Rule of Wolves is a book that reads less like a pack of wolves growling at succession and more like a group of super zoomy dogs at a park after winter. The plot runs around, the characters rarely stay still, and you’re left unsure of whose lead to follow, but like, great for these dogs, honestly, they’re just like, really, happy to be here.
The seventh book in the Grishaverse series and the follow-up novel to King of Scars, Rule of Wolves trails after young King Nikolai in his pursuit of peace, General Zoya as she strives to protect the Grisha, and the spy Nina Zenik as she attempts to gather information from inside the belly of the beast. There are other characters that have their own manipulations and agencies, namely the Darkling, newly returned from the dead, and Mayu Kir-Kaat, the imposter Shu princess.
So, overall, there’s just a lot of really adorable puppies rolling around in the plot.
This is a difficult book to summarize, mostly because Bardugo is pulling together a story seven books in the making. There are two countries fully at war, and another three with skin in the game on either side. Not to mention there are a half dozen other factions, groups, and congregations all vying for power and wielding influence over the various royals engaged in the larger political conflict. The two main aggressors are Ravka and Fjerda, at war because of grievous moral differences moreso than a desire for wealth or resources. Ravka has given the magical Grisha a place in their society, while Fjerda vilipends their existence as witches and exterminates them whenever they are found out. Because this overarching conflict is one of sanctimonious righteousness, it is very easy to pick sides since one country is literally killing and torturing people for intrinsic existential traits.
Over the course of the book, Nikolai constantly struggles to acquire the resources needed to fight Fjerda’s larger, more technically advanced army, which leads to a lot of running around the continent. His general is forced to travel in his wake, cleaning up his messes and acting as his muscle. While Ravka has placed its hope in the strength of its Grisha corps, Fjerda has decided to develop tanks and biochemical weapons. It’s clear that Nikolai is in trouble. He goes to Shu Han, he goes to Ketterdam, he associates with the Novi Zem across the ocean, all in the hope of getting some kind of weapon to fight against Fjerda. It all seems like a lot for a royal sovereign, but this is Nikolai. What do we expect from one of Bardugo’s (many) charming puppies rogues?
The political intrigue of King of Scars carries over into Rule of Wolves, but this time the schemes moves from Ravka’s court to Djerholm in Fjerda. As Nina Zenik poses as an unassuming handmaiden, her ward, Hanne Brum, is thrown into the Heartspring, where young, eligible noblewomen are presented to upper society. Hanne; a tall, broad, and absolutely devastatingly butch babe, catches the eye of Fjerda’s sickly Prince Rasmus, and Nina takes full advantage of their familiarity to further her own agenda. Bummer that she’s in love with Hanne, Hanne’s in love with her, and they’re both being coy about it. I would like them to kiss, ty.
But it’s puppy love, after all, and it’ll get there.
I’ll fully admit that it took me about a third of the way through to realize what exactly Bardugo was doing with this book and, in fact, the entire duology. Her works in the Grishaverse span Young Adult (the Shadow & Bone trilogy), the ever-dubious New Adult (Six of Crows duology), and now this set of books, which seems to have been written firmly with an Adult audience in mind. So you’ll have to forgive me for literally reading up to page 150 before I had my lightbulb moment. Now, after all those experiments, audiences, and short stories, Bardugo is writing epic fantasy.
Rule of Wolves is difficult to pin down because it takes the original young adult concepts of Shadow and Bone and an unrelated rogues gallery from Six of Crows and forces them all to fit into an epic empire fantasy ending. Bardugo is a fantastic writer and has full command of her characters and plot, which is wide-ranging and twisting, and consistently pushes the conflict towards the international and high-concept. While her scope is ever-expanding, she continually brings in her old cast, who often show up to deliver some plucky lines, do a few things, and then disappear. Alina and Mal (from Shadow and Bone), only alluded to in King of Scars, show up for a few key scenes. The Darkling becomes a point of view character, and even the dregs of Ketterdam show up for a little heist, as a treat.
It’s fun, for a while, but when Kaz Brekker appears out of a dirty alley and is immediately ten steps ahead of Nikolai, who is usually ten steps ahead of everyone else, it just immediately reminds me of how much Six of Crows absolutely slapped. And I think that was the real hangup I had while reading this book. It felt too much like the skeleton of an ending, with all the hallmarks of Bardugo’s (again, excellent) writing but without the charm of the last duology. This isn’t totally fair, and taken on its own, Rule of Wolves is a good book. It’s solid, it’s fun, it’s got a fast pace, but at the end of it, it’s too nice. It bites with puppy teeth. It nips instead of gnaws. It curls up next to you instead of looming over you with menace. I wanted to read something wild. I got a border colie.
The scope, I think, got too big, too empirical, too focused on the internal waging of wars to allow me to really connect with the story the way that I was expecting from Bardugo’s work. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed reading Rule of Wolves. The emotions run high, the tension is a nice give and take, but at the end of it…it’s not Tsarpunk, it’s not Ketterdam, it’s just…the kind of Epic Fantasy where the country that has tanks is fighting the country that has magic, wherein every character is clever and witty and beautiful.
This book was, as Bardugo has said in an interview, written to be an ending to the Grishaverse. In one way, I’m grateful that she has come to that point with her work where she can step back and say ‘this is enough’. On the other hand, this duology is weighed down by the desire to make this an ending for every single character that anyone has ever cared about across seven novels. Rule of Wolves is, perhaps, burdened by Bardugo’s desire to give every character the ending they deserve.
There are plenty of good moments in this novel, and Bardugo touches on gender, race, and class struggles throughout her writing and in all of her characters. Everyone is aware of their place and fights against the systems that define them. The romance plots are soft and pining, and the couples you’re rooting for do eventually kiss at the end. The deaths feel important every time, which is not entirely easy to do in a fantasy book about war. Towards the end Hanne has a lovely queer coming out that feels easy to believe and natural in the context of the book. There are a few twists and turns which are all very satisfying and it is, once again, a solid novel, well groomed and nicely behaved.
Rule of Wolves is available from Imprint.
Linda H. Codega is an avid reader, writer, and fan. They specialize in media critique and fandom and they are also a short story author and game designer. Inspired by magical realism, comic books, the silver screen, and social activism, their writing reflects an innate curiosity and a deep caring and investment in media, fandom, and the intersection of social justice and pop culture. Find them on twitter @_linfinn.