Wicked Saints by Emily A Duncan
★★★★★ | 2019 release
We are all monsters, Nadya. Some of us just hide it better than others.
It’s really been a while since I’ve fallen head-over-heels for a fantasy series in this obsessive, letting-it-take-over-my-time-for-a-week way, and Wicked Saints did that for me. I had one or two problems, yes, but overall, I was so completely engrossed in this novel and in this world.
→ worldly worldbuilding ←
Okay, so, this is Russian-inspired fantasy, with blood mages, and also clerics. The Kalyazi can contact gods, sometimes, and these people consider Tranavian blood magic to be unholy. This has caused a war. The characters in this book are on both sides of that war; indeed, our two POVs are essentially the strongest Tranavian character and the strongest Kalyazi character. Something I loved about this was the way in which divinity becomes both a question and a force within the book: characters are motivated by religion, but the story does not become one entirely about a fight for religion.
I think what got to me about this world is just how expansive it feels. Wicked Saints does an excellent job juggling many moving parts in the wheel of both characters and world. It feels expansive in the way good urban fantasy like The Infernal Devices feels expansive: you’re juggling a great deal of side characters without points of view but you’re intrigued to see more about almost every one.
→ plot and structure and all that ←
The plot doesn’t twist and turns too much in the first half, and is indeed a bit oddly structured; to use film language, the first act is a bit long, meaning the narrative as a whole feels as if it’s taking a while to actually get going. It was the rest of the novel that had me completely hooked. The final conflict had me absolutely screaming.
→ characterization blah blah blah ←
in other words: sign me the FUCK up 👌👀👌👀👌👀👌👀👌👀 good shit go౦ԁ sHit👌 thats ✔ some good👌👌shit right👌👌th 👌 ere👌👌👌 right✔there ✔✔if i do ƽaү so my selｆ 💯 i say so 💯 thats what im talking about right there right there (chorus: ʳᶦᵍʰᵗ ᵗʰᵉʳᵉ) mMMMMᎷМ💯 👌👌 👌НO0ОଠＯOOＯOОଠଠOoooᵒᵒᵒᵒᵒᵒᵒᵒᵒ👌 👌👌 👌 💯 👌 👀 👀 👀 👌👌Good shit
This book is told via two points of view:
→Nadya Lapteva, a mage who can speak to all of the gods. Currently coming into her power.
→Serefin Meleski, a blood mage prince, bi icon and honestly my favorite character. This character grew on me a lot: I loved seeing him develop.
There is also a ridiculously good cast of other primary characters, including:
→Malachiasz, a blood mage looking for a home in the world. The villainy love interest.
→Anna, Nadya’s helper and trainer
→Parijahan, an Akolan who committed murder to avenge her sister. my other favorite.
→Rashid, another Akolan who allies with the group.
→Ostyia, Serefin’s partner-in-crime and professional murder lesbian. my OTHER other favorite.
→Kacper, Serefin’s other partner-in-crime. possible love interest to one character… maybe?
→ let’s talk about that romance ←
So. Honestly. One of the best parts of Wicked Saints is that this is one of the best uses of enemies to lovers I have seen in years and years. And I think I get why it wasn’t always quite as popular with others reviewers; the romance, at times, feels like the general villain love interest dynamic we have all seen so many times before, in that Malachiasz is Bad But Has Hidden Depths. Yes, I get it. I also genuinely don’t hate this trope as long as it’s not good girl x bad boy. (You can read this: as long as they both are kind of evil it’s fine.)
It’s just that the overall arc of the burgeoning relationship here is just… it’s so tense, but also has so much genuine growing care, and I’m a slut for that. Their actual dynamic in the second half of the book is just… it’s tender, okay?
→ cliches, tropes, and derivativeness ←
The major negative / positive / okay certainly a fact about this book is something that really didn’t affect my actual reading experience, but has been sort of bugging me in the weeks past, and that is the fact that this has a lot of similarities to the Grisha Trilogy. This was first pointed out by other readers, but the more it’s pointed out, the more I can’t help but notice the similarities: the Russian-inspired world, the evil love interest, and the structural similarities in the reveal of the love interest’s powers.
I think at some point we should probably have a conversation about degrees of inspiration and how narratives, in their basic construct, will almost always take thematic inspiration from other sources. The question comes in where our personal lines are between thematic inspiration and essential fanfiction that cannot be divorced from its inspiration. For me, it was not a struggle to read these characters as individuals separate from their possible inspiration; in fact, I didn’t even notice until I’d already read the book. These characters all feel strongly characterized on their own; Nadya does not share a backstory with Alina or anything along those lines. (Had I seen this as fanfiction, I would have hated it; I absolutely hate the Alina/Darkling ship. Sorry.)
I also just frankly… think this is a whole lot better than the Grisha trilogy? I mean, I found Grisha too poorly written to be enjoyable (Leigh Bardugo’s later Six of Crows is a huge improvement on this front), with character work that got shoddy in places. I think if you were to look at the two books comparatively, you can almost read Nadya’s character arc around magic as a direct interplay with magic in the Grisha series: for her, gaining more power is not a descent into darkness in the same way.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I think this is a bigger conversation than just this book.
→ what i’d like from the sequel ←
This was a 4 1/2 star read for me, which means I genuinely really enjoyed my experience and was absolutely addicted. But also that there are things I would like more and less of. For the sequel: more of that juicy side character development. I am ready for Parijahan and Ostyia to be on every single page. But generally, I want to get a little more of Nadya’s humanity. I liked her characterization here fine, but I definitely felt there were moments in which she lacked agency in her own story. I would like a villain love story where she can still kick the love interest’s ass, and the ending to this book certainly made me optimistic on this point. The point is, I’m optimistic, and excited as fuck to see where this story goes.
TW: self harm imagery (blood magic.), torture, parental abuse.
✨Arc received from the publisher via Netgalley for an honest review.