Book Review: “Wicked Saints” by Emily A. Duncan

As a dark and ambitious exploration of power, religion, love, and what it means to be a monster, “Wicked Saints” is a significant addition to the young adult fantasy genre.

“Wicked Saints,” Emily A. Duncan’s glittering debut, is a novel obsessed with monstrosity. What makes a monster? What does it take to become one? And what does it mean to love one? Every moment in the story is fascinated with these questions and desperate to explore every corner for the answers. The result is monstrously satisfying.

The world of “Wicked Saints” is a vibrant and deadly one. A holy war has dragged out for centuries between two nations: Kalyazin, a country faithful to the gods, and Tranavia, a country that broke apart to develop their own heretical blood magic. Raised in a Kalyazin monastery, Nadezhda “Nadya” Lapteva has known all her life that she was chosen by the gods to save her country from the heretics. She is a cleric, blessed with the rare ability to communicate directly with her deities and possess their powers, and she has never known any other life than one of faith. When her beloved monastery is attacked and she is forced to run, she meets a few unlikely allies in a Tranavian defector and a prince. Though each of them may come from different lives, they all share the same goal — to kill the king and end the war.

From the opening battle sequence, readers are thrust into the story at whiplash-inducing speed. The pacing of the story is swift, almost rushed, especially with a world of so many new magical rules, complex mythology, and lengthy names (try saying “Malachiasz” five times fast). However, once you’ve adjusted to the setting and the novel hits its stride, the fast pace becomes a strength rather than a weakness. Even in its less action-packed moments, the story is too captivating to feel slow. It becomes easy to fall into the snow-covered mountains of Kalyazin and the swamplands of Tranavia, and it feels inevitable to fall in love with the story’s characters.

It’s true that there is no scarcity of coming-of-age fantasy novels in young adult literature, but “Wicked Saints” sets itself apart by delving into what so many young fantasy novels seem to shy away from — religion. Yes, it’s a made-up religion, set in a world of magic and strange creatures, but it’s a lush and enchanting one nonetheless. Duncan expertly uses Nadya’s beliefs to explore her growth as a character. From the beginning, Nadya understands monstrosity through the lens of her faith. She believes Tranavians are evil because their magic comes not from the gods, but from their own blood. However, when she is separated from her gods and faced with horrors greater than what she’s been prepared for, she is required to learn the blood magic that she’s always despised and to become what she’s always feared. As her power grows, she begins to realize that even the gods may be afraid of her. In this way, Nadya’s coming-of-age is a strange and monstrous one, but the metaphor is clear and universal: growing up is ugly business.

Published: April 2, 2019
Grade: A-