Am I ready for this? I’m really not. I’ve been having so much fun revisiting this world, and I’m so sad that it’s over now. I reread the entire Shadow & Bone trilogy last month to prepare for the chaos that was me absolutely losing my cool over the Netflix adaptation, and then slowly dug my own grave throughout the Crows duology, and here we are, at long last, with the Nikolai duology. Nikolai has long been one of my favorite characters, and I’m never not going to be excited at two full books surrounding his adventures in Ravka as the king. I still can’t believe I’ve managed to hold off reading Rule of Wolves this long, given that it’s one of my most hyped reads this year, but I’m really glad I waited to reread everything so I could go into the end with the whole story fresh in my brain. I’m also hella glad that this is just a duology. For some reason, I kept seeing things about it continuing on, and I was just ughhhhhhh, I cannot stand trilogies anymore, get them away from me. But that end? Well. Definitely a continuation, but of a whole different sort. And I thought I was going to be totally okay with the Grishaverse just ending entirely, but that ending has got me hyped for more.
Anyway, before we get too far, here is my official warning:
Yes, of course there are spoilers for ROW in this. There is way too much that I need to scream about, which 100% means there’ll be an entire paragraph dedicated to the Darkling.
Oh, Nikolai. I feel like I could just end the review there. When I first read the S&B trilogy, I loved it, and Alina is still one of my favorite characters ever, but I’ll never forget the 2018 vibe I had then that 100% reflected the 2021 reread vibe:
Real, though. S&S is a pretty kickass middle book, and it doesn’t fall into many of the same trappings that middle books do–overall, S&B is a solid trilogy, honestly–but I won’t lie and say that a lot of that was because of Nikolai. I love him so much. We all love him, I know this, but I can’t help myself, so I’m going to continue to weep over him. I read the Grishaverse books out of order–Crows duology first, S&B trilogy second–so getting to read them the right way around this time was so much fun because it meant seeing the arc of Nikolai’s character chronologically, which honestly just makes his appearance as Sturmhond in Crooked Kingdom even better. But King of Scars? My goodness, do yourself the favor of rereading S&B before you get to this because it’s just glorious to see Nikolai now compared to where he’s been.
But ohhhh, my heart breaks for him. This sweet, sweet boy, who has never wanted anything more than to protect and save his country, is now potentially the thing that could destroy it, and, in the end, he’s completely ready to give up his life if it means doing exactly that. Find me another king that is wholly ready to sacrifice everything that he is in order to keep his people safe, I’ll wait. They call him son of Ravka because that’s exactly what he is, and Leigh Bardugo has done such a fantastic job of crafting his character. From making Nikolai serve in the infantry and earning his medals to watching him charm the pants off everyone to bringing the worst sort of nightmare into reality so that we can see Nikolai try to hide the demon so he can protect those he loves is just–wow. What an excellent character. There’s a reason why everyone is literally dying over the potential Nikolai casting in a second season of the Netflix adaptation, and it’s because Bardugo crafted a superb character.
I’m going to get back to the characters in a second, but I wouldn’t be me if I talked about KOS and didn’t talk about the ending. Honestly? I hate the ending of KOS. But I think that readers’ reaction to the ending is based pretty heavily on how they felt about the other Grishaverse books. Love the Crows duology, but could take or leave the S&B trilogy? You probably liked the ending of KOS. I mean, what a great twist! The Darkling is back! Evil is about to run rampant! Saints are being released into the wild! CHAOS! However, if you loved the S&B trilogy, if you wept over Alina, then it doesn’t really matter how you felt about the Crows duology, you probably also hated the ending of KOS. Why? I mean, I could just point you back to my Shadow & Bone review, where I’ve already talked about this, and where I just wax poetic about Alina Starkhov for three books in a row. Because here’s the thing: by bringing back the Darkling, in whatever shape or form, even with as little power as he’s apparently got (I mean, they managed to tie him up, there’s no way he’s at full power), even if we’re going to kill him again–all of that negates Alina’s entire character arc of her trilogy. It takes away her sacrifice, it takes away all of the trauma she went through, and it takes away her possibility for joy and peace. Do I think that Alina is going to show up in ROW? I mean, I really freaking hope not because that’ll just sour the entire book for me. And, honestly, if Alina did show up in ROW, what is the literal point of anything that happens in Shadow & Bone? If you’re going to spend an entire trilogy defeating a Big Bad and putting your main character through the worst possible trauma, you negate all of that by bringing that Big Bad back, and you really damage things if you bring back that MC, too. The only possible way I’ll accept Alina in the story is as an epilogue at the end with Zoya & Genya going to visit her, and since that feels like a good segue way, let’s move away from this unfortunate ending.
(It’s a great twist, I’ll admit that readily, but it’s got a it was all a dream vibe to it, and that’s just a lot of no thanks.)
ZOYA MY QUEEN!
Not Leigh captioning this “Meeting the queen.” Nahhhhhh, we’re all fine.
Okay, look. I know that Nikolai and Zoya don’t really ever interact in the S&B trilogy, BUT I WILL ACCEPT THAT STORY CHANGE IF IT CAN HAPPEN IN THE SECOND SEASON, PLEASE. Oh my gosh, ughhhhhh. You know what I love? My friend has been reading the Grishaverse books for the first time, and, like many of us, she didn’t like Zoya for a good long while until she finally developed a grudging appreciation for her by the end of the third book, and I am just sitting here, gleefully cackling, as I wait for her to arrive at the Nikolai duology.
YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW GOOD IT’S ALL ABOUT TO GET.
Zoya as queen of Ravka and Nikolai’s wife? Yes, please? Right now? Screw a political alliance, we need this.
I feel like I need to bullet point my brain so I remember all of my talking points. Also, hi, we’re diving into spoilers immediately. I want to talk about Zoya as queen, the Darkling in general, NIKOLAI, and the cameos, let’s goooooo.
The cameos, though. Like, okay. I always look at the last page to figure out how long the book is because my anxiety needs to know how many pages I have left at all times, and I happened to see Kaz’s name on the last page–Brekker is a very noticeable name!–so I didn’t know how he was involved, just that he would be, and WOWZA. I was just so not prepared for Kaz & Nikolai to be sharing page time again. Even though I’ve already screamed a lot about the showdown between Kaz & the Darkling in S&B, so I should be ready for these worlds to collide again, it was just–HONESTLY THOUGH LET’S BE REAL WITH EACH OTHER. I almost fell out of bed when Wylan started talking. MY BOYYYYYYY, my sweet, angelic, I don’t want to do anything illegal OH IT’S FOR INEJ LET’S BLOW SHIT UP boy, I love him so damn much.
I’M NOT CRYING YOU’RE CRYING
I also just about died when Alina & Mal made an appearance. I was a little miffed about how they made their appearance, but that’s mostly me being miffed about the Darkling’s presence in general because whyyyy. Remember how I was like it was all a dream above? Yeah, literally the same. There’s no point in him being in this book, and it’s aggravating. This would have been just as amazing–but more because he wouldn’t be there–without him, and don’t even come at me with that ending. They could have just left Ravka in chaos for a bit longer, or figured out some temporary solution. I mean, they’re planning by the end to bring in the Dregs to find a lost artifact to replace the Darkling having to be trapped in the thorn wood, so? What is the point? This is literally my only complaint of this duology, but it drives me insane that he’s there. He doesn’t belong, and it really takes away from Alina’s character and whole story.
BUT ALINA! I’m so sad we didn’t get an individual scene with her & Nikolai because that would have just made me slowly perish with delight. I love, love, loved that scene at the end with her, Zoya, and Genya, but yeah. I wanted even the smallest interaction with Nikolai. It was so lovely to see her and Mal, though, to know that they’re still happy. They deserve every single second of it.
And Nikolai, ugh. It’s fine, I didn’t cry about him at all. HA. More like every other chapter. That scene where he’s kneeling on the tank as the demon flies up to the Fjerdan fighters, fully prepared to give his life to his country, and the twins call out to protect the king, and I just??? Am crying again now, thanks. His character arc has just been phenomenal, and even though I was disappointed, at first, that he was no longer king, I’m now really excited? He finally gets to live a life of peace and freedom! While still getting to help his country! Bardugo literally gave him the perfect ending. He gets all the good stuff without any of the weight of being a king. He can finally just work on his inventions, fight for a better future for Ravka without worrying about the crown, and be himself. He doesn’t have to worry about people finding out he’s not a Lantsov or has a demon inside of him. He’s just Nikolai, and I’m so happy for him. I’m also hella happy for Zoya because damn, girl, you deserve the hell out of this, and I can’t wait to see her shine. And lol @ Alina anyone notice the too-clever fox give up his crown, but is still somehow a king? SAME GIRL IT’S AMAZING.
Have I talked about all my points? I think so? I don’t know how I forgot to bullet point this one, but that plot! If this had been any other book, right around the middle, when–wait. Hold up. MAJOR SPOILERS. If you’ve somehow read this far not caring about spoilers, this is a real big one here. Y’all. I was not expecting David’s death. I read up to the chapter where the wedding happens, and then it ends with Genya saying she can’t find David, but I really, truly thought he was going to be okay. I went to bed after that chapter, and all was fine and well, and then I picked it back up the next day, and NOPE. NOT OKAY. When one of the following chapters begins with the phrase David’s body, I was like wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait WHAT. I was starting to cry, and I was mostly just in disbelief, and I didn’t really think it was possible, but then there’s the ideas for compliments passage, and I was BAWLING. Like, full body ugly crying. And it only got worse when Genya describes his body, and then it was really real, and I legitimately had to get up and go make tea, that’s how hard I was crying. Like, y’all. This was some Sirius Black bullshit. I was not prepared, and it was awful. And while I totally understand why Bardugo did it, and I probably would have done the same, wow. That was rough.
Okay, backing up, around the middle, post-David, post-something else, I can’t remember, but around the 350ish page mark, if this had been any other book, I would have been absolutely hopeless. The utter sense of defeat Bardugo was weaving into her story would have made me just despair if I didn’t trust her as a writer so much. Because not only are her characters so incredibly clever, but her mastery of plot is out of this world, and I knew that she was going to convincingly bring about a successful end for Ravka, but good grief, I could not see how she was going to do it. I mean? Nikolai fully gives up. Zoya is done. The only person even kind of hanging on is Genya, and literally how? I was just like well, guess Ravka’s done for, and this book is going to end with Nikolai as Sturmhond on the run. AND THEN?!
I mean, Bardugo literally set everything up way back in the first book, and I’m just too dumb to pay attention, but that ending was outstanding, and it was exactly what needed to happen, and all of it was just so well done, and I 1000000% believe all of it. She brought them so low and then convincingly brought them back up, and I’m just so damn impressed all over again with her writing. Brava. Bury me with a carving of Zoya as a dragon.
I could definitely keep rambling for the rest of my life about this book, but my brain is all in scrambles, and this review really needs to go up, so I’m calling it an end here. This was such a satisfying conclusion to this duology. Though I was ready to say goodbye to this universe, I’m really excited about the potential in that ending, and I can’t wait to see what’s up next.