Potential spoilers for all six books currently in the Grishaverse. Read ahead at your own risk!
The ending of King of Scars is certainly dramatic. Reviewers have reacted with stunned gasps and increased excitement for the sequel. I have to admit that my reaction differed. Initially, I thought the ending was cheap drama, an easy way to create shock without regard to the cohesiveness of the story. Upon reflection, I understand more clearly why I felt this way. The ending of King of Scars is shocking–but it also undermines nearly everything that happened up until that point.
King of Scars is a thoughtful depiction of how a handful of individuals are dealing with the aftermath of Ravka’s civil war. Nikolai is fighting the monster the Darkling left inside him. Zoya is attempting to come to terms with the adoration she once felt for the Darkling–and working to make amends for the ways that adoration made her complicit in Ravka’s suffering. Their struggles make clear the lasting effects of a corrupt leader and of war. The Darkling may have died, but his influence remains, both in Nikolai’s condition and in the cults that have sprung up to declare him a Saint. Fighting evil is never as easy as simply killing the villain.
Resurrecting the Darkling takes away from the power of this narrative. The focus moves from the struggle to face the personal demons of the past and back to the traditional fantasy narrative of toppling a dark lord. This is perhaps more exciting. It gives the characters something physical to punch, someone personal to direct their anger towards. But it also lessens the poignant depictions of how Nikolai, Zoya, and Nina are attempting to accept what they did in the past, both to survive and to save a nation. In real life, enemies do not typically return to give people something to hate. They have to learn to live with themselves and to move forward– without having someone onto whom they can transfer their anger and their self-loathing.
Maybe Leigh Bardugo feared that the story of a king trying to fight his own anger and save his country from economic collapse simply is not compelling. Maybe it would strike readers as shabby next to the romanticism of the previous trilogy, complete with its seemingly all-powerful dark lord. But there is something compelling about Nikolai’s journey and about Zoya’s. Those journeys remind readers that the fight never ends, that sometimes the important moments are the quiet ones. King of Scars is very different from lot of fantasy books–and that is its strength.
I was sorry to see the Darkling return because I do not want to see the focus of the duology shift from the personal journeys back to yet another quest to kill the Darkling. We have been there, done that. Even King of Scars was a quest to kill the Darkling(‘s monster) once and for all. I really hope that the sequel will surprise me. But, in the meantime, I’ll be mourning the return of a villain I do not think the story needs.