I hadn’t heard of this novel before but saw it at the bookstore and thought it looked interesting. It’s a fantasy story of a young woman, a cleric, who has a unique and powerful connection to the gods. It is also the story of two nations at war over politics and religion. Wicked Saints has strong Slavic overtones, evident in names and geography, which I find appealing because of my own personal interests. I was not aware until I started writing the review that it is the first book in what will be a longer series, but that comes as something of a relief as the ending to this story left much up in the air. I am not sure if I will continue reading when volume 2 comes out next year. While I was initially drawn right in, I found as I went further along that the plot was sometimes confusing, characters’ motivations puzzling, and the overall bloodiness just off-putting.
Wicked Saints starts with a strong female protagonist named Nadezhda Leptova, or simply Nadya, in grave danger. The monastery in which she has spent most of her life, in the country known as Kalyazin, is situated atop a mountain, defended by 7,000 steps, monks who know how to fight, and the gods. Kalyazin’s people and religion are at risk of extinction due to constant warfare with neighboring Tranavia, a country that long ago forsook the gods for heretical “dark magic.” As the story opens, the unthinkable has happened: Tranavian forces led by the scarred prince Serefin Meleski have invaded the monastery. Serefin is an especially powerful dark mage, and despite her desire to stay and defend her friends, Nadya must leave. She is Kalyazin’s only hope. Nadya is the only cleric who has direct communication with the gods. She can access them by using her holy beads, offering prayer, and in some cases simply by thinking of them. Nadya and her friend Anna flee into the frozen woods, where they come upon a trio of unlikely refugees — two young people from a neighboring territory called Akola and a fierce and frightening Tranavian named Malachiasz. Nadya and Malachiasz are at each other’s throats from the start, but an uneasy truce is reached when it appears that they might be able to work together to stop the war. The question is how does the war stop? Is it by defeating your enemy once and for all? Is compromise possible? Nadya frets that she is betraying her own gods by working with a Tranavian, especially since it seems that Malachiasz’s powers are beyond anything Nadya has encountered before and his past is murky.
Meanwhile, despite his victory at the monastery, Serefin is called home before he can find and eliminate Nadya. Serefin’s father, the king, has called for a special ceremony in which a bride will be chosen for Serefin from amongst the eligible young noblewomen in Tranavia. Serefin has no interest in this whatsoever. He has spent his young life fighting and killing, and he knows that his father is jealous of Serefin’s magic, as it is more powerful than his own. When Serefin arrives in the capitol, he knows that something evil is afoot and has reason to be concerned for his own life.
Nadya’s, Malachiasz’s and Serefin’s worlds collide at the end of this volume. It’s a weird and confusing merging of story lines that left me with a lot of questions, which I supposed is meant to get me to purchase volume 2. But I have problems with this novel. First, let me say that I like fantasy novels. I admire writers who can create a new world, languages, cultures and histories. Violence in general does not put me off a story. But what I found here was just a bit much. In Kalyazin, most people don’t have access to magical power. In Tranavia, pretty much anyone can have power and they exercise it by cutting. Yes, they cut and bleed over pages of spell books to make spells happen. Nobles have special blades sewn into the hems of their clothes so that they can cut easily and they treat the blades so that it won’t hurt. Nadya and the people of Kalyazin are horrified by this dirty magic but ** spoiler alert ** Nadya will end up doing it herself. I appreciate that the writer might be trying to make a point about the corrupting influence of power, and about the dangers of using religion and politics to foment prejudice and division, but cutting and other self-injurious behaviors are a real problem in our world and I don’t want to say this novel glorifies it, but it sure doesn’t do much to condemn it.
Character development is pretty thin in this novel. We don’t get anything in the way of backstory for Nadya, which I think is problematic as she has this highly unusual connection to the gods and is recognized as a cleric worth dying for in her community. I also have a problem with Nadya’s relationships with certain male characters. She starts out as a tough, fierce young woman and ends up dithering a bit because of the tortured goth “boys” in her life. Yes, they are young like Nadya, but these “boys” have led armies, murdered and lied. She seems weaker, even though one of the themes here is to know your own power. The novel also goes a bit heavy on the teen romance stuff toward the end, and it gets a bit repetitive. I have to ask: is kissing the corners of someone’s mouth a thing? Because that card gets played a lot in this story.
Wicked Saints is Emily Duncan’s debut novel, and maybe some of the problems I have with it are addressed in the next two volumes, but it just didn’t make me want to find out. By the end of the novel, I pretty much disliked everyone in it. Having said that, if there is anyone out there who is interested in reading it, I have a copy. I would like to see what others have to say about it and maybe show me what I am missing.