Hmm, what’s this? A new type of post?
As part of my 2020 changes, I’ve decided to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time now. When I typically talk about books, I’ve only given quick reviews and usually paired certain books together by the month in which I read them. However, ever since I joined RWW in August, I’ve wanted to have a deeper discussion about the books I read (a lot of them deserve so much more attention).
And so, I wanted to choose one scene from King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo and see what I can learn from such a fantastic writer. Here’s what I found!
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.
Fear and Foreboding
When I first picked up King of Scars, I was beyond excited. Leigh Bardugo is one of my favorite authors of all time, and it had been a while since I’d read one of her books. I was starved for band-of-misfits characters, solid world-building, and dark storylines; though I knew this book would be quite the journey, I was not prepared for the very first chapter of this new adventure. Chapter One reminded me of why I fell in love with Bardugo’s writing.
Similar to Six of Crows (in my opinion, Bardugo’s best work to date), King of Scars begins with a prologue-like first chapter from the perspective of a character who is disconnected from the rest of the story and only seen this one time. Dima, the youngest of six, lives with his family inside a quaint farmhouse. In the first parts of the chapter, we learn about what Dima’s life is like and become invested in his character, like we would any other perspective character. He is often pushed around by his brother, Pyotr.
Dima tried. He truly did. But sometimes he just wanted to knock Pyotr on his bottom and see how he liked feeling small (Bardugo 5).
This glimpse of normal life for Dima is paired with a bit of darkness (the wish for a little revenge on Pyotr) creates a sense of normalcy combined with just a twinge of unease.
When Papa notices that the barn door has been left open, Dima is bullied by Pyotr into going outside in the dark to close it. The sense of unease only grows from here.
As soon as Dima opened the kitchen door, the wind tried to snatch it from his grip. He slammed it behind him and heard the latch turn from the other side. He knew it was temporary, a necessity, but it still felt like he was being punished. He looked back at the glowing windows as he forced his feet down the steps to the dry scrabble of the yard, and had the awful thought that as soon as he’d left the warmth of the kitchen his family had forgotten him, that if he never returned, no one would cry or raise the alarm. The wind would wipe Dima from their memory (Bardugo 7).
The foreboding in this paragraph astounds me. From the wind snatching the door from Dima’s hands, as if it had a mind of its own and was malevolent no less, to the door latching from the other side. Even though Dima is locked out for safety’s sake, the sound of the lock turning behind him can send a chill down a reader’s spine. As Dima thinks about this possibly being a punishment for some unknown slight, forcing his feet to move, the reader becomes aware of Dima’s own unwillingness to go into the darkness by himself; Bardugo doesn’t need to state this but instead uses familiar and foreboding sounds (the door locking), as well as a child’s silly fear that he’ll be forgotten. And then, to top it all off, the wind comes back into the description to “wipe Dima from [his family’s] memory.” Dima is scared; and because of all the clues dropped in this paragraph and before, the reader is frightened too.
As Dima crosses the yard, he realizes that the family dog, who has been barking rather annoyingly, has been silent for some time.
“Molninya?” he said, and the wind seized his voice, casting it away” (Bardugo 8).
Again, the wind returns to steal Dima’s voice away, perhaps alluding back to Dima’s fear of being forgotten by his family inside. The suspense only grows, as Dima finds the dog cowering in front of the open barn. Dima hears strange sounds and wonders if a wild animal wandered into the barn.
The golden light of the farmhouse windows seemed impossibly far away…But what if there was nothing inside? Or some harmless cat that Molninya had gotten a piece of? Then all his brothers would laugh, not just Pyotr” (Bardugo 9). The gold coloring of the farmhouse is a stark contrast to the inside of the barn, which is describe as, “dark, barely touched by slats of moonlight (Bardugo 9).
This juxtaposition of sunlight and dark as night is a time-solidified way of symbolizing safety versus danger. But perhaps the most frightening description is still the wind.
Then, as if the storm had just been catching its breath, the wind leapt. The doors behind Dima slammed shut, and the weak light of his lantern sputtered to nothing (Bardugo 9).
The fear and suspense keep building, shown by the difference in scale. The quiet locking of the farmhouse door behind Dima as he leaves becomes the slamming of the barn house door, trapping him inside with some unknown beast. And the wind, while until this point was only imagined to steal Dima’s presence and voice, becomes a physical force, taking the warmth of his lantern and plunging Dima into darkness.
The quiet horror of the moment stretches on, but only for a cruelly short period of time. The beast in the barn advances and Dima catches his first glimpse of the monster.
The shadow wore the shredded remains of what might have once been fine clothes, and for a brief, hopeful moment, Dima thought a traveler had stumbled into the barn to sleep out the storm. But it did not move like a man. It was graceful, too silent, its body unwinding in a low crouch… (Bardugo 10).
This idea of a normal object or person (the wind, or a man) seeming somehow twisted in something unnatural or off (the wind’s malevolence, or a man but one that moves by “unwinding” its body) instills a horror in the reader, a sense of wrongness—perhaps this is the same effect an audience member feels while watching a horror movie the likes of Chuckie or It, both of which use seemingly innocent objects or people (a doll or a clown) and adds to that innocence something dangerous (a serial killer’s spirit or an ancient cosmic evil).
The similarities between Bardugo’s writing style and the horror is more apparent to me in this chapter more than any other. Even though Dima isn’t a character we see again, we are introduced to the monster that plagues Nikolai, our protagonist, in a way that no reader will soon forget. This personification of the wind and the dehumanization of the monster go hand-in-hand in making Chapter One a memorable moment in King of Scars. Right off the bat, Bardugo puts her best foot forward.
I fell back in love with Bardugo’s writing, just from this one chapter. Every moment sent prickle of fear through me, and I just had to know why. I hope you find this chapter as brilliant as I did!
If you haven’t read King of Scars but you’re intrigued by the first chapter, check it out! It’d be a shame not to.
Photo by Kyle Richner on Unsplash