Edit: while I did like this book overall and I strongly disagree with the idea of it being “goth AU fanfiction” of Shadow and Bone (…it’s really not. It just has a similar aesthetic at times. Themes and characters are completely different, the villain is a teenager with anxiety for fuck’s sake), I’m also tired of authors who constantly subtweet their reviewers, so take everything under this with a grain of salt. Or go read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Stars Are Legion and The House of Binding Thorns if you’re hungry for villain romances [as those are better at it overall, too]
With its gothic atmosphere, discussions on the nature of godhood, and complex, mysterious magic system tied to religion, Wicked Saints is without a doubt one of the most interesting and accomplished YA fantasy debuts of these last few years.
And it’s also a villain romance. If you know me, you might also know that I’m definitely a villain romance fan, so yes – of course – I loved this book.
Wicked Saints isn’t for the faint of heart. If you don’t like to read what for YA standards is extreme gray morality – involving casual scenes of torture, murder, and a lot of spilled blood – I don’t recommend it. Otherwise, I really do, especially if you’re the kind of person who is into the gothic aesthetic, villain-related tropes, and reading epigraphs at the beginning of every chapter, especially if they tell you about fantasy clerics, saints, and the gruesome ways they were martyred.
One of the strongest points of this novel are the characters. Wicked Saints follows two points of view, but the main characters are three:
💀 Nadezhda “Nadya” Lapteva, a Kalyazi cleric who can “commune with the gods”, which means that her prayers are usually listened. I loved that she could be both very stabby and compassionate, and I really liked reading her relationship with her faith. She has god-granted magic, so she is a chosen one, but what this book does with that trope is definitely not… traditional.
I see that many complaints about her have to do with the fact that she spends most of the book doing what other people told her to do – but I mean, that’s kind of what happens when you grew up in a monastery and most of what you did was praying and doing what the gods told you to do. Just starting to question the gods themselves is a lot! I found Nadya’s arc a realistic portrayal of what it’s like to grow up isolated. (Can we give female characters a chance to learn and make mistakes instead of expecting them to be perfect from the beginning?)
💀 Serefin Meleski, very tired blood mage and Tranavian prince. If his father has any say on the matter, he will not inherit the throne. He’s a really morally gray character who spends a surprising amount of time being unconscious for various reasons, of which the main one really made me worry for his liver. He’s confirmed to be bisexual.
💀 Malachiasz Czechowicz, powerful Tranavian blood mage who escaped the Vulture cult. He’s overdramatic, possibly unhinged, and of course he’s my favorite character – he’s the kind of person who goes from terrible blood spells and murder to flopping face-first into chaises (and that bone hopscotch scene. Wow). He has no idea of what he’s doing and too many plans at the same time. Misdirection is probably his favorite hobby.
There are also some fascinating side characters; my favorites were Pelageya the witch, the enigmatic noble Żaneta (I hope to see more of her), and Ostyia, an iconic flirty lesbian.
The romance in this book has been compared to Alina/Darkling in Shadow and Bone. While I loved it, especially because of what happened during the ending, I don’t think these couples are similar at all. Wicked Saints will probably appeal to most Shadow and Bone fans because of the aesthetic, similar fantasy religious themes and villain romance elements, but in this book the love interest is very much a chaotic teenage boy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There are many ways to write a villain romance, not all villain LIs need to be Darklings.
Another thing I really appreciated about this book was the worldbuilding. It’s the story about two countries at war, which could have felt cliché, but this story makes it very clear that there isn’t a good side just like there are many things the PoV characters are not aware of – as it happens when you’re in a world where gods exist and sometimes kind of directly influence things.
The magic system was also really interesting, because I love when those are tied to religion (what this book said about heresy and what it even means to be a god? Wonderful. More of that in the sequel, please). However, I would have liked to know more about its limits – I still don’t have a clear idea of what the magic can do in here, and while in a way it made sense because neither do the characters narrating, it got confusing sometimes. Especially in the ending, which took me a reread to actually understand.
I found the writing refreshing. The trend in YA fantasy seems to be heavy prose that feels overwritten instead of beautiful, and I’m glad this did the opposite – and without sacrificing the atmosphere. I wanted more descriptions sometimes, but I understand this choice.
One of the reasons Wicked Saints reminded me of Leigh Bardugo’s books were the dialogues: they are memorable, effective, and never feel forced, which is something I can’t say about many YA fantasy novels. This is a dark book, but because of the dialogues it’s also a fun read, and I love that about it.
Also, I might be biased because I feel strongly about villain romances, but you don’t find sexual tension written this well easily.
One thing that didn’t completely work for me was the pacing, because – especially during the first half – I didn’t really get a sense of the passage of time, but I didn’t mind that too much: I was far too invested in the characters and world to ever feel bored.
My rating: ★★★★½