Why do I keep finding YA books that start off so strong and by the time I’m finished I’m either underwhelmed or incredibly annoyed? Am I starting to get too old for YA? Is that my problem? Or do authors and, by extension, their editing team, just not know how to strongly finish a book without falling into overdone cliches? I wouldn’t say I had high hopes for this book, though the synopsis made me want to, but still I went into it with an open mind nonetheless. Things were fine at first; the writing was relatively good for me personally, the characters had yet to annoy me, and the plot appeared to be headed in a good direction. But, just as I experienced with House of Salt and Sorrows, after the halfway mark things started to decline because the author decided to change what she initially wanted to do and throw in an incredible amount of unnecessary plot devices. I tried so hard to like this book, I really did. I tried to look past things, to see the upside, but the closer I got to the end, the more I accepted that this was not a good book. It tried, but it did not succeed.
I guess the only good thing I can say about this book is that the premise was so incredibly promising, so much so that it ended up fooling me into thinking it would be a good book, because it felt like something I hadn’t quite seen before and could’ve evolved into something fantastic. When we first start the book, we immediately learn that there’s this century long war going on between two countries: Tranavia and Kalyazin, two countries that both have annoyingly unpronounceable names, which is the grand theme of this book, apparently. The former is a country that believes in blood magic and mages, renouncing the power of the gods because they didn’t believe in an unseeable, higher power being all knowing. I get it. On the other hand, the latter is a country that heavily believes in the gods and that any power should be viewed as divine, that blood magic is essentially heresy. Again, I totally get it. The conflict between these two countries was something that I believed to make sense and reminded me of things like the Great Schism or the Protestant Reformation or, well, any war in history that took place between 1300 and 1800 since Europe really loved to fight about religion (shout out to the Defenistration of Prague, arguably the best moment in history). I feel like in YA, the idea of religion in this capacity had yet to truly be explored and I saw so much potential with this book’s idea. The social commentary alone could’ve been astronomical; the exploration between two different beliefs, seeing characters from different sides forced to come together for a common goal, hashing out their beliefs and ultimately coming to a morally grey understanding. So now, I beg the question: why the hell didn’t any of that happen? It was right there, on a silver platter. We could’ve really explored the ins and outs of the purpose of this war and see through different perspectives how simple it could be to come to an understanding and have the two sides come together to try to stop the war with unforeseeable forces trying to stop them. I’m so disappointed that this premise never really went in the direction it should have, because it felt different to a degree and the potential was there. But no, we just can’t have nice things anymore.
So, the thing about Emily A. Duncan’s writing is not that it was bad, per se, but I can’t say I cared for it. On one hand, I appreciate that in conversations between characters it actually felt conversational and not at all stiff and proper in the way I typically find it in books that want to be period fiction but actually aren’t. On the other hand, it was as if I could feel how hard Duncan was trying to find her own borderline flowery prose without being annoying but ended up trying way too hard. It was like she read one Leigh Bardugo book and wanted to create her own off brand version of it; I highly doubt that’s true but it makes sense if you think about it. I don’t really know what Duncan wanted to do with her prose but more often than not, she came off as being incredibly repetitive and, I don’t want to say this, but there was a heavy amount of telling me rather than showing me. I know that authors hate hearing that but you know what? If you just showed me why a character was the way they were then maybe I wouldn’t be yelling at you right now. The amount of times I was constantly told how certain characters were “an anxious boy” or “a broody, charming boy” was enough to hit me over the head, and I could never remember actually seeing that for myself. It was just all of a sudden, Mala-whatever-his-name-is had anxiety and we were forced to accept it because Nadya said so and therefore it was true. There were just so many scenes in this book where I should’ve been seeing what was happening as it was happening, like the action sequences near the end, rather than just being told that so-and-so went after someone and they’re dead. The final thing that really bothered me about Duncan’s writing was how she constantly inserted these languages in the book, which I can only assume are made up, but literally had zero translations or any hint or indication as to what the hell these words are supposed to mean. I don’t care that you want to add a different language to a story, I commend you if it’s all made up, but you can’t do me the decency of a goddamn glossary at the end of the book if you refuse to translate them within the text? It’s one thing to use a phrase once, and have a given translation, and continue to use the phrase throughout the book without re-translating it because we already know what it means. But time and again, these languages were used with zero translations, or hints to what could’ve just been said, and they could’ve changed entire conversations and we’ll just never know. How no one pointed that out in any of the passes this book went through is beyond me. If Duncan really wanted to be like Leigh Bardugo, she wouldn’t have done this to herself.
The plot. I know there was a plot there. I know it. But, as I said earlier, it appeared to keep changing the way it kept changing in House of Salt and Sorrows and I don’t really know what was meant to be accomplished here. I know that the overall plot was to get into Travania, kill the king, and ultimately end the war. We were supposed to have these three characters come together in an unlikely alliance and with what each brought to the table, the end goal would be accomplished. Simple, easy, and solid. However, this book’s plot just kept changing and it felt like we kept hitting speed bumps and just changed directions rather than continuing with what we started with. We started with a religious based war that needed to be ended by taking out the king, then all of a sudden were thrown into what appeared to be the gothic version of The Bachelor, and ended with…the plot of Shadow and Bone? I feel like I wouldn’t care too much if there was an easy flow to all of this but even Serefin was confused as to why he went from fighting a war to immediately becoming the next Bachelor (I still say it should’ve been Mike, but I digress). Too much wanted to be done in this book and honestly, it felt like an entire trilogy was squeezed into this one, less than 400 page book and because things were so pressed for time we just bounced from one idea to the next because the sands of time were working against us. And because of that, so many things were mentioned and then immediately forgotten. Nadya thinks everyone at the monastery is dead but apparently Kostya is alive and well? Too bad we’re not gonna explore that anymore, even though he was supposedly important to her. Serefin’s mother is in the city for some unexplained reason? Guess we should visit her once and immediately forget about her. Mala-whatever is Serefin’s long lost cousin whom he believed to be dead, but is actually the Black Vulture? Let’s not revisit that “plot twist” since it only mattered for 0.01 seconds. There’s a prophecy for the three main characters that should probably be explained in great detail when understanding hits? Nope, we gotta keep moving and pretend you get it too. Honestly, this book made me feel pretty stupid. It made me think that I didn’t understand concepts or specific moments in the plot when in reality, the author just forgot to fully detail them or didn’t feel like detailing them at all. The biggest example is how Duncan spent all that time detailing a fake backstory for Nadya to cross the Tranavian border and sneak into the palace, detailed the magic she and what’s-his-face would use on each other to disguise themselves, but I was never actually told what they planned to do when they got in to Tranavia and how they were going to get close to the king. All of a sudden, they were in the palace and she was a contestant on The Bachelor. I went back and tried to find the moment when this part of the plan was stated but I swear to god, it was never mentioned and it made me feel like I was losing my mind. You can’t put all this time and effort into the mechanics of the plan and wasting time on fake backstory full of sexual tension and not mention the money maker of the plan. You just can’t. I am so frustrated with all the missed opportunities that were seemingly wasted with this mess of a plot that I don’t know what to do with myself. Well, I know not to read the next book but that’s another story.
Here’s the thing about the characters: I don’t know why they were special. I mean, on the surface I’m told why they’re special and why they deserve main character recognition, but they just felt so generic and bland and not at all unique. First there’s Nadya, a girl who has been chosen by the gods to wield their divine power and unlike those before her, she’s the first cleric who can use the power of any god, not just the one who chose her. That seems like it should be a big deal, and a huge driving point for the plot, and yet. Why is she of the same caliber as Katniss Everdeen or Ruby Daly or Linh Cinder? If anything, she’s as boring as Celaena/Aelin and literally does nothing to change the plot. You can try to tell me she does, but I wouldn’t believe you. Then there’s the boys. Serefin was fine but he’s your typical “evil but actually just sassy” prince that’s important for some reason. I didn’t hate him, and liked the depth he appeared to have been given, but he’s kind of a been there, done that for me. Finally, and who knows if I’m spelling this correctly, Malachiazs. First of all, what kind of name is that? I can’t even say it, let alone spell it. But his character just ended up being so predictably boring and I was more angry at the fact that Duncan decided to plot twist him into being power hungry and evil than the fact that he’s actually the evil villain. His potential was beyond wasted. We could’ve had a repentant villain, the one who set all this destruction and wrongness onto both of these countries, and actually wanted to be the one to fix it because he saw his mistakes. But no, this is YA so we have to use every cliche that’s ever been done. Surprise, he’s still the evil villain! Who set all of this up for more power! BORING. I was with him, I supported his repentance, I believed in him. But Duncan just had to go ruin it, but I guess it was ruined from the start since she based him on Kylo Ren, and it all makes sense now. I’m just so mad that these characters were wasted on this boring plot. Nadya had the ability to commune with the gods which could’ve been a complete game changer, but since she conveniently couldn’t do so once in Tranavia, she lost her purpose. Serefin could’ve been the one to truly end the war and change all the lives in both countries, but he resorted as the stock prince character. And Mala-whatever was so incredibly wasted that I don’t know why we bothered. I thought we’d move past the old YA cliches of Yore, but apparently someone thought they should make a comeback in 2019. I am not one of those people. Knock it off.
Honestly, I’d only picked up this book because I felt like it was finally time to get it out of the way, since it’d been on my shelf since last April. But I cannot see myself continuing with this series, purely because I don’t care. Too much potential was wasted on a story that’s really as cliched and boring as others I’ve read, and it doesn’t change my life or the YA genre in the slightest. If anything, this book is like off-brand Shadow and Bone, except maybe this villain doesn’t make me want to punt him out of existence. I still would very much like to punt him, but it’s not worth the full effort, you know?
PS the title and tag line literally make zero sense to the story but that seems to be a common theme here so I’m not surprised.
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..