Title: Ruthless Gods
Author: Emily A. Duncan
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: ebook – ARC
Page Count: 432
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Notable Notables: Dark, gothic atmosphere with no punches pulled; villain romance; diverse LGBTQA+ cast
Recommended Readers: Fans of the first book and cosmic horror enthusiasts
Thank you, NetGalley and the publisher, for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
I absolutely fell in love with Wicked Saints, the first book in the Something Dark and Holy trilogy by Emily A. Duncan. It connected with me on a level that I can’t fully explain; all I know is, it was one of those rare books where I read the ARC and went out to buy the published version that very same day.
Needless to say, I have been eagerly awaiting the sequel, Ruthless Gods, and was overjoyed to receive an ARC for it. I’m a bit disappointed to say that it didn’t resonate with me as strongly as its predecessor did. Its strong points came through splendidly, but its low points were detracting and, in some cases, downright annoying.
Those strong points take the form of Duncan’s creepy, weird, and morbid world-building. I am still as enamored with this Eastern European-inspired world that’s full of saints, gods who may or may not be gods, blood magic, and magic that’s decidedly other. I love how the lines dividing them all began to blur until they were indistinguishable. Duncan’s descriptions of horror—body, cosmic, and bloody—came through here as even more rich and liberal than in her past book. Every single interaction with Velyos and the Kalyazi witch Pelageya left me filled with delight, and watching how our main characters’ magic has each shifted toward something monstrous was equal parts exciting and worrisome.
The other reason for the high rating, however, goes to one character in particular: Serefin Meleski. He was easily my favorite character in Wicked Saints, and that sentiment is the same here—with a notable difference. I was fully invested in his journey, trials, and character arc more than I was in any of the others. In fact, Serefin’s poor back must be close to breaking because my boy carried this entire novel by himself, so his exhaustion through the entirety of the book comes as no surprise.
Without giving away spoilers, Serefin has a time of it, and his self-deprecating humor is put to the test like never before. I would like to wrap him in a blanket and give him something warm to drink that’s not alcohol, but I’m pretty sure Kacper and Ostyia beat me to the idea and were first to be rejected. These three have a relationship that I came to fully appreciate here, and I support them wholeheartedly.
If those were some of the highs, then what were some of the lows?
Right off the bat, it’s Nadya and Malachiasz’s relationship. I didn’t fully get it in Wicked Saints until the end, and I was so excited because Ruthless Gods seemed to be following a path for them that I understood and was eager for. Nadya going underground into the Salt Mines to confront him when he’s in full Black Vulture mode was my brand. It was the actual villain/monster/heroine romance I had sorely missed through nearly the entirety of Wicked Saints. Malachiasz chose power over Nadya! Her love and his attraction to her weren’t enough compared to the power he could obtain! He’s fully a monster and no longer completely human and maybe a god! But something in him recognizes her and still wants her! But the power!
The way the Black Vulture was toying with her, trying to learn her secrets and why she is important to him was so good. How Nadya was toeing the line between her feelings for him and the horror he had become, how she was trying to get what she wanted out of him while making sure he stayed interested enough to not kill her, how she strategically used his name as a weapon—it was all so good.
And then it was over.
Then Malachiasz, the anxious, nervous boy who picks at the skin around his fingers because he’s so anxious and nervous was back. The troubled boy who’s a monster but also such a tragic boy was back. The boy who Nadya loves but he betrayed her, and she should keep her distance but she just can’t because this poor foolish monstrous boy was back. And I was never allowed a moment in Nadya’s POV to forget it.
I had to realize that I just don’t understand how Duncan chooses to write Malachiasz. I never know why she chooses to have him act kind of like his Black Vulture persona—a dark and in control kind of person—and when she’s going to have him be a nervous wreck who flinches for the third time as Nadya calls him a monster or reminds him that he betrayed her. I just do not get it. And I don’t get their romantic beats at all. One second Nadya’s thinking to herself how she’s going to betray him this time, how horrific he’s become, how she should stay away from him, how nothing is forgiven, how everything between them has been doomed from the start—and then in the next scene, they’re tracing each other’s palms tenderly or she’s letting him sleep beside her because it’s the only time he can, or they’re making out after he’s pulled her from a pool of blood. And fam, I just don’t get it. Why am I getting this soft boy? I don’t want it. Put him back how he was, with the iron claws and the blatantly unrepentant attitude and the inclination to kill.
What’s tragic about this situation is I truly like Nadya’s character and her journey she’s on. Any time Nadya struggled with being rejected by her gods or was trying to figure out the true source of her magic, I was on board. Any time she was pushing herself toward her goal no matter the consequences, I was rooting for her. But it seemed like no matter what she was doing or reaching for, her thoughts inevitably turned to Malachiasz and making all of her actions, her thoughts, her being about him—and none of it was anything new. It got to the point where I dreaded reading Nadya’s chapters because I knew I was just going to go around in circles with her about her messed up feelings for Malachiasz for the twentieth time. And I don’t care about Nadya and her nervous boy.
I care about Nadya and the Black Vulture. I care about the actual pining of this monster—in form and deed—who doesn’t want or fully grasp his desire for her, claiming it’s about the power she possesses and nothing else. I care about this saintly girl who has darkness of her own that’s inevitably drawn to his while being revolted by what he’s chosen to become. That’s the relationship I want to sink my teeth into. Not this same dance that Malachiasz did in Wicked Saints of, “Well, I’m just going to act pitiful, so she’ll trust me again. It’s me, but it’s not.” It was not needed. Nadya already needed him to come with her, was already suspicious of him (though that didn’t matter), so this act was redundant and frankly painful to read about. It made me feel like I was reading Wicked Saints all over again, but it wasn’t as good for me because I expected more.
Now, the increasingly tangled relationship between Serefin and Malachiasz? I could’ve used so much more of that. The nature of their relationship shifted in such a small yet significant way that I felt like a puzzle piece found itself in the right place at last, and it was so satisfying to experience. I bought Serefin’s position toward Malachiasz so much more than Nadya’s. I was instead begging Nadya to please find a purpose outside of him, any purpose. I didn’t care. Just something else.
I’m so thankful she had Rashid and Parijahan to talk to, even though their conversations with her became about Malachiasz more times than I care to remember. In fact, I was disappointed that these two took more of a backseat once Malachiasz returned to the narrative. These two Akolans intrigue me so much more, and I am increasingly concerned about Parijahan and the choices she will make, what her role in all of this will be.
Kostya was also a worthy addition that I’m glad Duncan brought back and didn’t forget about, even though I also wasn’t surprised about certain story events surrounding him. I loved that Nadya and Kostya still cared about each other as best friends even though they were no longer on the same page and never could be again. Each of them experienced life-changing and traumatic events that shifted their views on the world and each other, and neither of them could ever fully understand what the other had been through. Though their interactions were rocky and painful, I enjoyed reading about them because of how real they felt as these two friends fought to reconcile their memories of how they used to be to the reality of who they’ve each become.
Another character was introduced that I did also like, but I’m not really sure at all why she’s here besides prophecy shenanigans. Or why she so willingly went along with Serefin on his journey when he’s the enemy king. It’s not due to romance at least, and I am looking forward to learning more about her. I just thought the whole thing was a bit too easy.
And okay, fine, I’ll go ahead and say it. There wasn’t nearly as much action or blood magic usage in this book, and frankly, I missed it real, real bad.
Then there’s the forest. I was so ready for each of our characters’ paths to collide in this forest that was full of ancient malice, cosmic horror, and monsters your mind could barely perceive waiting to hunt and kill you. I saw Serefin visit it in his head, heard Nadya recount tales of it, so once we got there, I was thinking it was going to get a bit nuts.
To my surprise, Duncan barely describes the forest at all beyond it being alive and our heroes being trapped to wander inside it. At one point, a few of them are hunted by an ill omen, but before I can “see” this monster, the book cuts away to another character who didn’t see it, and I later learn that Nadya somehow killed it with her magic off-screen. That was a huge let-down because Duncan demonstrates that she can describe these kinds of things well when she chooses to; instead, I got more page time dedicated to Nadya and Malachiasz’s nonsensical relationship.
However, once we all got to our final destination, the ending ignited and soared, even though one particular character and their willful ignorance made them look like a complete fool, but whatever. Once again, I was genuinely surprised by certain events, and I look forward to the ever-changing states (and continued suffering) of Serefin and Nadya and all their friends. Also, getting answers. I certainly learned things about Velyos and the other beings compared to the canonical twenty gods, but so many more questions got opened up.
Even though Ruthless Gods suffered from a bit of second-book slump for me—with the rating probably being closer to 3.5 than 4, but rounding is hard—it was mostly because of a romantic relationship I don’t care for or understand (but still hope to one day). The actual plot is still a hit for me, the world-building and descriptions sing to my soul, and I’m still highly invested in most of the characters in this trilogy. I still love Wicked Saints, and I hope I will love the third book just as much if not more.
If anything, at least Serefin will be there! I’m not kidding. I love that guy. I would follow him to the ends of the earth and all the way to hell and back. For the comedy and the drama.