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Book Review: Wicked Saints by Emily Duncan

I originally read and reviewed the ARC (courtesy of Wednesday Books via NetGalley, thank you!) of Wicked Saints back in January of 2019.  Now that I’m writing my review of the second book in the trilogy, it makes sense to bring the original review over.

After glancing this morning I noticed that my ‘unpopular opinion’ of the book wasn’t entirely unpopular. The average GoodReads rating only ended up at a 3.7 for Wicked Saints.  Let’s talk about why.

Here is the description from GoodReads:

“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

Let’s start with the plot.  Blood & bones, magic, layers of political intrigue and betrayal. The story is actually a good idea. A Slavic based fantasy where Kalyazin’s last remaining holy cleric is being pursued by the brutal blood mage prince and army general of Tranavia, the opposing country.  The cleric escapes, finds a small group of friends working their way towards the Tranavian king, and decides to join. This is vastly over simplified but the blood mage prince pursues them across the land. The third main character is Malachiasz, an awkward boy who is also a Vulture.  These vultures are crafted monsters that form a separate religious faction in Tranavia, complete with their own leader – The Black Vulture –  who is a king in his own right.

Meanwhile the oh-so-brutal-and-terrible prince Serefin carries the other point of view in the story, as he drinks himself under the table chasing Nadya across the country.  He wants nothing to do with his father or the crown and seems pretty sick of war.  He is summoned home for a totally bullshit selection of a suitor by the King, which gives the others an opening to get close to the palace.  Serefin is immediately painted as a bad guy as he razes Nadya’s monastery in the first chapter, and it is interesting to read his chapters and get into his mind to make our own conclusions about him.

So there you have it: The girl, the boy, and the prince.  Let’s talk about the characters. Nadya has grown up with a cleric’s education in a monastery, so we can forgive her naivety in the real world. To an extent.  Nadya’s face is on the spine and the tagline on the cover is “let them fear her”, so I assume that she’s going to be a strong and formidable character.  That was my first letdown – she takes almost every direction from her Gods, which talk to her incessantly, and makes very few decisions for herself throughout the story.  When she does start making her own decisions they are really only to follow Malachiasz, who doesn’t have to do much and immediately throws Nadya’s entire sense of righteousness into a kerfuffle, showing that her entire sense of being is pretty… weak.  Religious deliberation is definitely an important theme for teens to think about, and this could have been done really well except that it turns into a nauseatingly  repetitive inner monologue where Nadya ends up giving her entire agency over to him.  Whoop-de, kiss a boy and throw out your entire life’s training and everything you believe in, who is fearing this girl?

Malachiasz is obviously up to something from the start, and is Duncan’s favorite character.  This was pretty clear from following her Instagram.   One thing about Duncan’s writing style is that it is repetitive, to the point that I guarantee the average reader is going to be skimming.  He is  a vulture so we know he is tortured, we know he is also awkward, and she repeats these things as well as the word “boy” on practically every single page, to the point where I was just sick of seeing the same modifiers.  There is ONE scene where Duncan actually SHOWS us the extent of the Vulture’s mind-erasing torture, and it hit harder than all the babbling about tortured boys in the world put together.  I did like the scenes where his blood magic was used though, he is a formidable mage.

And Serefin, oh Serefin… my favorite character.  His main function in the book is to blur the lines, to show that he’s not necessarily a bad person for doing his job and duty to his country.  Serefin is just another confused (ish) young man who doesn’t particularly love his lot in life, but what do you do when your father is an abusive and insane king?  Read to find out, but I liked him as a general and as the most powerful blood mage outside of the vultures.  I also liked his banter and the two friends who make up his inner group, they try SO hard to keep him centered.  I also love characters with visual issues, and Serefin is more or less blind on one side with funky vision on the other, and I can relate painfully to that!

So while discussing the characters I threw in my bits about her writing style, the ridiculous romance, Nadya’s pining, and the gray-zone characters.

Some other stylistic points: The book is told in the dual point of view style between Nadya and Serefin.  Their names are used, in full, at each chapter heading…. kind of weird.  There is also a blurb about either saint or a god at each chapter start, unrelated to the story and distracting.  Other than the climate and certain bits of architecture and religious aspects, the world building is not fleshed out at all.  I didn’t feel like I was in Kalyazin OR Tranavia and that’s all I will say about it.

This has been hailed by some as GrishaVerse fan fiction and I really have to agree.  Some noted similarities are Alena the Sun Goddess, the bit where the dark character doesn’t remember his name, torturing prisoners in mines, experiments on people.  Also the journey in general across the country reminds me a bit of Alina and the Darkling, where she really should know better but has no issue turning into something else for the big, dark, bad guy.

All three main characters in Wicked Saints turn into someone, or something different by the end of the book.  The transformations set the base for book two, which I will begrudgingly read.  Even at the end I wanted to smack Nadya for being an incredulous idiot…actually I wanted to smack her hardest right at the end.  I would have also liked to see more of the fighting and intrigue in the parts about the suitor competition, Nadya was learning a lot right then about power and magic.

In summary: A good idea but Duncan’s language fails at the delivery.  I can’t be horrified and rolling my eyes at the same time, although the potential is there.  The pacing of the story is ALL over the place and I think we need more worldbuilding. I hope she takes these criticisms into book two and improves because I think that she can.   I would let my kid read it but probably caution older fantasy readers; there’s just too much eye rolling.  Final thoughts: give our young readers some credit, show not tell, and stop repeating the same phrases over and over.  Thank you again to Wednesday Books for the advanced copy, all opinions are my own

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