ARC provided by publisher in exchange for an honest review
“Blood and blood and bone. Magic and monsters and tragic power.”
Listen, no one is as shocked or disappointed by this rating (★★) as I am. But, with female characters like Jude Duarte, Vasya Petrovna, and Inej Ghafa, I couldn’t give this book a higher rating. Before we get into why I didn’t love Wicked Saints the way I’d hoped, let’s start with what it’s about.
Nadya is a cleric, but unlike other clerics *refrains from making a bad not-like-other-girls joke* can communicate with not one, but all the gods and use her prayer beads to call upon their powers. Within the first few pages of the book, the monastery Nadya was raised in is under attack by Serefin—blood mage and the crown prince of an enemy country—and so Nadya must flee the only life she’s known with the hopes of her country’s future resting on her shoulders. While on the run, Nadya teams up with a group of rebels, led by Malachiasz, another powerful blood mage to end the war.
“You must make a choice, little bird. Do you continue on with your wings clipped or do you fly?”
Promising, right? I’d thought so too. I was so excited for this book, like, who-needs-to-study-for-midterms-when-I-can-devour-this-book excited. In all honesty, I’m a little afraid to post this review because there’s been an unbelievable amount of hype surrounding this book, and that’s why I’ve put off writing this, but it’s 2019 and YA readers deserve better. We deserve female characters who are allowed to have both agency and a romantic relationship, not one or the other.
My biggest issue with Wicked Saints is Nadya. This isn’t Nadya’s book, it’s Malachiasz’s. The book promises a strong and powerful female character who is determined to vanquish her enemies, the tagline is even “let them fear her,” but Nadya doesn’t do anything. While she does have arguments with Malachiasz and is steadfast in her beliefs for a bit—I’ll get more into this when I discuss the handling of religious discourse, which I did think was very well done—there comes a point when she doesn’t make any decisions of her own, simply going along with Malachiasz’s plans and listening to whatever he says.
I’m so tired of being promised strong female characters only to have them forsake agency as soon as a romantic subplot is introduced. Nadya has such an amazing power, one she learns has much more potential than even she had known, and yet, she’s reduced to the love interest in her own story as soon as she has a romance. Friends, when I say she doesn’t do anything, I mean anything. She can’t even kill someone in a fight to the death, Malachiasz has to do it for her. And she constantly forgives him for everything, only standing up for herself to a point before literally going weak at the knees.
It truly feels as though Nadya is a side character in Malachiasz’s story, and it makes me so sad because I thought we’d finally reached a point where female characters are allowed to have agency and romantic relationships, not one or the other. With iconic lines such as Inej Ghafa’s, “She would fight for him, but she could not heal him. She would not waste her life trying,” and female characters such as Jude Duarte who can kiss a boy, plot with him to steal a kingdom, and then betray him in order to do so, I can’t support stories that make female characters choose between the two, and worse, be reduced to one dimensionality as soon as they enter a romantic relationship. I’ve seen discussion online about Wicked Saints dismantling tropes, but for me it relied heavily on tropes without questioning or subverting them.
“Don’t be a martyr. We have no use for yet another saint.”
With everything I didn’t like about the book, I will say the braiding of religion, magic, and politics was extremely well done and handled carefully and respectfully. Wicked Saints starts a really great and important dialogue about questioning our beliefs, opening our minds to others, and thinking/deciding for ourselves instead of simply following the things we’re taught. It’s the kind of YA book that is truly written for teenagers because it has the conversations they should be reading about—without passing judgement or shying away from the various arguments. While reading, I kept going back and forth between who I agreed with, who I wanted Nadya to agree with, and how I wanted the characters to find a middle ground.
However, while thematically the magic system worked well because of how it related to religion and politics, I will say, on a practical level, it did fall apart at the end. I’m a stickler when it comes to magic systems, and in particular, well-built magic systems with rules and consequences for broken rules. I’ve seen a lot of comparisons between Wicked Saints and Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, and while I do see similarities, those books have a highly structured magic system where we know the rules, limitations, and what happens when the boundaries of magic are pushed too far. Wicked Saints, on the other hand, does a good job of building the magic system and its rules throughout the book, but everything we learned about it collapses in the end in order for certain plot points to occur. I’ve reread the ending multiple times and am still confused, and in all honesty, it almost feels lazy? As though the rules that had been previously established suddenly didn’t matter because certain plot points needed to happen. This is definitely something I’m finicky about and other readers won’t mind, but I’m a very logic driven reader and love well-structured magic systems, so I was disappointed with how the ending events transpired.
The other thing Duncan really nails is atmosphere. It’s clear she not only has a love and appreciation for Russian and Polish culture, but also did her research. The setting descriptions were hauntingly beautiful with snow and iron spires and architectural descriptions that left me drooling. The world is so vivid and rich with lore, geography, history, and religious canons that created an immersive reading experience. The world building was easily one of my favorite things about the book and was done with such care and precision, even the languages being artfully constructed, and this is a world I didn’t want to leave.
“He was a liar and she wanted his truths.”
Overall, I did have a lot of issues with the book, but I also flew through it. I like to think of it as candy—easy to gobble down quickly, but not necessarily the best thing for you and your teeth and stomach may hurt a little after. A big reason why I was so disappointed by Wicked Saints was because of how it was marketed. I’d expected an epic story on par with the works of Holly Black and Leigh Bardugo, and it simply didn’t deliver. I will say though, the sexual tension is peak and there’s enough angst in here to rival your emo years, so if you love all those things and Slavic lore and aren’t expecting a masterpiece, life-altering book, go forth and conquer—I hope you love it more than I did!
“This act—the pressure of his lips against hers, and the heat that flooded her veins—this was heresy.”
*All quotes are taken from a bound manuscript and are subject to change upon publication*
Trigger warning: self-harm and parental abuse