Book Review: King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

King of Scars focuses on that lingering sense of incompleteness that follows victory over a traumatic struggle. What now? How to deal with the ghosts and monsters that haunt the victors? When has the battle truly ended?

King of Scars 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.

Goodreads

My Thoughts

While I liked Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy pretty well when I read it, I’ve been a fan of her books ever since the release of the Six of Crows duology and her anthology of short-stories, The Language of Thorns. So naturally, I borrowed King of Scars from my friend as soon as feasibly possible. She read the entire thing in a day, stopping only for a recharge nap. I might have read it a little slower than that, but only just.

What I Liked

PLOT

King of Scars follows the incomplete tales of side characters from the previous Grisha trilogy and Six of Crows duology in Nina Zenik, Nikolai Lantsov, and Zoya Nazyalensky — characters fans of the Grisha world have embraced and loved. More specifically, the narrative focuses on that lingering sense of incompleteness that follows victory over a traumatic struggle. What now? How to deal with the ghosts and monsters that haunt the victors? When has the battle truly ended? Though readers need not have read the previous installments of this world, doing so enriches the experience of King of Scars, as it contains constant and thrilling call-backs to previous content in mentions of Alina Starkov, Kaz Brekker and the Dregs, and even vague hints in the direction of The Language of Thorns.

CHARACTERS

In the Six of Crows duology, readers met Nina Zenik, protege of Zoya Nazyalensky, for the first time, and even got her point of few on several occasions throughout the daring heists and mad schemes perpetrated by the Dregs, the Ketterdam gang she ran with for a while. But her story ended in tragedy and personal trouble, so King of Scars narrates the continuation of her character development as she struggles to lay her past attachments to rest and embrace a new and dangerous power awakened within her, all while attempting to rescue a country that hates her from its own self.

Both Nikolai Lantsov and Zoya Nazyalensky appear in the original Grisha trilogy, but both, as intriguing characters, reach the trilogy end with unresolved problems. Each carry a certain darkness within them, one a hunger for power, the other a hunger for control. If they hope to successfully remake Ravka into a peaceable country, they must each face their own demons, and learn to recognize when the wrong path may appear as the right one.

THEME

The ever constant struggle of wrestling ones own demons, sometimes literally. Trauma doesn’t just go away. Torments resurface over and over again. In King of Scars, Ravka is a land beset on all sides by constant war, turmoil, and worry — an aspect reflected in the hearts of its leaders and greatest champions. The more they deal with their wounds, the more their personal ghosts seem bent on manifesting and becoming more corporeal than ever before. Sometimes, facing trouble makes the situation even worse, but it must be faced. Again and again and again.

ENDING

While the heroes triumph in King of Scars, they also experience defeat and new, encroaching threats. The bad times our heroes feared have arrived at Ravka’s door.

What I Disliked

The resurrection of previously vanquished villains. Maybe Bardugo is just the type who likes to revive the bad guys just to kill them again, but I would have liked to see how she introduced and handled a new antagonist for King of Scars. (There are lots of bad guys in the previous installments and the revival happens pretty early on, so this doesn’t spoil.) But this story is all about wrapping up unresolved issues, so perhaps such a trope fits well with the overall intent.

My Rating: 4/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.28 stars

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Book Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

He has a calm, thoughtful demeanor and a coat with more than two sides; she exudes roguishness and capability. In A Darker Shade of Magic, their fates intertwine…

A Darker Shade of Magic Synopsis


Kell is one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black. 

Kell was raised in Arnes—Red London—and officially serves the Maresh Empire as an ambassador, traveling between the frequent bloody regime changes in White London and the court of George III in the dullest of Londons, the one without any magic left to see.

Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.

After an exchange goes awry, Kell escapes to Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.

Goodreads

My Thoughts

I picked up A Darker Shade of Magic at the recommendation of my friend, who once again recognized that I’d be interested in the roguish thief character, Lila Bard. Also, I had lately been seeing V.E. Schwab’s name floating around, especially with her nomination topping the list for the 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards in the Science Fiction category.

What I Liked

PLOT

Five alternate worlds sit on a spectrum from most magical to least, all interconnected by one city called London, through which Kell, as an Antari, can travel. I loved the prospect both of thematic London parallels and one person who can pass between them. Blood, magic, political intrigue, daring, and temptation. The aesthetic of Place and Objects shines through the pages, practically demanding fan art. The world of A Darker Shade of Magic begs for story to fill it up.


CHARACTERS

Delilah Bard, a street thief who yearns for adventure on the high seas as a pirate, and Kell, a blood magician capable of stepping between worlds. He has a calm, thoughtful demeanor and a coat with more than two sides; she exudes roguishness and capability. In A Darker Shade of Magic, their fates intertwine by pure accident, but the narrative hints that Lila may be more like Kell, dulled by the magic-sapping atmosphere of Grey London, than she or Kell could imagine.

THEME

Power addiction. What does an Antari, capable of not only manipulating all elements of magic but also of passing into alternate realities, do with this almost limitless ability? Thirst for and acquire yet more power, of course. Imagine literally being the whimsical magician whom those in Grey London (our world) only dream of being and still feeling unsatisfied.

In A Darker Shade of Magic,Lila embodies that Grey Londoner, knowing the deep chasm within her heart must have been filled by more in another life, but not in her own world. Yet, perhaps because she did not grow up with magic at her dispense, she relinquishes the power promised by the black stone more easily than does Kell.

ENDING

The ending of A Darker Shade of Magic does not leave the reader on a cliff hanger, but it has dropped enough unanswered questions into the narrative by then to warrant further investigation in the next installment.

What I Disliked

Although the narrative of A Darker Shade of Magic throws Kell and Lila around — bloodying, bruising, and bashing them — I never quite worried about them. There are many moments that raise the tension, but the two always escape danger. By the end, I had no worry that they might not win the day, leaving me on the whole unenthused at the struggle.

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.09 stars

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The Hopeful Wanderer 43 – Lost to Hidden

A ruined city glimpsed between thick clouds, spires and skyscrapers towering above the earth, breaking through the eternal fog enveloping its forgotten world. Sunlight poking through the windows illuminated dangling innards — wires and ventilation ducts. Cold and empty and beckoning explorers and wanderers alike.

I stood somewhere within the fog layer but still outside the fabled city, uncertain of my direction. My hand shielded my eyes as I tipped my head back, gazing up at those tower tops. Sunlight had broken through again, glittering off broken window shards and limning the fog in gold. Last time the towers hove into view, I had walked straight toward them. Yet now, they reappeared… to my left.

Soon they vanished again. Altering my course and beginning my trek anew, I reflected on how folks referred to this as ‘the lost city,’ implying it never meant to get that way but had become obscured all the same. Still, the lost hoped for discovery; it stood to reason someone should have found the city by now.

As I slid down a ridge, shale nipping at my bare palms, the towers materialized once more. Two now stood to my right and… I glanced about for the third. There, back the way I had come.

Understanding dawned. I stood grumbling under my breath, condensed fog dripping cold from the ends of my hair. This was why no one had found the lost city: it wasn’t lost, but hidden. The city itself was toying with me. A minuscule flock of unfamiliar red birds took flight from the distant towers, their cries reverberating through the low clouds sounding just like laughter.

Fog rolled up over the skyscrapers once more, swallowing them for good. Though I searched and searched for another glimpse, they did not show themselves to me again.

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Book Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars Synopsis

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.

Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.

Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

(Via Goodreads)

Award-winning author Mary Robinette Kowal

My Thoughts

I came across The Calculating Stars by award-winning author Mary Robinette Kowal while perusing the Goodreads Choice Awards 2018 Science Fiction list. Lady astronauts? Hidden Figures vibes? Alternate universe featuring one of my favorite historical subjects? Sign me right up.

What I Liked

Plot

The Calculating Stars closely examines the entire process by which an era known for its traditional gender roles might be rocked on its foundation when the impact of a meteorite accelerates the progress of gender equality. At no point is this easy. The multitude of fierce, intelligent, and brave women battle gender stereotyping on every page as the narrative spotlights the intense riptide of sexism prevalent in their everyday lives. Though so many women work as calculators capable of more perfect accuracy than IBM computers, the relevancy of their work has to take a backseat to changing the public’s social view of a woman’s assumed fragility. Who less qualified to step into the public’s eye to accomplish just that than a socially anxious math nerd like Elma York? She believes women and minorities should have equal opportunity in scientific fields, but the audience gets to watch as she grows into this steadfast mentality.

Permeated throughout this examination is the atmosphere of working at what would have been NASA if it had existed a little earlier in history — calculating the first trip into space, overcoming the challenges of implementing a space station, dreaming of reaching the moon and beyond in the race to save humanity from a planet Earth preparing to fry itself to death.

Characters

The characters of The Calculating Stars felt like real colleagues, the kind of people I could see myself working with as coworkers and getting to know over the course of a few years. Elma and her husband Nathaniel complement each other both as lovers and as partners. I appreciate how Nathaniel never needs Elma to play the traditional feminine role, and often expresses himself with natural emotions, communication with her, and thoughtfulness, all while juggling a difficult job. Elma’s rival, who perpetuates the very stifling gender stereotypes she battles throughout, gets to show both his awful sides and his good sides in such a human fashion that both regularly blindside Elma. Other characters bring values that matter to the story, but all of them present like just one aspect of many that these people might have.

Theme

Women getting what they want. Though the women characters of The Calculating Stars struggle and fight with various different tactics against persistent stereotyping, sexism, mockery, and belittling, the narrative also sprinkles in satisfaction for these women throughout. When they successfully pass a test, during sexual intercourse, in motherhood, in life threatening dangers, as homemakers, as career women. I could probably count the number of books that present this much satisfaction for women on one hand. The number of such science fiction books fits on just two fingers.

Ending

The Calculating Stars ends on a high note, but with the promise of more difficulty ahead. The next arc seems to indicate a requirement to convince the public of the dangers of remaining on earth much longer, as well as an examination of racism in choosing who will first get to colonize space.

What I Disliked

The complication of cattiness among women put me off at first, but the narrative of The Calculating Starsresolves this particular unhelpful stereotype in a realistic and wholesome fashion, as if it meant to unpack the connotation that goes with it all along.

My rating: 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.21 stars

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The Hopeful Wanderer 42 – Dreams of Home

While ducking under the bone-bare branches of a snowy wood, I came face to face with a pale barn owl. It perched on an aspen branch at the exact height to be eye level with me when I stepped around the tree’s trunk. I found myself close enough to count the small feathers on its face and to become quite familiar with the wicked curve of its beak. I took a swift step backward out of striking range.

“Excuse me,” the owl hooted. The muffling effect of the snow grabbed at the low sound. “I have no dreams of my own and I cannot sleep without them. Would you lend me one of yours?”

I glanced around at the dim afternoon light filtering through the gray clouds above. Nothing else moved out there in the cold. Regarding the owl once more, I thought this nocturnal creature must have been awake a very long time now. “You may keep the dream,” I said. “I will have little need for it back.”

“Very good,” said the owl. “Might I request a dream of home?”

So often was the case that those I met already knew I wandered, I felt a faint surprise. “I am a Wanderer,” I explained. “I have no dreams of home.”

“I know what you are.” The owl blinked canny black eyes. “Not everyone has a home,” it continued, “but all feel a yearning for someplace.”

I stilled, thinking. The owl shuffled its feathery wings, patient. Waiting.

At last, I said, “When I dream of that place, I dream of the night sky.” I wondered if I should give such a thing away after all.

The insomniac owl cocked its head. “That will do nicely,” it said. “But once I’ve slept, I believe I will return it to you.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer 41 – Wreckage Recollected

Every wrecked window of the fallen airplane contained a different story. The story that interested me existed at the front of the plane. Or it would have, if the crash hadn’t shorn the cockpit windows clean off when it plowed the plane’s nose into the ground.

I stood on the spine of a once-white, narrow-body airliner. Fire had gutted the insides black sometime before the crash and the elements had scoured the company logo from the outside sometime after. If I squinted, the hulk appeared as some great beached marine creature with too many eyes or mouths, crouched here on the shore. The tide could not budge it and the locals had no use for this particular spit of black sand, so here it remained.

Damp from a chill, clinging fog soaked my shirtfront as I stretched lengthwise on the forward end, head and arms hanging over the ragged edge of ripped metal, leaving the cockpit open to the skies. Dangling upside down like this shifted my perspective — the roar of breakers became the death rattle of compromised engines; wind whistling through exposed wiring grew into the screams of doomed passengers.

I squeezed my eyes shut. I knew the real story ended in passengers, attendants, and pilots parachuting to safely. What I heard in my mind was what might have been. Because somehow the pilots had angled the plane to land successfully on this beach, everyone would have lived anyway.

The empty cavity of the cockpit looked meaningfully back at me.
Well… Everyone except the pilots, apparently.

I rolled over onto my back to ease the blood rushing to my head and patted the plane’s metallic hide with a hollow clank. This plane had no voice to speak to me, but I heard its story all the same.

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The Hopeful Wanderer 40 – Macabre Collaboration

From a nearby pond, I heard a very small argument. More of a berating, actually. A tiny voice pierced the peace of the meadow where I lay napping.

“You must fly!” it shrilled. “How else can we be together?”

With a groan, I sat upright, immediately spotting the speaker. A handsome blue and black butterfly perched upon the snout of one vibrant green frog, who had mostly submerged herself beneath the still pond surface. She gazed at the butterfly with sadness in her large golden eyes.

“Well?” the butterfly demanded.

The frog remained silent.

“She is not shaped for flying,” I called out. “Anyone can see her talents lie elsewhere.”

“Don’t be preposterous!” the butterfly said. “We’re so alike already, of course my love shall fly.”

I rested my arms on my knees. “Why does it matter?”

“The flowers here have wilted with the summer suns,” he said. His long antennae wriggled in agitation. “I must migrate or die.”

Of the frog, I asked, “What do you think?”

The frog sank lower into the water. “I cannot fly,” she croaked. “Or leave this pond. But I have a solution.” With that, she dove underwater, leaving the butterfly flapping and sputtering.

Soon she resurfaced with a struggling minnow in her mouth. This she spat onto the pebbly shore. We all watched as the small fish flopped around until it suffocated to death.

“Butterflies can consume flesh,” the frog explained, pleased with herself.

“So they can,” the butterfly said. “Well done, my love!” He swooped in to plant a kiss on the frog’s nose before landing on the fish, where he fell to eating.

The frog placidly snapped another butterfly from the air with her long tongue. It went down with a faint scream while I re-positioned and went back to sleep.


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