I’ve been so wildly excited for Emily A. Duncan’s YA Dark Fantasy, WICKED SAINTS!! I was thrilled to be invited onto the blog tour and so here I am with a post to draw you into this thrilling, magical, but deadly world. Keep reading for more on the book, the author, an excerpt, a very helpful pronunciation guide, and my review!
A girl who can speak to gods must save her people without destroying herself.
A prince in danger must decide who to trust.
A boy with a monstrous secret waits in the wings.
Together, they must assassinate the king and stop the war.
In a centuries-long war where beauty and brutality meet, their three paths entwine in a shadowy world of spilled blood and mysterious saints, where a forbidden romance threatens to tip the scales between dark and light. Wicked Saints is the thrilling start to Emily A. Duncan’s devastatingly Gothic Something Dark and Holy trilogy.
Horz stole the stars and the heavens out from underneath Myesta’s control, and for that she has never forgiven him. For where can the moons rest if not the heavens?
-Codex of the Divine, 5:26
“It’s certainly not my fault you chose a child who sleeps so deeply. If she dies it will very much be your fault, not mine.”
Startled by the bickering gods was not Nadya’s preferred method of being woken up. She rolled to her feet in the dark, moving automatically. It took her eyes a few seconds to catch up with the rest of her body.
It wasn’t wise to tell the gods to shut up, but it was too late now. A feeling of amused disdain flowed through her, but neither of the gods spoke again. She realized it was Horz, the god of the heavens and the stars, who had woken her. He had a tendency to be obnoxious but generally left Nadya alone, as a rule.
Usually only a single god communed with their chosen cleric. There once had been a cleric name Kseniya Mirokhina who was gifted with unnatural marksmanship by Devonya, the goddess of the hunt. And Veceslav had chosen a cleric of his own, long ago, but their name was lost to history, and he refused to talk about them. The recorded histories never spoke of clerics who could hear more than one god. That Nadya communed with the entire pantheon was a rarity the priests who trained her could not explain.
There was a chance older, more primordial gods existed, ones that had long since given up watch of the world and left it in the care of the others. But no one knew for sure. Of the twenty known gods, however, carvings and paintings depicted their human forms, though no one knew what they actually looked like. No cleric throughout history had ever looked upon the faces of the gods. No saint, nor priest.
Each had their own power and magic they could bestow upon Nadya, and while some were forthcoming, others were not. She had never spoken to the goddess of the moons, Myesta. She wasn’t even sure what manner of power the goddess would give, if she so chose.
And though she could commune with many gods, it was impossible to forget just who had chosen her for this fate: Marzenya, the goddess of death and magic, who expected complete dedication.
Indistinct voices murmured in the dark. She and Anna had found a secluded place within a copse of thick pine trees to set up their tent, but it no longer felt safe. Nadya slid a voryen from underneath her bedroll and nudged Anna awake.
She moved to the mouth of the tent, grasping at her beads, a prayer already forming on her lips, smoky symbols trailing from her mouth. She could see the blurry impressions of figures in the darkness, far off in the distance. It was hard to judge the number, two? Five? Ten? Her heart sped at the possibility that a company of Tranavians were already on her trail.
Anna drew up beside her. Nadya’s grip on her voryen tightened, but she kept still. If they hadn’t seen their tent yet, she could keep them from noticing it entirely.
But Anna’s hand clasped her forearm.
“Wait,” she whispered, her breath frosting out before her in the cold. She pointed to a dark spot just off to the side of the group.
Nadya pressed her thumb against Bozidarka’s bead and her eyesight sharpened until she could see as clearly as if it were day. It took effort to shove aside the immediate, paralyzing fear as her suspicions were confirmed and Tranavian uniforms became clear. It wasn’t a full company. In fact, they looked rather ragged. Perhaps they had split off and lost their way.
More interesting, though, was the boy with a crossbow silently aiming into the heart of the group.
“We can’t get away before they notice,” Anna said.
Nadya almost agreed, almost slipped her voryen back into its sheath, but just then, the boy fired and the trees erupted into chaos. Nadya wasn’t willing to use an innocent’s life as a distraction for her own cowardice. Not again.
Even as Anna protested, 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. Anna sighed in exasperation beside her.
“Just stay back,” she hissed as she moved confidently through the dark.
“Nadya…” Anna’s groan was soft.
It took more focus to send a third prayer to Bozetjeh. It was hard to catch Bozetjeh on a good day; the god of speed was notoriously slow to answer prayers. But she managed to snag his attention and received a spell allowing her to move as fast as the vicious Kalyazin wind.
Her initial count had been wrong; there were six Tranavians now scattering into the forest. The boy dropped his crossbow with a bewildered look up into the sky, startling when Nadya touched his shoulder.
There was no way he could see in this darkness, but she could. When he whirled, a curved sword in his hand, Nadya sidestepped. His swing went wide and she shoved him in the direction of a fleeting Tranavian, anticipating their collision.
“Find the rest,” Marzenya hissed. “Kill them all.”
Complete and total dedication.
She caught up to one of the figures, stabbing her voryen into his skill just underneath his ear.
Not so difficult this tine, she thought. But the knowledge was a distant thing.
Blood sprayed, splattering a second Tranavian, who cried out in alarm. Before the second man could figure out what had happened to his companion, she lashed out her heel, catching him squarely on the jaw and knocking him off his feet. She slit his throat.
Three more. They couldn’t have moved far. Nadya took up Bozidarka’s bead again. The goddess of vision revealed where the last Tranavians were located. The boy with the sword had managed to kill two in the dark. Nadya couldn’t actually see the last one, just felt him nearby, very much alive.
Something slammed into Nadya’s back and suddenly the chilling bite of a blade was pressed against her throat. The boy appeared in front of her, his crossbow back in his hands, thankfully not pointed at Nadya. It was clear he could only barely see her. He wasn’t Kalyazi, but Akolan.
A fair number of Akolans had taken advantage of the war between their neighbors, hiring out their swords for profit on both sides. They were known for favoring Tranavia simply because of the warmer climate. It was rare to find a creature of the desert willingly stumbling through Kalyazin’s snow.
He spoke a fluid strong of words she didn’t understand. His posture was languid, as if he hadn’t nearly been torn to pieces by bloody mages. The blade against Nadya’s throat pressed harder. A colder voice responded to him, the foreign language scratched uncomfortably at her ears.
Nadya only knew the three primary languages of Kalyazin and passing Tranavian. If she wasn’t going to be able to communicate with them…
The boy said something else and Nadya heard the girl sigh before she felt the blade slip away. “What’s a little Kalyazi assassin doing out in the middle of the mountains?” he asked, switching to perfect Kalyazi.
Nadya was very aware of the boy’s friend at her back. “I could as the same of you.”
She shifted Bozidarka’s spell, sharpening her vision further. The boy had skin like molten bronze and long hair with gold chains threaded through his loose curls.
pooled ink Review
Thank you to the publisher for sending me a copy to review!
First of all…THE COVER IS BEAUTIFUL!!! Even if I’d hated this book (which I didn’t) I’d be very tempted to buy a hardcopy just to have this beautiful cover on my shelf! I’m really picky with the covers I like (most are either bleh or meh) but this one absolutely nailed it. I mean I’d hang a giant poster of this one on my wall I like it so much. Well done cover design team!
Now onto the book’s interior…
When I first started hearing about this book it came with descriptors similar to “dark fantasy inspired by Joan of Arc” which I thought sounded really cool but apparently that’s not true? As I read it certainly didn’t seem all that similar and then I found out from the author that that was just a marketing thing but not particularly accurate (I mean there are a couple similarities between Joan and Nadya but not enough for me to call this book inspired by Joan of Arc, ya feel?). So if you’re hoping for Joan of Arc then just know that’s not quite what you’ll get, but you will get an epic fantasy tale featuring a brave female protagonist who could change the tide of the war.
This book means business! Right from the start we’re tossed into battle and they don’t pull any punches in their attacks. This level of action only explodes once in a while but its promise is always simmering beneath every word and gesture. And brace yourself for the ending!
Despite this epic gothic Slavic plot it did admittedly take me a while to really get sucked in. At first there was a ton of energy and I was like “YEAH!” and then for some reason my interest wavered but the setting and characters are intriguing enough that if you keep reading you’ll become attached before you realize it and will cling tightly to the pages intrigued to know what will become of them. (Although I admit Malachiasz and Serefin intrigued me a bit more than Nadya…)
Wicked Saints is told in dual POV which I loved because with that style it was able to show you two opposing perspectives on the war and while at first it seems clear who the enemy is, after a while one begins to wonder and redraw the not-so-simple lines. And I absolutely love when books twist and mix things up so you’re never quite sure who to trust or root for.
One little issue I had was pronunciation (lol). It was a bit hard to figure out how to pronounce things and that’s something that always trips me up when reading. It’s maybe the one thing in this book that really kept throwing me off a reading rhythm and led to my taking much longer than usual to get through it. Fantasy is often known for having complicated names/words/language sounds and this one is no exception. I know it’s because it’s heavily inspired by foreign languages/places (Russia and Poland) but it still would’ve been nice to have a pronunciation guide because this book is packed with confusing (to an English speaker at least) letter combos. I’m not saying they should change it at all, just please help us ignorant fools out a bit? I always wish fantasy novels would bless us with a pronunciation guide and yet for some reason they almost never do… But yeah, unfortunately for me I’m useless at pronouncing words unless they’re English or latin-based (like Spanish, Italian, and sometimes I can even guess French or German). I just want to honor the author and the story by pronouncing everything properly.
*Note: It wasn’t until after I read & reviewed this book that I received a pronunciation guide lol But at least now I have one!
Overall if you’re a fan of Leigh Bardugo’s books then you’ll likely enjoy this. It really was a captivating contribution to the fantasy genre. A long-fought religious war is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to plot and these tangled lines are punctuated by magic battles, duty, secrets, betrayal, prejudice, and even a drop of romance on the side.
Wicked Saints is a dark fantasy story of war and faith yet despite its unyielding grit there is something seductive wrapped within each word that will have you longing for more. Action-packed, fearless, exciting, and dare one even use the word enchanting? This is a debut you won’t want to miss.
Emily A. Duncan was born and raised in Ohio and works as a youth services librarian. She received a Master’s degree in library science from Kent State University, which mostly taught her how to find obscure Slavic folklore texts through interlibrary loan systems. When not reading or writing, she enjoys playing copious amounts of video games and dungeons and dragons. She is represented by Thao Le of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.