Emily A. Duncan’s debut novel, Wicked Saints, is such a beautiful and refreshing addition to our YA fantasy collection that I’m proud to make this our first ever book review!
And with its blood magic and hand-written spell books, it’s literally the perfect story to debut Ink & Blood Club’s brand new site.
tl;dr version ~ Highly recommended for fans of Throne of Glass and this first book of the Something Dark And Holy series has us wickedly hungry for book 2!
The World of Wicked Saints
Right away we’re introduced to both kingdoms who have been entrenched in a Holy War for centuries.
Through the eyes of a cleric who grew up sheltered in a monastery in Kalyazin and the 16-year old crown prince of Tranavia who has spent more time on the front lines than in the palace, we see both sides of the conflict.
The Kalyazins revere their gods and see the Tranavians as heretics who turned their backs on the gods and pursued their own blood magic.
The Tranavians revere their own power and independence from the gods and see the Kalyazins as trapped in an overbearing religion that’s too tightly woven into politics.
But this war has gone on far too long and the common people on both sides are starving.
Duncan does an amazing job of making us question which side is right, as well as wondering if a war this omnipresent can even be stopped.
If the Kalyazins win, Tranavia’s whole way of life will suffer ~ from fishing, to farming, to every aspect of their economy which has been infused with magic to help things grow and support the people.
But the Kalyazins don’t even realize this because the war has always been on Kalyazin soil with Kalyazin people and clerics being slaughtered by Tranavian soldiers and blood mages.
So for the Kalyazins, this is a fight for survival. But if the Tranavians are fighting to protect their ability to support themselves, it’s also a fight for survival against the people who want to take that away from them.
So how does anyone, on either side, end a war without a winner?
That’s the beauty of this intricate and layered world Emily A. Duncan has created for us!
Brilliant storytelling and pacing keep you on the edge of your seat and turning pages
This conflict keeps us turning pages, feeling like we don’t know which side to choose and eager to dive into each chapter regardless of whether it’s focused on Nadya’s point of view or the crown prince, Serefin’s.
Another beautiful aspect of the world in Wicked Saints is how Duncan describes magic on both sides.
Nadya’s god-granted magic is beautifully illustrated by the holy language that appears in ghost-like letters in front of her mouth as she whispers the spells.
She uses a string of beads, each carved with symbol of a different god in the Kalyazin pantheon, to request assistance ~ whether its for healing, vision, or combat.
Serefin’s blood magic, on the other hand, is accessed by combining his own blood with pages from his spell book which he carries with him at all times.
He uses the razors sewn into his sleeves to cut himself and bleed onto the page torn from his spell book (which is dwindling daily thanks to his many years in Kalyazin leading his soldiers with rare trips home to the palace where he can restock his books).
And of course, Duncan keeps you on the edge of your seat with her descriptions of how each spell manifests in the world to hurt an enemy or heal an ally.
The only reason I gave the world-building a low score is because we didn’t see much of the world.
We know that Kalyazin is always cold and usually snowing. Tranavia is mostly lakes. And Akolan is probably a desert.
But that’s ok, because this is a character-driven story and learning more about the world in Book 1 would’ve slowed the story down.
The Characters of Wicked Saints
It was so easy to fall in love with every single character in Wicked Saints!
You’ve met our 2 main characters, Nadya and Serefin, the Kalyazin cleric and the crown prince blood mage of Tranavia.
Both want nothing more than to save their people from this war. Both have noble ambitions that push them forward against all odds.
At the very beginning of the book, the monastery where Nadya lives is attacked and she’s forced to flee, lest her powers fall into the wrong hands.
So she and her dear friend Anna fend for themselves in the Kalyazin wilderness until they meet up with people from another part of the world that’s neither Kalyazin nor Tranavian but has also been hurt by this war.
Enemy of my enemy is my ally, so the Kalyazin pair team up with Rashid and Parijahan the two Akolan refugees (who have what seems to be a brother-sister relationship) and Malachiasz ~ a blood mage who fled Tranavia and now is working to help bring it down.
And thus we have our bad boy! The terrifyingly-skilled blood mage who befriends our reverent cleric girl and gently questions her faith.
It’s through Malachiasz that we start to see Tranavia as freedom-fighters defending the power of the people as an opposition to blind religious faith.
It’s also through Malachiasz that we’ll experience a slowly-smoldering ember of romance that Nadya wants so badly to deny, for the sake of her soul, and to avoid pissing off the gods who she’d be powerless (a regular human) without.
Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to fall in love with Ostyia, Serefin’s right hand girl with an eye patch over one eye who flirts with all the girls in the Tranavian court on the rare occasions Serefin is called back to the palace.
And Kapcer, Serefin’s right hand man who is his rock, his stability, and his voice of reason.
Nadya let a prayer form fully in her mind, hand clutching at Horz’s bead on her necklace and its constellation of stars.
Symbols fell from her lips like glowing glimmers of smoke and every star in the sky winked out.
Well, that was more extreme than I intended, Nadya thought with a wince. I should’ve known better than to ask Horz for anything.
She could hear cursing as the world plunged into darkness.
Things We Love About This Book
I’m ecstatic that this is only Book 1 of the Something Dark And Holy series, because I want more!!
There came a point during the story where I literally couldn’t put the book down.
Not in that agonizing way where you feel like you need to scan the pages instead of fully reading them, but in a beautifully paced way where I simply wanted to savor every scene and stay up as late as necessary to reach the last page.
And when I did, I closed the book feeling totally surprised, but satisfied that every moment was worth it.
And here, the next day, the story continues to haunt me. I feel like I want to read the entire book again tonight!
I love the twists and turns, love the visual aspect to the magic, and love the depth of characters who are able to see past what they’ve been taught and cross boundaries of every kind.
I’m glad I read an excerpt of Chapter 4 before I bought the book because that’s where the story really hooks you and doesn’t let you walk away again.
So if you read the preview on Amazon or something and aren’t sure it’s worth buying, I suggest taking the risk and reserving judgement until after Chapter 4. I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed!
If You Love…
I feel confident that if you enjoy Sarah J Maas’ books, especially the Throne of Glass series, you’ll enjoy this one too.
It has a similar, but deliciously different, take on the crown prince versus the “dangerous” female heroine.
It shows what the people on each side of the war are thinking and dealing with.
And it shows how those people can work together for a common cause and the good of the kingdoms.
I’m not sure this book will be a big favorite among Cassandra Clare fans, but I’d love to hear other opinions on that!
I’m basing that on the idea that this book may feel like it’s moving too slow for fans of things like Clockwork Prince. Everything from the character development to the potential romances are built up gradually at a beautifully paced smolder that may feel slow to those accustomed to Clare’s pacing.
But I thoroughly enjoyed the way Duncan holds back and builds our hunger over chapters without it feeling like she’s toying with us.
It was delightful and it kept me turning pages without feeling like my heart was being manipulated for the sake of book sales. It felt natural in a way we just don’t get often enough in the YA genre these days.
Have Questions? Comments? Rants? Raves?
Not sure if this is the right book for you?
Did we leave out some vital piece of information?
Drop your thoughts into the comments ~ but no spoilers!!!
At least, not until we figure out how to install a spoiler tag that will keep them hidden.