear, he viewed it critically before ultimately rejecting it.

Crooked Kingdom is a richly imagined adventure with a cast of characters I physically miss now that I’ve finished reading. It is YA at its finest. I hope everybody reads it.

 

*loyal in the sense that I trawl TVD spoilers for any sign of a reunion, not that I tell actresses to go die of cancer on Twitter. Those people seriously need to do better.

October Wrap-Up

Where has this year gone? Why does my total shock at the passing of time increase with age? When will I get a job that I keep for more than a week?

I have answers to none of these questions.

I do however, have a summary of the month’s events, in book form:

Where has this year gone? Why does my total shock at the passing of time increase with age? When will I get a job that I keep for more than a week?

I have answers to none of these questions.

I do however, have a summary of the month’s events, in book form:

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This month I reviewed:

Lair of Dreams – Libbra Bray

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Feelings: This didn’t quit live up to expectations. I think I loved the first book too much. I am hoping for more Evie in the next book.

Asking For It – Louise O’Neill

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Feelings: An important and powerful book about rape culture and sexual consent. Everybody should read this.

Six of Crows – Leigh Bardugo

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Feelings: I loved every second of it.

Is It Just Me? – Miranda Hart

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Feelings: One of my very favourite audiobooks for insomnia.

Dracula – Bram Stoker

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Feelings: Stoker isn’t half as scared of vampires as he is female sexuality.

I also read:

Why Not Me? – Mindy Kaling

Everything Everything – Nicola Yoon

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories – Angela Carter

Currently Reading:

Carry On – Rainbow Rowell

Six of Crows

Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo is so much fun. It’s a classic heist, told from the perspective of five of the six participants. The cast of characters are diverse, coming from all areas of the land of Grisha familiar to us from the previous books in the series. They are of differing backgrounds, abilities, sexualities and motivations, and yet the group gelled straight away.

Kaz Brekker plans to do the impossible: He’s going to break into the Ice Court, a prison famed for its impenetrability. With thirty million kruge at stake, he reckons he and his gang of criminals, The Dregs can pull it off.

Kaz: Notorious criminal mastermind. He controls vast areas of Ketterdam at only seventeen.

Inej: Also known as the Wraith. Silent as a ghost, she can scale any surface. You never know when she might be nearby, listening.

Jesper: A crack shot with a weakness for the card tables.

Nina: Grisha. A heartrender who can choke a man at twenty paces.

Matthias: A lost fjerdan with a weakness for a certain Grisha.

Wylan: A merchant’s son looking for adventure in all the wrong places.

23437156Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo is so much fun. It’s a classic heist, told from the perspective of five of the six participants. The cast of characters are diverse, coming from all areas of the land of Grisha familiar to us from the previous books in the series. They are of differing backgrounds, abilities, sexualities and motivations, and yet the group gelled straight away. The changes in perspective that came with each new chapter really added to the coherency of the gang. For much of the novel, we knew how they felt about each other even when the characters themselves were unable to see it. Experiencing each character in such an immersive way made the novel a totally absorbing experience. Now that I’ve finished reading, I actually miss these imaginary people and – in a way that is highly out of character for me – I can’t wait for the sequel.

Like I’ve mentioned, getting both characters thoughts on a relationship – as well as the judgements of everybody else in the group – meant that we were really allowed to experience all the complexities of the feelings everybody had about each other. What this also meant, is that this book is simmering with potential romance. And I’m not referring to cringe-ey instalove either. Sometimes I worried that the weight of all that sexual tension might sink the boat before they even made it to the Ice Court. We get some forbidden love, complicated bad boy love and the slowly emerging crush that comes from flirty, shipboard banter.

I also loved the scenes exploring Inej and Nina’s friendship. There are few moments where it is only the two of them, and fleeting as they are, I was the left with a concrete sense of how much these two girls cared for each other. They are totally different people – Inej is quiet and reserved where Nina tends toward the loud and dramatic, but rather than conflict they seem to draw mutual strength from their differences. I have read so many adventure stories where the only two girls involved totally hate each other, so it was refreshing to see such a deep friendship that had not emerged from a place of aggression. Plus it leads to my favourite exchange in the book, between Inej and Matthias:

“Are you worried about Nina being out there?” Inej asked.

“No.”

“She’s very good at this, you know. She’s a natural actress.”

“I’m aware,” he said grimly. “She can be anything to anyone.”

“She’s best when she’s Nina.”

“And who is that?”

“I suspect you know better than any of us.”

He crossed his huge arms. “She’s brave,” he said, grudgingly.

“And funny.”

“Foolish. Every last thing needn’t be a joke.”

“Bold,” Inej said.

“Loud.”

“So why do your eyes keep searching the crowd for her?”

“They do not,” Matthias protested. She had to laugh at the ferocity of his scowl. He drew a finger through a pile of crumbs, “Nina is everything you say. It’s too much.”

“Mmm,” Inej murmured, taking a sip from her mug. “Maybe you’re just not enough.”

I don’t think I need much further evidence to prove that Inej is the best.

Obviously, I can’t end this review without talking about the heist. I love a good heist. Even in my sort-of adulthood, I still daydream about getting caught up in some ridiculous scheme. The adventure Leigh Bardugo takes us on does not disappoint. Kaz’s primary heist technique is pretty much to be as vague as possible. No one can wreck the plan, he supposes, if they don’t quite know what it is. This philosophy has varying levels of success. The Dregs simply have to believe that Kaz always knows what he’s doing. I’m not going to lie – their trust in this definitely wavers. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that some serious shit goes down. There was not a moment where I didn’t feel like everything was about to go catastrophically wrong. Again, the shift is perspective did a fantastic job of maintaining this. So many times Bardugo would end a chapter with someone in peril, before starting a new one from a different perspective and place. Reading it was the best kind of pain.

This book grabs you by the shoulders and drags you ever forwards. Sometimes you’re running to keep up. No matter the circumstances, for me at least, I was simply happy to be there.