Review: 3 Stars

Despite the haunting setting and skillful world-building, Wicked Saints fails to deliver on its essential promises. Three stars for a clumsy, frustrating fantasy.

Book cover: Wicked Saints

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.

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With early reviews almost too good to believe, Wicked Saints was one of my most anticipated new releases of the first half of 2019. I should have known it was too good to be true. *shakes fist at sky* I should have known!

The Good: Worldbuilding and Tone

I absolutely understand what attracts people about this book.

For me, this is a two-star story in a five-star world. Wicked Saints has some of the best Book 1 fantasy worldbuilding you’ll find in YA anywhere. Not once did I feel like the story stopped for an info dump. Duncan starts us right in medias res and trusts her reader to pick up the essentials. The actual set-up is pretty simple: two nations with contrasting beliefs are at war. Duncan keeps her focus on that essential conflict, drawing two societies that live and breathe on the page. This book understands the importance of the bottom of the cultural iceberg, and it pays off. The magic systems, religions, cosmologies, and political structures of Kalyazin and Tranavia are woven together into fully three-dimensional ways of life.

This puts the characters in a great position. We have two societies that produce individuals with totally different ideas about their place in the world. What does this mean for micro person-to-person conflicts and collaborations?

And the aesthetic… wow. If you saw the Game of Thrones characters talking about how many people will die in the bloody, brutal winter to come and got really excited…you’re going to love this world.

Good Place gif
I list some content warnings at the bottom of this post, but I’ll say right now that readers who aren’t into a lot of on-page blood and self-injury should skip Wicked Saints.

That said… I browse Instagram for aesthetic. I read for story, for characters, for theme, for plot. A slick look is no substitute for strong fundamentals. For me, this is where Wicked Saints starts to fall apart.

The Bad: Almost Everything Else

~ characters ~

This was supposed to be Nadya’s story, right? She’s supposed to be the protagonist, right? On the cover, the Let Them Fear Her… that’s supposed to be Nadya, right?

Just checking… because when you look at the actual book, Nadya is a fairly minor character. While she’s the character through which we are introduced to this world, her impact on the story is minimal, especially once she is relegated to the role of love interest for the only character Duncan seems truly invested in, Malachiasz.

I don’t think Emily Duncan actually wanted to write the book she wrote. She wanted to write 100,000 words about Malachiasz, and settled for including other characters because that’s necessary for a novel.

I get it! Malachiasz is fandom catnip. He’s the Darkling meets Kylo Ren. He’s a fantastic character and makes a worthy addition to this story.

But if this is supposed to be Nadya’s story, it failed. This is Nadya’s story the way The Great Gatsby is Nick’s story. He’s the POV character but not the protagonist, and is there only to be your eyes on the actual main character.

And Nadya deserved better. With her fascinating powers and potentially amazing character arc, she should have gotten to be a major player in this story. Instead, she spends most of the book telling the reader how attracted she is to Malachiasz (she has to tell us because there’s no actual development here) and telling us what Malachiasz is doing.

Part of this is due to the book’s poor grasp of point-of-view overall. It really should have been written in a third person omniscient style, because Duncan can’t seem to resist telling us things way beyond what the POV character would know or be aware of.

~ story ~

Supposedly, the story is about a plot to assassinate a king and the rag-tag group of powerful misfits that make temporary, fragile partnerships to do it.

Call me crazy, but if you make your entire story about killing the king, I want to see the king. I want him to be a major character.

If Malachiasz is Kylo Ren, the king is Snoke… and there’s a reason I cheered when Snoke was unexpectedly bisected. It’s not because I wanted him dead, it’s because he was a boring, unhelpful non-character.

By the end of the book, I’m just not sure what the point of the majority of chapters was–how did all of this matter by the end? By the 1/3 mark, the book became repetitive, performing the same story beats over and over. Instead of finding interesting new takes on the fantasy tropes the story is built on, Duncan plays them straight, giving us the same enemies-to-lovers and betrayals and arcs that I’ve seen in a hundred fanfictions.

~ ~ ~

Wicked Saints had so much potential, and Emily Duncan is clearly a skilled writer. I probably won’t pick up the rest of the trilogy, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for what comes next.

Content warnings for Wicked Saints include:

Violence: graphic bloody injury, self-injury, moderate/extreme magic-based combat violence, on-page violent minor character death, death of a child
Some mild/moderate sexual content
Child abuse, abusive parent, physical and emotional abuse

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