Title: Wicked Saints
Author: Emily A. Duncan
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Page Count: 385
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Notable Notables: Dark, gothic atmosphere with no punches pulled, villain romance, diverse cast
Recommended Readers: No moral purists allowed
Thank you, NetGalley and the publisher, for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Before we get started, note that Duncan used 99% real Eastern European names within her novel, and that is absolutely awesome that she didn’t dilute these names and the culture just because the names are “hard to pronounce.” More like, a lot of us aren’t used to them because of how often Western societies have forced people with these names to change them, so I’m very happy to see them here. For those curious, Duncan uploaded a handy pronunciation guide on her Twitter that I absolutely referenced while reading.
The countries Kalyazin and Tranavia have been locked in a holy war for centuries. On one side are clerics who derive their magic from praying to their patron deity; on the other side are blood mages who have rejected the gods. As the war shifts in Tranavia’s favor, Nadezhda “Nadya” Lapteva finds she’s the last cleric left in Kalyazin, but instead of only hearing the voice of her patron goddess, she hears all of them, an unheard of feat. When her monastery is attacked by the High Prince of Tranavia, she is forced to flee, becoming entangled in a plot with two foreign Akolans and a rogue Tranavian that could turn the tide of the war.
Let’s be frank right now: Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan is definitely not a book for everyone—but it’s an absolute gift and love letter to me, and that’s really all I care about.
I loved this ARC so much that even though I was only 77% through it, I ran out and bought an official copy, and I have absolutely no regrets in doing so. (And yes, that cover is even more beautiful in person; Duncan struck gold.)
From the first chapter, I was enraptured with this dark and bloody atmosphere that Duncan has crafted. (And yes, this book is consistently bloody, so just be aware and take care of yourself, okay?) Duncan’s prose successfully captures that delicate balance between the holy and the profane that is a constant theme throughout. Her magic systems on both sides of the war are endlessly fascinating, opening up a lot of questions about where magic actually comes from, who is capable of wielding it, and why. And of course, there’s the ultimate question: what makes a monster?
From holy energy to bloody spellbooks and all the way up to cosmic forces and eldritch horrors, this magic system is one that I finally feel is fleshed out with a full spectrum of both known and unknown. There are rules, and there are drawbacks to using these powers, but there’s also a healthy amount of questioning what the true face of magic is as well as the line between mortal and immortal. Even after finishing the book, I still have a ton of questions, but I’m glad about that because there’s still so much of the journey to go.
Outside of the world and the magic system, the characters were all awesome, fleshed out, and unique. The dialogue here is some of the freshest I’ve seen in awhile, taking me off guard with delight so many times; I haven’t felt this way about dialogue in a book since Six of Crows, if I’m being honest.
I love Nadya. She’s so aware of her shortcomings but also about what her calling is. However, she doesn’t spend the whole book bemoaning her fate or wallowing in her inadequacies. She presses on and on, even when her heart and mind are consistently torn in different directions, even as her faith is shaken. Are those struggles a part of her? Yes, but she’s also here to do a job, and she’s going to do whatever she can to see it through, or die trying. She can be a suffering martyr later; right now, it’s mission time.
Also, all her different relationships with the gods intrigue me, especially since they all also have their own personalities and quirks. The pantheon and the accounts of the canonized saints that feature at the beginning of every chapter have me endlessly fascinated; that’s how you craft a religion and do some world-building right there.
Then, there’s Serefin Meleski, the High Prince of Tranavia, the true MVP and love of my life. His POV was probably my most favorite to read because his humor and mine understand each other so well. Duncan describes him as “awkward,” but I honestly never saw that. This boy is too sharp and dry-witted to come across as awkward, but that’s just my perception of him. It might be he’s “awkward” because he’s not the best at social graces anymore since he’s been a wartime prodigy more than he’s been a courtly prince, and I am totally fine with that.
If Nadya is the protagonist, then obviously we’re supposed to view Serefin and his trusted lieutenants, Kacper and Ostyia, as the antagonists. They’re the enemy forces, after all. But I loved how Duncan showed how perceptions about right and wrong actually change depending on whose head you’re in. If Serefin’s casual stepping around dispatched Kalyazi priests and priestesses while having a conversation with his friends seems crass and cold, it’s because we’re finally seeing war treated by characters with the one-sided viewpoint we all have. As Serefin himself says, he doesn’t care about Kalyazi citizens; he cares about Tranavians, and gosh, that shouldn’t be such a breath of fresh air for an antagonist to have, yet here we are.
And then there’s Malachiasz Czechowicz, the curveball, the blindside. I went all over the place with this one, much like Nadya did. I feel like my confusion and uncertainty about him reflects Nadya’s own, and I’m happy that’s the case because as much as I love the obvious villain-playing-the-heroine stuff, I love when even I get surprised about how everything turns out. While I don’t think the romance here reached the Darkling/Alina heights in pure sexiness, I also recognize that Malachiasz is a different breed of villain from the Darkling. And with that ending, I’m dying to go back and reread everything with a different lens.
But on the romance note, I do wish things with Nadya and Malachiasz had taken a darker turn because I’ve definitely read better enemies-to-lovers/villain romances. And I definitely needed Duncan to cool it with the whole describing him as “a boy who is the ultimate monster” and sentiments of that nature because we really didn’t see him commit a whole lot of monstrous acts to warrant the constant reminder.
But once again, that ending also did so much for me. It makes me incredibly excited for the next two books. I feel like Duncan is playing a long ballgame, and I cannot wait to see where it’s going to go, because I honestly have no idea. Like Nadya, I don’t fully understand Malachiasz’s history and motivations, and isn’t that novel?
I’m also excited to see just why and how he’s achieved what makes him so monstrous, rather than just hearing about it, but I’m confident that we’ll get there now.
I also loved, loved, loved Anna, Parijahan, and Rashid; like Ostyia and Kacper, I hope they play even larger roles moving forward because every time they were on a page, they shined. Everyone is just so interesting, with their own little quirks, and Ostyia especially still has so many more girls to flirt with.
But my hat is off to Pelageya, who is my unsettling, half-mad witch trope that I unabashedly adore, and I am so endlessly intrigued with her prophecy, especially since there are so many things that are unclear about it, and we’re also missing a key player. I truly haven’t been this fascinated with a prophecy given by a witch since Angela in Eragon, who was also one of my favorites of that series.
Also, so much happened with that ending that I’m still unpacking it. I still need Kostya’s fate to be addressed, both with what happened to him and the two characters it involves because that seems incredibly important, but I also recognize that there was no time or place to do that yet. But I think it’ll definitely be addressed in the next book, given how the lines between the characters have all been redrawn.
So yes, while there are definitely flaws with Wicked Saints and some things I wish had been done better or more to my tastes, overall, the experience was an incredible one. The settings were interesting, the world-building unbelievably strong, the scenes full of action and interesting dialogue, and the characters were instant favorites. (And yeah, the edgelord in me revels at the violence and the blood, the blood! Oh my God, there’s so much blood!)
The murkiness between good and evil, right and wrong, and character motivations will always warm me to a book, and Wicked Saints has it all in spades. I’m so excited for the other books and to see how my questions are answered about the true nature of magic, the pantheon, and what these characters are able to accomplish.
So, Emily Duncan, I will gladly continue to follow you into the dark, no torn loyalties or crisis of faith required.