Book Review: Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan

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A brutal holy war has been waging for centuries between the Kalyazi and the Tranavians and Nadya Lapteva has found herself right in the middle of it. A cleric from a monastery in the mountains of Kalyazin, Nadya can converse with the pantheon of gods. When the high prince of Tranavia, a powerful and heretical blood mage, raids her monastery, Nadya has to go on the run and find a way to bring the gods back into the godless nation of Tranavia.

Wicked Saints is everything you might want in a book for the cold New England winter and to take your mind off of 2020. The book is based in a snow covered terrain and twists two countries political unease and magic to wield a captivating story.

Every year from September to December, I search for a really good fantasy novel to fill the void left behind after I finished the Harry Potter series around this same time years ago. There have been few books that have successfully done that, in fact I can count them on one hand. But, while nothing like the Harry Potter series, Wicked Saints did just that.

The story opens in the middle of a holy war between Kalyazin and Tranavia. Tranavia has turned their backs on the gods in favor of blood magic while Kalyazin remains devoted. The war has ravaged Kalyazin as blood mages seek out clerics, those who the gods have chosen to speak to. Tranavia has all but eradicated clerics but there’s one left, our main character.

Nadya starts out as one of those characters I’m not sure if I’ll like or not. I can’t stand a “chosen one” narrative where the chosen one is weak and naïve. However, Nadya knows her purpose and has been training for it her whole life; she’s not street smart but she’s not irritating.

I see the same things a lot in fantasy books, especially “Chosen One” books when the chosen one is a woman. She’s usually naïve and a guy comes along to save her from herself and they fall in love and it’s predictable. I hate those books. But Wicked Saints was not that book.

There are moments where I thought it was going in that direction, but the author twists and turns these relatively common themes to be something different and build Nadya’s character. Nadya is forced to face her beliefs, ask questions, and grow. Her development is strong, however I wish I could have seen more of some of the other characters. I’ve picked up the second book and I’m hoping to see more of the side characters. There’s been some criticism towards the author for this but I can understand why this first book would focus so much on Nadya and the antagonists she faces. I’m hoping this first book was just laying some solid groundwork for the series.

Wicked Saints bounces between Nadya’s point of view and Serefin’s, who is the High Prince of Tranavia. The change in points of view shows a stark contrast to how each character was raised in their beliefs and I will admit that we see a decent amount of character development with Serefin as well. I have a tendency with point-of-view swaps to side with the first point of view, which I think the author anticipated. She doesn’t try to make you like Serefin right away and instead attracts your focus to Nadya but still, the characters criss-cross as each one is trying to decide whether the war is worth it and if their side is truly the right one.

Emily A. Duncan crafts a tale that combines political tension, dark magic, and questions how far religious devotion should go. For a young adult novel, this book has a maturity to it that I haven’t seen in many similar novels. It’s a dark, twisting, turning novel that is perfect for this time of year.

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