Wicked Saints (Something Dark and Holy #1)
by Emily A. Duncan
Expected publication date: April 2, 2019, by Wednesday Books
Anyone who has done more than a cursory study of the life of Joan of Arc will have some understanding of her essential strangeness. Joan, an illiterate teenaged peasant with visions of angels somehow made it into the French royal court, and then somehow met the heir to the throne, who then, for unknown/mystical reasons, sent this girl to war– which the French then started to win against superior English forces. Joan went on to lead the French army to numerous victories until she was betrayed by her king and burned as a witch by the English. Her biography is less “I’m not like other girls”, and closer to “I’m not like other human beings”. With her debut novel, Wicked Saints, Emily A. Duncan attempts to create a Joan-like figure in Nadezhda Lapteva, or Nadya, a teenaged peasant girl who has spent her life in a monastery. Her great gift comes from the fact that when she speaks to the gods, they talk back, granting her divine powers based upon the trait of the god she calls to.
This is a useful ability given that she is among the last clerics of her home country, Kalyazin, which is fighting a century-long war against the neighboring country of Tranavia, where blood mages rule. These blood mages are branded as heretics in Kalyazin, but the Tranavians’ lack of faith has not stopped them from making headway in the war. The Tranavian army is led by the crown prince, nineteen-year-old Serefin Maleski, a powerful blood mage tasked with winning the war and wiping out any of Kalyazin’s remaining clerics. As the story opens, Serefin’s forces attack Nadya’s monastery forcing her to leave behind her best friend and everything she has ever known. During her headlong flight into the forest, Nadya meets an enemy blood mage, Malachiasz Czechowicz, who is also fleeing from the Tranavians, but for very different reasons. Together, Nadya and Malachiasz decide to sneak into Tranavia and assassinate its king, thereby ending the war. At the same time, Serefin is summoned home to participate in the Rawalyk, a Travanian tradition designed to find the prince a suitable bride. Magic, faith, and treachery collide in a divine battle that will determine the futures of Kalyazin and Tranavia.
As a concept, Wicked Saints is compelling. What does war do to young leaders? How does it affect those who the world sees as monstrous? What role should the faithful play in war? Add in a Gothic tone with its attendant dark setting and brooding atmosphere, and you should have a strong story on your hands. Unfortunately, Wicked Saints retreads a literary ground that has long since been tramped down to mud and fails to stand up to basic questions regarding its own world. Case in point, “In a land where gods are real and active, what does it mean when a heretic army is victorious?”. I asked myself this question early on, and so predicted a major plot twist from the ending. And while Nadya is billed as a ‘Gothic Joan of Arc’, she has none of her real-world predecessor’s strangeness or ability to inspire armies. Instead, Nadya is set to be yet another entry in a long line of bland Strong Female Characters who can’t help but fall in love with the Bad Boy With a Dark Past, and who is willing to forgive the war criminals she associates with simply because they have a sad past and a cute haircut.
The world, too, is underdeveloped, as though Duncan was relying on the setting’s Polish roots and the book’s description as “Gothic” to complete the exposition for her. Sadly, that’s not enough to describe a world, and we’re told little more than that it is cold and wooded. We are given churches and cathedrals and little sense of what they look like, and dangerous lands the characters easily cross within a day or two. The morose atmosphere and realism edged by a looming supernatural threat- hallmarks of Gothic literature- are barely evident. But to give Duncan credit where credit is due, there are moments of truly creepy imagery. These are often spoiled in the next paragraph by stilted dialogue or yet another action scene designed to make the book action-packed without adding significantly to the story.
It’s a shame. Wicked Saints promised to be an incredible tale of dark and divine magics striving against each other in an eerie world of gloomy, wintry cathedrals. But in the end, it is little more than processed story product wrapped in a shiny black veneer. And so I’m left with this final impression: Wicked Saints– neither wicked nor saints. Discuss.
Thank you to NetGalley and Wednesday Books for providing me with a free eBook in exchange for an honest review. This did not influence my opinion in any way.