Do I Have To? A reluctant reader’s guide to The Grisha Trilogy

With the excitement surrounding next week’s release of King of Scars, I’ve seen a number of people asking “Do I need to read The Grisha Trilogy first?” As a huge fan of Nikolai, my answer is yes, but the series is definitely not for everyone. So here’s an abridged guide to the books.

Shadow & Bone

Book one starts with soldiers Alina and Mal, best friends from their childhood in an orphanage, as they head towards a nightmare in the land of Ravka called “The Fold”. The Fold is a dark, dead sea of sand that’s populated by monsters called the Volcra literally made of shadow. When the army is attacked, Alina discovers she is actually one of the beings in Ravka known as The Grisha, people who have control over very specific elements of the world, but her power is the only of it’s kind. Alina can control light.

With her power being so incredible, it attracts the attention of The Darkling, head of the Grisha army. Their powers are the polar opposites, light and darkness, but Alina quickly becomes smitten with life as one of the Grisha and with The Darkling. The fantasy is broken, however, when Alina becomes aware that The Darkling’s only wish is to use her power to take over the world. She flees the castle and only narrowly avoids being caught when she re-crosses paths with Mal and he saves her.

This is where a fairytale comes to Alina and she decides to track Morozova’s beasts – rare creatures all over Ravka said to be amplifiers of unimaginable power to those of the Grisha. It takes forever, but Mal and Alina finally find Morozova’s Stag…only to have Alina decide against killing such a beautiful creature. Her mercy does not last long, however, as Mal and Alina are ambushed by The Darkling and his men. The Darkling kills the beast and makes Alina an unremovable collar, therefore putting her powers under his control.

Forced to follow The Darkling, Alina is brought back sound and into the Fold where her power is used to protect the ship from the Volcra. While inside, The Darkling uses his own powers to destroy the towns on the other side by expanding the Fold as well as pushing Mal off the ship to his death. In Alina’s pain, she realizes that by sparing the Stag, it has granted her the strength to break free from The Darkling’s hold and rushes to save Mal, destroying the ship as she does so.

Narrowly escaping The Fold, Mal and Alina seek to escape for good, using golden pins in Alina’s hair to buy their way across the True Sea to freedom.

Siege & Storm

Siege & Storm is Alina’s fight to really be-rid of The Darkling as she continues to hunt for the rest of the Morozova beasts. It is within this book that Alina learns The Darkling’s powers have changed since he was left at the mercy of the Volcra and he can now create Volcra-like creatures that can only be killed if Alina uses her power is a very specific form called The Cut. She and Mal are found and kidnapped by The Darkling and taken aboard a ship owned by the infamous pirate, Sturmhond, and his crew. The pirates have been hired and instructed by The Darkling to go into the icy northern seas to hunt for Rusalye, a dragon like sea serpent said to be the next amplifier.

After the dragon is caught, The Darkling is overthrown by Sturmhond and they are able to escape his grasp. Sturmhond then has one of his Fabrikators make a cuff out of the scales for Alina. The group then make their way back across the Fold and into Ravka, crashing near where the First Army has made camp. It is here that Sturmhond reveals himself to actually be Prince Nikolai Lantsov, the rumored bastard of the throne. Having achieved Saint status, it is a long journey back home to the castle for Alina, Mal, and Nikolai – who keeps saying that a marriage alliance between himself and Alina would be a wonderful thing and unite the First and Second (Grisha) armies. Clearly this is where Mal does not approve of Nikolai.

Returning to the capital ends up being not as easy as Nikolai planned, his elder brother being more determined to hold the throne than expected. Vasily’s true intentions come out during Nikolai’s birthday as he has made a deal to relax security posts around the nation of Fjerda and therefore giving The Darkling – who has been hiding there – the perfect moment to attack. Even as the two princes fight, The Darkling attacks, ruining any chance they had at fighting him off.

Nikolai escapes with the few people he can, while Alina stays behind to fight The Darkling and protect the remaining Grisha, things come to an explosive face-off that results in Alina using a power called merzost. While saving far more people than she could otherwise, merzost drains her of the majority of her power and turns her white. The loss of power weakens her body greatly and she is brought, along with other Grisha, underground to the White Cathedral where a cult-like leader known as the Apparat also holds his followers.

Ruin & Rising

The final book, we follow Alina on her hunt for the firebird as she seeks out revenge on the Darkling and hopes to restore the world alongside Nikolai, Mal, and a handful of other Grisha who escaped the attack. The hunt is a lot of walking around aimlessly on Alina’s part once she finally escapes the overbearing Apparat. At one point in their journey, The Darkling attacks the group and, as revenge for rescuing Alina, he uses merzost to infect Nikolai from the inside out, turning him into a Volcra-like creature himself.

In the aftermath, Nikolai is rushed back into uniform and brought to the remnants of Ravka’s First Army. He is able to take control and finally return to Os Alta to claim the throne, while a story spreads that he had been kidnapped and tortured by the Darkling. This is used to explain the dark scars on each of his fingers – actually marks left from where his talons had grown. After the rest escape, they make a plan to destroy The Darkling.

Alina and her group travel to the Fold to face The Darkling, but Alina knows she can’t defeat him without all three amplifiers. To be blunt here, I honestly can’t remember when, but at one point Alina realizes that the firebird is actually Mal and he would need to die for her to have the third amplifier. He convinces her to kill him and Alina’s power leaves her to manifest in any normal person surrounding her (think like how Buffy made a bunch of other Slayers at the end of the the show). While The Darkling is pissed that he no longer has his Sun Summoner, Alina uses the same knife she killed Mal with to kill The Darkling.

The new Sun Summoners destroy the Fold and Nikolai returns to normal at the death of The Darkling. Mal is brought back to life by two Heartrenders and Alina denies Nikolai’s final alliance proposal before “faking her death” and running away with Mal to live happily ever after while Nikolai – who everyone believes to have been tourtured and scarred by The Darkling – assumes the throne of Ravka.

So there you have it. You can also find more in depth information on as they did a Grisha reread not too long ago.

The most important information about Nikolai can also be found on the Grishaverse Wiki page but I think I got most of the important details in there.

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SERIES WRAP UP: The Grisha Trilogy

After about three years, I’ve finally finished reading Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy. I’ll start this post with a quick review of Ruin & Rising and then move onto an over-all review of the series. WARNING: This will contain spoilers.

Ruin & Rising

Ruin & Rising (Henry Holt & Co., 442 pages) ISBN: 9780805094619

The Story

In the last book of The Grisha Trilogy, we follow Alina on her hunt for the firebird as she seeks out revenge on the Darkling and hopes to restore the world alongside Nikolai and Mal. As a result, much of the story reads like The Hobbit, meaning there is a lot of walking around aimlessly. After finally escaping from the Apparat’s overbearing control – an opening that felt far longer than it really was – Alina and her small band of Grisha go out into the world and nearly get themselves killed a number of different ways. By the time Nikolai finally shows up – only to be wrenched away not long after – I was relieved to get to the action that ended up being short lived anyway as the walking aimlessly continued.

The Characters

God Alina was annoying in this book. I honestly don’t know who was worse, Mal or Alina. Their playing around each other the whole time was more tiring to read than Jim courting Pam in The Office or Jake and Amy in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I was basically yelling – pardon my language – “Oh shut up and fuck already” at my book. A sad note for me since I enjoyed both of them in the previous two books.

The Darkling, too, felt a little anti-climactic this time around. It probably doesn’t help that I keep comparing him to Kylo Ren but still. He was so almighty and powerful the last times we saw him that having him just kinda die didn’t feel like the death of an antagonist. A point made more clear by the fact that we didn’t really have an antagonist in this final chapter. With Aleksander “redeemed” in Alina’s eyes and the Apparat non-existent after the gang left the underground church, there wasn’t really a bad guy? Maybe that’s just my view.

Lastly I want to talk about my poor, sweet Nikolai. My prince that deserved far better. His presence in the story was a small blip that just pushed Alina towards power. Possessed by the Darkling’s power and turned inside out, I honestly think Nikolai was the one who got the shortest end of the stick by the time everything was all done. He deserved so much better and I hope he gets the story he deserves in the rumored spin-off series.

Conclusion ★★★★

Now I know it looks confusing that I had so many issues with this book, but at the same time, I enjoyed the final epilogue. No I didn’t like Mal and no I wasn’t a huge fan of Alina’s by the end of things, but knowing that she was safe and happy and helping the children learn and be loved in home that used to run on fear got to me. So yes, I had problems, but I felt something by the end. And even though he wasn’t around for most of it, Nikolai adds a star to the rating for just being there.

The Grisha Trilogy Wrap-Up


I started reading this series years ago because it was one of those YA series that came out when I felt too high and mighty about my reading preferences to go near it. By the time I picked it up again, it had reached this level of fandom standard for YA and I figured it was time to give it a try.

I loved the first book because of how different it was from most YA fantasy novel’s I’d read, at least in terms of how the magic worked and the world building. I enjoyed the characters and how the Darkling’s dialogue was so cleverly twisted that I still can’t help but love him despite how terrible he is.

Book two took a longer time to get through. One, because of my realization of how close the new Star Wars films are to the characterization of Alina and the Darkling (being Rey and Kylo Ren respectively). I know the books were written well before Disney even bought the franchise, but even now, Siege and Storm is so close to The Last Jedi I’ve begun to wonder if they bought the option for it for the sake of not getting sued (like what Darren Aronofsky did with Perfect Blue when making Black Swan so he could use full sequence recreations without getting ripped apart for “theft”). Regardless though, this was the book where I really started disliking Mal, but fell head over heals for Nikolai. And let’s be real here, he made the story.

The last book, as mentioned above, I felt conflicted over. Alina was just as obnoxious as Mal was and there wasn’t really an antagonist. However, the ending fit wonderfully. I don’t think I would have ended up enjoying Alina marrying Nikolai if it actually happened after her behaviour in Ruin and Rising. Nikolai deserves more than someone who is selfish in a way that’s similar to Katniss in Hunger Games as she struggles with the Peeta vs Gale debate (although for Alina it’s a tug-of-war match over wanting Mal but not wanting him to be with someone else). So no, I didn’t like Alina’s arc in the end, but I loved the ending because of everyone else. Sure, no one came out without their losses, but everyone ended up safe, which is what matters. I care so much for the side characters, that my dislike of Alina is irrelevant. Not my favourite series, but one of my favourite worlds for sure.