The Grishaverse, fantasy author Leigh Bardugo’s expansive, multi-series magical work, is fast becoming too unwieldy to pitch in one sentence. Rule of Wolves, its most recent installment, is six books in the making and the sequel to King of Scars, a spinoff that follows the young and unready King of Ravka, Nikolai Lantsov, as his country heals from a grueling civil war and faces threats in the meantime from its richer and more powerful neighbors.
He’s not the only perspective character, though: joining him is Nina Zenik, a Ravkan spy on a mission in Fjerda, one of Ravka’s major aggressors, and Zoya Nazyalensky, a general of Ravka’s magical second army.
As the second book in a duology, Rule of Wolves opens with a lot hanging in the balance: there’s a major complication that dropped on the final page of book one, two potential wars brewing at Ravka’s borders, a subplot involving a mysterious blight of magical origin, and a pair of budding un-confessed romances, all to be put to rest between these covers.
It is with a heavy heart that I say it should be no surprise that Rule of Wolves suffers under these tall orders. Two books, hefty as they may be for the Young Adult category, just aren’t up to the task of supporting three, sometimes five, completely separate plots of the scope Bardugo is attempting here.
Six of Crows, another recent entry in Bardugo’s fantasy universe, also happens to follow multiple characters at once, but in all else, it’s a striking example of restraint––and that same restraint paying off. All the characters in Six of Crows are working towards the same goal, and, crucially, its scale suits a duology. Never do our perspective paths fully diverge, nor do our characters set in motion the stuff of multi-book sagas with only a few hundred pages left to go. Six of Crows is such an achievement because it strikes a balance: ambitious but controlled, bombastic yet considerate.
The worst part about Six of Crows‘ achievement, though, it that it almost makes you think Bardugo can manage it here. When you see her put another plot twist into play, you think of the surgical precision of the ones in her striking pair of heists. When you watch her break her magic system’s rules, you think of how well it worked to raise the stakes before. When she makes impossible promises, ultimately, you trust her, because she has a history of seeing them through with a stunning finish.
I remember, with some foreboding, now, that King of Scars read like the first volume in a long line of doorstoppers––it teased problems that couldn’t be solved by putting a magical macguffin in the right place, hinting at long and complicated conflicts beyond our characters’ shores. It was a tantalizing first glimpse, but of a delivery in all-out war with its package. Simply put, King of Scars is a check Rule of Wolves can’t cash. In fact, it’s a check no book can cash, at least not with these constraints, as evidenced by the bitter sting of a compelling setup clipped with an ending before it’s ripe.
To help illustrate how this book suffers for want of time, it might be helpful to look to one particular incident near the third act, where Zoya, Nikolai, and a small crew take a detour to the city of Ketterdam for the supply of titanium they need to make a working missile––the iffy diplomatic implications of stealing what they need and the obvious barrier of security standing in their way. The whole thing plays out over a few chapters, rendering what might have been a significant challenge a trivial fetch quest.
In its defense, the sequence’s primary accomplishment is in a major thrust of character work, which some of the best scenes in Rule of Wolves are often aiming for first, but the simple fact is that a collection of touching vignettes does not a sturdy novel make, and I worry that this detour’s place in the story rests more on a few cameos than actual narrative necessity.
Rule of Wolves has the decency to avoid making such callbacks and cameos gratuitous and all-encompassing, but in the face of what this new series could’ve become with page time adequate for its expansive ambitions, or at least some of the restraint that so served Six of Crows, it’s worth asking if King of Scars and Rule of Wolves lost something in refusing to cut ties with the past and move on.
To be perfectly frank, there’s a tragedy in these pages that has nothing to do with the hasty resolutions of a hungry brood of subplots––it’s in the fact that this book refuses to allow its new story to stand alone, apart from old favorites and plot threads long concluded. At every turn, there’s a harder, riskier, more compelling choice to be made, but sheltering in the laurels of its predecessors is a scurrying shell of a book without the freedom or courage to make them.
As dismal as it sounds, it’s an issue that is, at its heart, rather simple. In trying to balance the successes of the first series, which begins with Shadow and Bone, with those of Six of Crows, its follow-up, the King of Scars duology loses purchase on its clarity, for a messy fusing of disparate parts. Shadow and Bone is straightforward and archetypal, Six of Crows more gritty and complex. Resolutions that would fly in one realm feel like cop-outs in the other. And instead of committing to either, Rule of Wolves so badly wants the benefits of both that it strains itself to bridge them, and in the process, forfeits an identity of its own.
The price, in the end, is that these most recent books will forever be subsumed by their forebears, and always in want of a distinctive voice that could’ve been theirs, with only a touch more magic.