A girl who can speak to gods must save her people without destroying herself.
A prince in danger must decide who to trust.
A boy with a monstrous secret waits in the wings.
Together, they must assassinate the king and stop the war.
In a centuries-long war where beauty and brutality meet, their three paths entwine in a shadowy world of spilled blood and mysterious saints, where a forbidden romance threatens to tip the scales between dark and light. Wicked Saints is the thrilling start to Emily A. Duncan’s devastatingly Gothic Something Dark and Holy trilogy…
Ah yes, the place I truly dwell, a damp and cold eternity of endless disappointment.
Fine. I’m just being dramatic (again). But seriously—being this sensitive is really inconvenient. Your most anticipated book of the year doesn’t live up to your expectations and you have to cancel your plans for the day to be angry about it.
So, what’s this book about?
For a century, Kalyazin and Tranavia bled great gouts of men into a holy war that served no greater cause than one country’s fear, and one empire’s hubris.
Nadya, a Kalyazi cleric who can commune with an entire pantheon of gods, is training in secrecy in the holy mountains by priests who sought to wield the power that sheltered inside her into the one thing that could save Kalyazin from sinking to its knees. But a sudden Tranavian attack on the monastery sends Nadya’s destiny spilling out into the air. All this mayhem is like blood in the water, and Nadya isn’t the only one swimming in it: Serefin, the High prince of Tranavia and a powerful blood mage, has scant interest in anything unless it involves alcohol but now finds himself forced to constantly look about him in trepidation for those who might be in a position to oppose his succession, including his father, the king. And there’s Malachiasz, a Tranavian defector whose real intentions are shrouded in secrecy and with whom Nadya forms a reluctant alliance while they’re both on the run from the Tranavian soldiers.
Nadya soon discovers that unknown forces are scheming to carve a new avenue to power and fulfilling her destiny of helping the gods reclaim their hold on the world might prove harder than she’d thought.
“We’re all monsters, Nadya,” Malachiasz said, his voice gaining a few tangled chords of chaos. “Some of us just hide it better than others.”
Reading the first couple of chapters, I was intrigued by Wicked Saints’ twining of religion, politics and magic, and the questions it hints at, but, sadly, what tatters remained of that interest quickly deserted me as the story progressed.
I expected more from this book than a few sequences of faintly interesting situations and a setting that is built more from analogues than any real sense of originality, a little more than a scaffolding made of concepts. The political exposition and the magic system also reads so messily, especially towards the end when suddenly what little logic used to belong to the story seems to have remained behind, like luggage on a dock.(Edit: Jewish reviewers have also pointed out the extremely troubling instances of egregious antisemitism in this book, and considering the author’s recently reported history of antisemitism, we should all have cause to worry. I cannot speak personally to these problematic elements since I am not Jewish, but I highly recommend you read a review by a Jewish reader.)
I was also—and I cannot overstate the extent to which this eid true—explosively bored. Yes. Tensions steadily rise up. Portents stir. Dark, deathlike magic threatens to devour everything it touches. But nothing much comes of any of it until the final page when the narrative bends towards a massively anticlimactic showdown that left me wishing I had spent my time doing literally anything else.
I saw a lot of people evoke how similar this book was to The Grisha Trilogy, and I have to agree. Quite frankly, it felt like an uninspired rip-off. At least the plot turnings in Shadow and Bone are compelling because Bardugo spends so much time keeping us pressed close to the minds and hearts of her characters, ensuring that we care about them long before whatever peril comes for them. That isn’t the case with this book at all. I couldn’t connect with any of the characters. There were some minor characters and relationships I wish had been focused on instead of others: Rashid and Parijahan—Malachiasz’s companions and the only POC in the story as far as we know—make brief appearances but they never truly step wholly into the page and we never really get much chance for them to settle into being multi-dimensional, or find out what their revenge agenda is. You know, another day, another breathtaking case of a white author tokenizing characters of color.
But this is not the only way that Wicked Saints doesn’t commit to its potential. The premise of the story led me to believe it wouldn’t adhere to genre conventions, clichés and staples, which meant I was really dispirited when it did. Wicked Saints plays the enemies-to-lovers romance without any attempt at subversion. In short, I couldn’t give a tuppenny damn about Nadya and Malachiasz‘s relationship. For many reasons, but chief of which is this: the fact that this book adheres to the old hoary trope of “reducing its female character to her love interest”.
This felt like Malachiasz’s story with Nadya merely a minor player in the drama of her own life. I was startled by how, sometimes, she wasn’t even the focus of the story within her own POVs. In the beginning, we learn that Nadya had grown up in a monastery, trained in the hope that she’d prove to be a weapon against Kalyazin’s enemies. The face of the world was long kept veiled from her and I was really excited to see her take possession of her destiny and determine the path of her own life, but, in the end, it seemed she had not learned how to hold another shape other than what others dictated for her. Then Malachiasz drops out of nowhere, like an impossible vision, and makes Nadya immediately buckle under his—broodingly attractive—stare, prompting her apparently to immediately take leave of all her senses as well as any depth to her character. (The appropriate response is usually an eye roll.)
I’ve read a staggering number of excellent fantasy books recently with lady leads that had their own agency on full display—from Arden’s Winternight Trilogy to Novak’s Spinning Silver to Kuang’s The Poppy War—and I think it’s done things to my head because I now can’t settle for anything less extraordinary. I certainly don’t deny the allure of stories where a shadowy figure is devoted, unrepentantly and without respite, to the female protagonist and her innocent mystique—but here’s the thing: female characters can have strong, compelling narratives without preventing them from experiencing love. It’s maddening when books imply, unconsciously or otherwise, that women can either have a romantic interest or a personality, while ignoring the fact women are perfectly capable of possessing both, thank you very much. I kept waiting and waiting for the author to twist the trope into something original or at least productive, but the unexpected never once arrives.
I hope the events of the sequel will smooth out this rough patch, but I honestly don’t care enough to find out.
TW: self-harm and parental abuse.
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