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Wicked Saints

Book review by
Mandie Caroll, Common Sense Media
Wicked Saints Book Poster Image
Provocative but bloody Gothic fantasy trilogy starter.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

This is a Gothic-inspired book with nods to Polish and Russian folklore, Slavic polytheism, and the Christian concept of saints.

Positive Messages

Positive messages about loyalty and friendship, but these values are tested by characters who are being willing to injure and/or kill or be killed. Seeing past big differences to recognize the humanity in others is also a theme, but, again, there are devastating consequences for trusting the perceived enemy. Teamwork is a theme.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Morally, ethically complex characters are forced into wartime situations of causing harm to others. Main and primary characters have the capacity for both good and evil; many come to question beliefs that led them to hurting others through violence or emotional damage. Most characters are assumed to be white, though two well-developed primary characters are described as dark-skinned.

Violence

Blood magic requires blood sacrifice, cutting, and self harm in the service of casting magic spells. Characters are injured, tortured, and killed -- some are assumed dead, but it's unclear whether they survive their injuries. Weapons used include daggers, swords, and crossbows. Fair amount of bloodshed, especially in the closing chapters. 

Sex

Romance between main characters involves mentions of desire and a couple of passionate kisses. 

Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

On several occasions, one main character drinks to excess (passes out, wakes up hungover) in response to stressful events. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan is the first book in the Something Dark and Holy trilogy. This Gothic-inspired fantasy brings three young enemies together in a tale that's both tender and violent. Nadya, a girl who talks to the gods; Serefin, a powerful young blood mage, and Malachiasz; a mysterious boy with a dangerous past, join forces to assassinate a king and end a war that’s ravaged their homelands for a century. Positive themes about friendship, loyalty, and seeing past differences bring relief to the book's grim reality. Yet there are no clear-cut heroes here; war has compromised every single character in one way or another. Expect plenty of violence and bloodshed. Weapons like daggers and crossbows are used routinely to injure or slay enemies, and the blood-soaked closing chapters could unsettle squeamish and/or younger readers. A forbidden-love subplot involves some passionate kisses; it's briefly alluded to that one character is lesbian, and another is bisexual. One main character uses alcohol to excess as a response to stress. Magic, political intrigue, romance, provocative questions about faith and politics, and sympathetic characters are elements that will likely appeal to teen readers and fans of gothic fantasy.

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What's the story?

Nadya, WICKED SAINTS' main character, is the sole surviving Kalyazi cleric whose magic is granted by a pantheon of gods she can talk to. She is Kalyazi's only hope of winning a century-long war against the godless, blood magic-practicing Tranavians, who've hunted down and killed all other clerics who have access to the gods' magic. Before Nadya's magical and religious training are complete, however, the Tranavian high prince -- a powerful blood mage named Serefin -- tracks her down at the remote monastery where she was hiding. She just barely escapes as the prince's army destroys the only home she's ever had. As Nadya flees for safety, she connects with Malachiasz, a Tranvian defector with hidden motives. Nadya is pulled into his plot to assassinate the Tranavian king and finds herself developing romantic feelings for the dangerous, mysterious boy from the enemy kingdom. As the three main characters' stories converge, a bloody and horrifying conclusion raises thorny questions about the nature of faith, power, and responsibility.

Is it any good?

This bloody fairy tale, set in a darkly gorgeous world and told in alternating points of view, is a gripping though at times uneven read. The main characters of Wicked Saints shine, and -- along with their supporting allies -- they make a likable, if morally compromised, bunch. Strong and resilient Nadya is also full of self-doubt. Serfin and Malachiasz are alternately cruel, vulnerable, and caring. Ostyia is loyal, confident, and can defeat even the stealthiest of attackers. Token characters of color Parijahan and Rashid are friends from a neighboring country who are depicted as full, admirable people with interesting backstories.

The story begins and ends with intense, violent action, but the middle, where the trilogy's brutal, beautiful world is being built, can feel slow. That said, an alarming attempt to murder Nadya as she journeys to Tranavia and the believable (and alluring) enemies-to-lovers romance do manage to pull readers through, and the cliffhanger ending is quite satisfying. Sadly, Nadya never quite develops into the fearsome magical lead that the tagline on the cover ("Let them fear her") promises: She's held back by the conflict of blind faith and her growing feelings for Malachiasz. Only at the very end does she begin to claim control of her life from the many gods and people who've sought to use her for their own ends. Luckily, readers have two more books in this trilogy to see just how powerful Nadya can become.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the violence in Wicked Saints. How much is necessary to the story? Is it consistent with the amount of violence in other YA fantasies?

  • The book's world is dark and brutal. How do the characters cope with such difficult life circumstances? How does the author bring light or hope to this story?

  • Why do you think many fantasies written as a trilogy or a series? Does this first installment make you want to continue reading?

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