Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Unnecessarily Long Review: The Beautiful by Renée Ahdieh

42265183This is nothing like Twilight: the similarities are superficial at best, and a trope in common does not a similar book make.

The Beautiful is a story about desire and power (and desire for power) from the point of view of a young woman. That’s the main reason I don’t want to say it’s similar to the vampire story that basically preaches abstinence in your face. They share a few tropes and plot devices; apart from that, I really don’t see the similarities.

Now that I got that out of the way, due to the borderline ridiculous length of this review I want to give you a disclaimer: this post should have probably been titled “here’s what happens when Acqua takes fiction way too personally”; as this book hit far deeper than a vampire book has any right to, this got both long and personal and not necessarily as coherent as usual.


I

On the Portrayal of Sexual Assault and Self-Loathing

This is the story of Celine, a girl who left everything she knew from her life in France and went to live in New Orleans after a deeply traumatic event. There, she will get more and more involved in the murderous paranormal underbelly of the city.

So, The Beautiful is the most culturally Catholic book I’ve ever read, and unexpectedly so. Celine is French and biracial Korean, and was raised in what’s implied to be a (by today’s standards) strict Catholic environment. I’ve never seen a character with this specific kind of background before, especially not in an American fantasy book.

And did it make for some unpleasant flashbacks.
From age 3 to age 13, I attended an Italian Catholic school led by sisters; all of them were both old and what one could call old-school Catholics. The environment I was immersed in for most of my childhood isn’t too different from Celine’s own background, and I’m familiar with the ways it can be toxic.

Which brings me to the point: this book has the best portrayal of Catholic self-loathing I’ve ever seen.
Celine is a wild, carefree person. She has always craved danger and on some level power; what happened to her and brought her to New Orleans only forced her to face that fact, and now she is disgusted by herself.
Celine was sexually assaulted by a man, and she killed him in self-defense. She doesn’t feel regret about that, the book is pretty clear about it, and she states (quote) that:

“Celine still wasn’t sorry for what she had done.”

What horrifies her is the fact that she liked it. That she liked wielding power, that she didn’t feel remorse at all, for killing – which, according to Catholicism, is a mortal sin. In the eyes of the Catholic church, especially of the Catholic church of her time who would no doubt blame her for what happened instead of seeing it rightfully as (acceptable by Catholics) self-defense, Celine has just done something evil, that she could atone in only some specific way I don’t remember because I didn’t pay that much attention during the mandatory religion class, being an atheist. But you can’t atone without regret, which she doesn’t feel. Of course she feels bad about not feeling it, even though we know she did nothing wrong.

We know, and if one understands what she’s going through, they also should understand why she has deeply mixed feelings about what happened. I disagree with the comments that say “this book tells sexual assault victims they shouldn’t fight back” – which Celine doesn’t even think, as she does the very Catholic thing of feeling bad about her own emotions instead. And getting out of this self-hating mindset is the heart of her character arc!

“Sin isn’t as black and white as they’d like us to believe.”

A character arc that is really meaningful and close to me.
One might think this is a book that wants to talk about “the mindset of people at the time”, but I want people to know that is still really relevant today.

I’m an atheist and a lesbian. I’ve always known about the first but not about the second. How long did it take me to be somewhat comfortable with that after being raised in this kind of deeply homophobic religious environment – if I start counting from the moment I knew and understood that there was nothing wrong with being gay?
Three years, and I don’t even believe in sin. You internalize that sort of thing. If I internalized homophobia on a deep level, Celine internalized that women should make themselves small, be humble, not crave power and feel anything remotely positive in being able to best their attackers. She knows she did the right thing, she knows defending herself was the right thing, but what you know doesn’t matter. She hates herself and has to work through it. Which she does, and she’ll probably continue to do in the following books.


II

Power: who has it, who craves it

There’s something wonderful about seeing marginalized people be involved in a historical narrative that is specifically about power. Reading about La Cour des Lions, an underground supernatural society composed mostly by people of color and queer people, is the best kind of escapism. The kind that asks, what if the ones that white American society always tried to make powerless weren’t powerless at all, in more than one way? That’s giving power to those who usually don’t get it in fantasy – much less historical fantasy – books, which is why I love that this wasn’t contemporary.

Reading about women who crave power is something I’ve always loved and yet rarely find outside villain origin stories. Yes, Celine is somewhat self-centered. The narrative doesn’t praise nor tear her down for that, and I appreciated that so much. The book even lets her make the classic clueless straight girl faux pas (“but I’m not into you” and the like) when the lesbian side character Odette comes out to her, and the book calls her out for it! I loved that scene. Celine is flawed and – in her words – reckless, incomplete and inappropriate, and I love her deeply.

Often, women are asked to choose between love and ambition; here, power is a central theme of the romance as well, which is the right thread to follow in a story involving vampires, if you ask me. Both potential love interests have power over Celine, and Celine is attracted to them both in spite and because of that, but most of all, she wants power over them. The idea that their attraction to her is one of their weaknesses is probably the most attractive thing about the whole tangle to her.

And while both relationships are unbalanced, the ways the two love interests approach the situation are very different and tied to the power/agency theme, which is why the romance being a hinted-at love triangle makes sense (fight me) even though you know who she’ll very likely choose:
🌹 the mysterious Sébastien Saint Germain tries to keep the main character at a distance because danger (probably the most Twilight-y thing), but he is stunned by how daring and fearless Celine can be.
🌹 Michael Grimaldi is also surprised by Celine, but he wants her to tone herself down. He just wants to keep Celine safe from this horrible supernatural world, after all. (Did I somehow manage to omit that people are being murdered? Yes I did)
[by the way, I find an all-PoC love triangle – both the love interests are biracial, Bastien is of Taíno descent and Michael is Italian and Black – inherently not cliché]

I can’t wait to see this play out, and not because I don’t know the way this will likely play out. After all, the point of a romance and thematic arc isn’t surprising the reader.


III

Respect and Italian Representation

I’ve read more than a dozen American books that tried to incorporate Italian words into the text, especially in the form of an Italian-American character using both languages on the page.
Until The Beautiful, every single one of them got something wrong, because authors just don’t care enough to have someone who speaks the language check what they’re doing.

This book has a delightful scene in which a very realistic and stern Italian grandmother brings the main character she has never met before Italian food, and speaks both English and Italian on the page. There’s not one word wrong or out of place.

[Historical accuracy aside: as this book is set in 1872, an Italian character probably wouldn’t be speaking Italian at all, but another romance language or dialect – in this case, Sicilian, I think – but finding resources and people who are able to translate less-known languages spoken in Italy for you when you don’t even speak Italian is… well, it’s not reasonable to expect that from an English author, so I’m fine with this choice. I can barely write in my own region’s original language with a dictionary and I live here.]

As far as I know, the author doesn’t speak Italian, and she mentions asking for help to someone in the acknowledgments. The fact that she cared enough to do that – when most American authors don’t – meant a lot to me and made me see the whole book in a better, less nitpick-y way.


IV

Because yes, I do have complaints

I had mixed feelings about the writing. The atmosphere is undeniably beautiful, the descriptions vivid and detailed, enough that they will feel like too much to those who don’t specifically like slow reads that are meant to be savored (yes this took me more than a week no I’m not annoyed about that).
However, sometimes there were some weird turns of phrase. Characters who are walking as if they were moving through water to mean that they’re graceful (how does that look like? Are they swimming? Doesn’t feel graceful), for example; and while I understand that self-identifying as a monster is in fact one of the coping mechanisms typical of people who loathe themselves, reading about the movement of Celine’s “dark creature” only made me think of tapeworms.
And were all those Shakespeare quotes necessary?

I also recommend going into this with appropriate expectations for a vampire romance, which means: The Beautiful is as cheesy as one would expect. From the oh-so-forbidden lust we mostly won’t call lust because this is YA (cue weird metaphors) to the pages-long villain monologue, everything about this book is overdramatic. But I mean, if you’re going to do sexy vampires, being understated doesn’t really make sense either.

And now, to the biggest complaint: the unnecessary PoVs. For most of the book, apart from Celine’s narration, you also read from the villain’s PoV – except you don’t know who the villain is or their motivations or anything that would make their chapters interesting; you only get vague and ominous word vomit about tearing enemies down. Those chapters were so boring and didn’t actually add anything, not even suspense.
Also, the worldbuilding revolving around the paranormal creatures? Messy and underdeveloped. I get that it wasn’t the point and Celine couldn’t know anything anyway, but I hope the next book clears it up, because I definitely will be reading it.

My rating: ★★★★½

 

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Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

39679076House of Salt and Sorrows is a standalone YA gothic murder mystery set in a high fantasy world.

This book doesn’t get that heterosexuality is not a personality trait.

I’m not saying this to be funny: no one in this book had a personality. I can’t tell you anything about the main character apart from the fact that she’s attracted to Cassius and cares for her sisters; she was more a placeholder than a character. The boys were even worse, existing in the book just to be handsome, vaguely mysterious, and exchange possessive glares that the book will carefully specify are masculine while fighting for the main girl.
And while I knew, getting into a Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling, that not every sister was going to be developed, I didn’t expect their attraction to boys to replace the personality of all of them (in the older ones; the younger one is never anything more than a “creepy little girl” stereotype.)
Four sisters are dead at the beginning of the book, and the living ones are worried not because of that, or not because maybe they’re going to die next, but because their supposed “curse” scares men away and they think they’re going to grow old and die unkissed, without ever having danced with a boy.
Yeah. Priorities!

So, let’s be kind and say that this book is plot-driven.
The plot wasn’t that great. House of Salt and Sorrows is a gothic mystery with a really interesting premise and solid background, but the execution ended up being really messy. All the tension relied on the usual “is the main character *gasp* insane or is that magic?” trope, which is cheap and I hate it, especially when the answer is so obvious and when the book constantly approached even only the possibility of mental illness in really insensitive ways.
By the way, in case that wasn’t already clear: there is no diversity whatsoever in this book. The whole cast is all-straight, and, unless I missed something, also all-white and all-abled (which: the realism, where?). There’s one old blind man whose entire personality was “crazy” who appeared for half a scene, and that’s it. No diversity, bland unnecessary romance, love triangle… did we all somehow time-travel to 2013?

The mystery was kind of underwhelming, but it wasn’t terrible. The foreshadowing was somewhat unsubtle and heavy-handed at times, but it didn’t give away the whole story immediately as many YA mystery books do; the revelation wasn’t the most unpredictable thing ever, but it was fine – I was mostly annoyed by how rushed the resolution was.

And I still didn’t dislike this, not really.
I mean, I clearly had many problems with it, but the thing is, it kept my interest. I’m barely reading these days and I finished it really quickly – which yes, that also means that there wasn’t much substance to it, but it was a fun ride most of the time, and I wanted to know what happened. I never really thought about DNFing it.

Another reason I didn’t dislike this book is that I got into it for the island gothic aesthetic, and in that aspect, it didn’t disappoint at all.
Have you ever watched a movie or a show in which the acting was bad and the plot was mediocre but the setting and the costume design made it worth watching at least once, purely as eye candy? House of Salt and Sorrows is the book version of that. The descriptions are beautiful, and the island atmosphere is perfect. I loved all the mentions of coastal marine life, the descriptions of tide pools, all the details this book gave me about buildings and dresses and shoes and accessories.

This is deeply forgettable and really flawed, and not something I would ever reread, but it was worth reading once just for that.

My rating: ★★¾

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

36683928Spin the Dawn is the first book in a Chinese-inspired fantasy series. If you think that this book’s cover is beautiful, I can now tell you that its inside is even better, and that it is worth reading just for the descriptions and atmosphere, if you care about that sort of thing.
I certainly do.

One of the first things I noticed while reading this book was that I could visualize everything perfectly – from the dresses and the needlework to the landscapes and the magic – so much that I was actually happy when, once the sewing competition ended, this became a travel fantasy. Travel fantasy is very hit-or-miss for me, but when I love the author’s writing (especially the descriptions), I always end up loving it, and this was no exception.

It was so refreshing to read about a heroine who wasn’t a warrior in a book about a competition that didn’t in any way involve fightingSpin the Dawn is about a competition to become the Emperor’s personal tailor; in this world of demons and magic that can spin sun rays and paint with the blood of the stars, it’s exactly as beautiful as one would think, and the mythology is just as interesting.
Maia, the main character, isn’t good at wielding traditional weapons – her “weapons” are needles and especially her magical scissors, but this doesn’t make her a damsel in distress. I always appreciate when YA fantasy portrays characters who have a different sort of strength from the usual warrior archetype.

I almost wanted to give this book five stars, because I did love parts of it, and it’s been a while since a YA fantasy novel captivated me so much. However, some tropes this book employed left a bad taste in my mouth – crossdressing plotlines usually have transphobic implications in some scenes (which is why I skimmed the ~gender reveal~) but what I didn’t expect was the whole “I’m disguised as a boy and I’m attracted to a boy, people think we’re *gasp* gay“. It almost felt like the book was playing it for laughs, and… that’s really not good, especially not in a book in which there are no explicitly queer characters. [there’s also a really ableist trope at the end of the ARC, bus as I’ve heard it was removed from the final copy, I won’t let it influence my rating.]

It might be that this is the first straight book I’ve read in a month, but the romance wasn’t great – it’s the typical “kind of naive girl + mysterious boy with an eye color far more striking than his personality” dynamic that is everywhere in YA fantasy. I wouldn’t hate m/f YA fantasy romances so much if it weren’t for the fact that 90% of male love interests sound like the same person. It’s also one of these mortal + old immortal romances, except the love interest doesn’t sound old at all (I don’t get why he had to be immortal in the first place), and I didn’t get why the two liked each other at all either – their banter was fun at times, but what did they see in each other? I don’t know, I liked them enough as individual characters (especially Maia) but as a couple… I just didn’t feel it.

My rating: ★★★¾

Book review · contemporary · Fantasy · Young adult

Reviews: Two F/F YA Books

Today, I’m reviewing two f/f young adult books I’ve read recently, one contemporary and one fantasy.


Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

31180248I’ve now read all the books Becky Albertalli has written, and of them, Leah on the Offbeat felt like the most realistic one to me. There’s an amount of teenage drama that would be annoying, if I didn’t remember how it was like to be in high school and hear about my classmates’ relationship problems.

Teenagers are messy, teenage relationships are even messier, and I loved how this book didn’t shy away from that for a moment. The result is a novel with a plot that is less solid than Simon vs.‘s, but one that actually feels like a story about real teenagers. I mean, it features a friend group that is mostly queer and the characters aren’t even out to each other for most of high school, and yes, that’s far more common than YA books would lead you to believe.

Leah Burke as a character felt so real to me. She constantly says the wrong thing, she overreacts, she misinterprets, she doesn’t know how to communicate. She’s a 17-year-old girl, not a role model, and I liked her so much for it. Sometimes she reminded me of myself, sometimes she reminded me of things some of my classmates have done. Teenage girls have… a lot of emotions and don’t always cope in the healthiest ways, and this book knows that. What I don’t get is all the hate Leah got for being a realistic teenage girl, but I can’t say I’m surprised, seeing how the book community is usually about girls who don’t deserve a halo.
Her relationship with Abby was very cute, but not without misunderstandings, because both girls are insecure and kind of take it out on each other at times (see: the label policing conversation – that’s Leah being a dick because she feels guilty about 100 other things; I never got the impression that the book wanted me to agree with her). However, their dynamic didn’t feel unhealthy to me overall.

I have to say that reading these books also makes me kind of sad, because while I’m always glad I can find happy queer stories (this time, one that was translated in my language!), this hasn’t been my high school experience, not even close– and to see books that say things like “you’ll miss these years!!”… well, I hope not. They were a five-year-long nightmare. I’m a year out of high school and I miss nothing.

Also: this time the pop culture references felt less overwhelming, maybe because I expected them, but the translation continued to make very questionable choices. I especially disliked the way the minor non-binary character was handled, as this book had the Italian version of “she uses they/them pronouns”.

My rating: ★★★★


The Afterward by E.K. Johnston

36998181Me and E.K. Johnston’s writing just don’t get along. It’s not bad by any means, it’s just that the narrative choices don’t make any sense to me: in years of reading fantasy, I’ve never read a book that had at the same time this many infodumps and a worldbuilding as generic, inconsistent and lacking in details as The Afterward.

Let’s talk about what I mean:

  • generic: this book has a typical medieval fantasy aesthetic, with knights and kings and magical gems, which is fine, if not exactly my preference;
  • inconsistent: what sets it apart from many other fantasy books is that it has gender equality to a degree and less queerphobia, which would have been great if the book hadn’t gone about it in an extremely inconsistent way, for example by telling us that the language shifted to include non-binary people but constantly using binarist phrasings – and since we’re talking about the way things are phrased, some parts were really uncomfortable to read as an aromantic person;
  • lacking in details: the Mage Keep is the only place that was really described, and I have no idea how anything else looked like. It relied a lot on the idea that the reader could envision a generic medieval fantasy world, but that’s both boring for me and lazy writing.

I had a similar problem with That Inevitable Victorian Thing – at this point, I doubt she’s able to write worldbuilding that doesn’t fall apart if you look at it twice – so I think she’s just not the author for me.

Now, let’s mostly focus on the positives, since this was, after all, a three star book – and three stars isn’t a bad rating for me.
The Afterward is a quietly subversive fantasy novel. It looks generic on the surface, and its world is, but what it does with the set-up isn’t. Instead of having a group of men with the one woman™ go on a quest, it’s a group of female knights (one of which is a trans woman) and thieves with only one man, and the story centers an f/f relationship between two young women of color. What it did with arranged marriage tropes was really interesting to see too, as it didn’t approach it the way most YA fantasy novels do.

I thought that The Afterward would be about what happens after the quest, but it isn’t, not really – half of it is set during the before. I can’t really complain about that, since those are the parts of the book in which we actually see the f/f couple instead of only hearing about it while the girls are separated. However, the quest itself wasn’t that interesting to read about.

And finally: the f/f romance. I loved Olsa and Kalanthe’s dynamic, but they aren’t in the same place for most of the book. Which is sad, because the scenes in which they were together were enough to make me at least believe in the romance, so I wonder how strongly I would have felt about it had it had more page time.

My rating: ★★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

39733052What I love the most about Margaret Rogerson’s books is how they don’t take themselves too seriously. It was true for An Enchantment of Ravens, and it’s true for Sorcery of Thorns too – the humor in them is effortless and makes everything feel lighter. 16-year-old me would have had so much fun with this.
I mean, I loved this book now too, but it’s the kind of novel for which I want a time machine, so that I could give it to 16-year-old Acqua. This is the way I want YA fantasy to be: funny, and on the lighter side, without needing to shy away from dark themes from time to time; enjoyable for adults but mostly aimed at teens.

Sorcery of Thorns is the story of Elisabeth, who was raised in – and in a way, by – a magical library, and it’s the story of how she got drawn into a scheme much bigger than herself, involving sorcery, demons, and the power of books.
Elisabeth took a while to grow on me. At the beginning, her voice reminded me a lot of Isobel from AEOR and didn’t really stand out to me, but the way she went at things and defeated them, sometimes out of pure stubbornness, made me love her. The romance also grew on me after a lukewarm start – Elisabeth and the bisexual disaster of a sorcerer named Nathaniel are one of the best m/f couples in YA fantasy, and how could I not love them, when Nathaniel started calling Elisabeth “you menace” (I mean, he’s right. Elisabeth is unstoppable.)

But I have to be honest, the main reason I liked this book wasn’t the romance, or the beautiful descriptions of magical, terrifying libraries, or even the amount of casual queerness (there’s an aro side character and I love her).
The main reason is Silas, Nathaniel’s Inherited Demon™, who tries to convince Elisabeth for most of the book that he is a dignified powerful demon who totally doesn’t care about humans, especially not Nathaniel, no, why would you think that
And the thing is, he doesn’t care like a human would, but in his own way, he definitely does. Margaret Rogerson strikes the “doesn’t feel like a human, but definitely feels” balance perfectly, which I already knew from her portrayal of the fair folk in her debut, but here the dynamic was even more interesting. Silas is such a compelling combination of “terrifying and beautiful and powerful, but also caring (in a demon way) and exasperated by teenage humans”.

When I wrote what I want from YA fantasy, I said that I wanted books to not shy away from difficult themes, too, and this book did that – it talks about how easy it is for young women in difficult situations to be dismissed as crazy, as “difficult” themselves. It was hard to read, but it’s what made seeing Elisabeth succeed even more satisfying.

One thing that didn’t work for me, however, was the pacing. It’s not that this book is slow, I just felt weird about it. Almost as if things took too long to get started and then became too quick all of the sudden, but multiple times through the book. I have to say that overall my favorite kind of YA fantasy is the one that is closer to 300 pages than to 500.
Also, it was a really predictable read, which is why I think I would have loved it even more at 16, when I hadn’t read as much of this genre. However, I didn’t mind that too much, because I don’t consider predictability a flaw when the storyline is what makes sense for the book and the foreshadowing isn’t heavy-handed.

My rating: ★★★★¼

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

39821312The Candle and the Flame is unlike every other YA fantasy novel I’ve read, and I love it for that.
It’s a slowly-unfolding tale about politics, family and love set in Noor, a city on the Silk Road, and it’s the kind of really detailed, atmospheric fantasy I can’t get enough of.

I struggled with it at first. I often do, with slow-paced novels, but what made this one particularly hard to get into was the omniscient narration in third person present, very jarring at first, but which I started to see as beautiful once I got used to it. I don’t have any problems with it, as it’s a choice that clearly made sense for the story, and I struggled with it because of habits, and not because of bad execution.
And the writing really is beautiful. Food descriptions are my weakness, and this book has so many of them. I appreciated the level of detail the author wove into the story – it’s never just a tree, it’s a gulmohar (the beautiful Delonis regia) and it’s never just a dress or jewels, Nafiza Azad will tell you which kind of dress, which kinds of jewels. Which also means that, depending on how familiar the cultures represented are to you, this book might require a lot of googling. And to say that I don’t mind that is an understatement, I actually love it.

The city of Noor is now one of my favorite YA fantasy setting. It reminded me a bit of the Cairo of P. Djèlí Clark’s The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – not because Noor and that alternate version of Cairo are similar (they’re really not), but because both these fantasy books portray multi-cultural cities with humans of different cultures and faiths coexisting, and also coexisting with Djinn. It really stands out how unrealistically and depressingly homogeneous the average fantasy city is. Also, this means that you get descriptions of Turkish food and Korean food and so many dishes from the Indian subcontinent.
(Also, there’s a mention of a very minor character being queer and I appreciate books that acknowledge explicitly that queer characters exist in their world. And I’m not completely sure it’s canon but Sunaina is totally not straight as far as I’m concerned)

But enough about the setting, let’s talk about the story and characters. When the author said that this book is about women being women in the most fantastic ways possible, I didn’t really know what she meant, but now I can say that I totally agree. There are so many female characters in this book, all of them very different from each other, some of them morally gray to some degree, and the way this book sidestepped completely some misogynistic stereotypes – how easy it would have been to make the rajkumari just a spoiled, entitled princess who hated the protagonist, and how many books have I read that do exactly that – without having all relationships between women be smooth and friendly is one of the things I liked the most. I loved reading about Fatima Ghazala and Sunaina’s relationship as adopted sisters who went through a lot together, because it’s strained and developed and all but stagnant during the story. I also loved reading about the Alif sisters’ banter.

I really liked Fatima Ghazala, especially because she was allowed to be distant and sometimes cold without being villainized for it. Also, ownvoices Muslim main character in fantasy!
I liked her romance with Zulfikar, even though I didn’t feel strongly about it – they’re not… my type? I don’t know if that makes sense, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the romance – and I really appreciated the conversations they had about forgiveness, grieving and what makes a monster.

The political intrigue in this book was predictable, but I also feel like it was supposed to be – this isn’t the kind of book that wants or needs to surprise you with plot twists – so I didn’t mind that too much.

My rating: ★★★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Blog Tour Review: Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan

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]

36118682

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