TW: Self harm, Parental abuse, Lots of blood and gore and violence
This book was already on many bloggers’ most anticipated lists because the author seems to have been famous on tumblr and all her followers have been with her on her journey of completing her debut novel. So, even though I wasn’t one of them, learning that this book has some sort of Grisha Trilogy vibes, especially a romance between the heroine and (possibly) villain that we never got in the trilogy, I was very intrigued to read it. And I have to say, despite being very bloody and dark for my tastes, it’s a compelling new fantasy world with fascinating characters who impressed me a lot.
This is a story of war, politics and religion – with a whole lot of blood involved. While we all have read many fantasy novels with kingdoms fighting each other and the female MC is destined to save her kingdom, I personally have never read a book whose foundation is a holy war and all the characters are very deeply religious in their own way. The author uses the conversations between the characters and their monologues to give us both the perspectives of the religious god fearing Kalyazin and the heretical blood magic using Tranavians – and the beauty of the writing is that we as readers see our loyalties shifting between both the sides until we are unsure who is worthy of our support. Emily is greatly skilled at writing action packed, violent and bloody sequences because I didn’t feel turned off by them. The pacing can feel off at times, because it starts off with a great action sequence which then follows into a slower paced journey. However, the interactions between the characters, the political intrigue and the spectacular climax make up for any other issues.
Nadya is a very sheltered girl when we meet her in the beginning. She only knows that her power to wield magic by communicating with the pantheon of gods has made her a target and she needs to survive to save Kalyazin in the war. However, as she meets the rebel gang and especially the Tranavian blood mage Malachiasz, she starts questioning her own devotion to her gods and her hatred towards the enemy kingdom, if she is ruthless enough to follow the gods’ orders and if they truly have the best intentions for her kingdom. She also fights her attraction to Malachiasz every step of the way, because he is the epitome of the monsters who were created to kill someone like her. I absolutely loved their push and pull, the constant tug between light and darkness, how they felt drawn towards each other despite knowing that it probably wouldn’t end well for either of them. I can’t wait to see what more the author has in store for them in the future.
Serefin is a very powerful blood mage and the High Prince of Tranavia, a general of the army who has seen too many horrors at a very young age and tries to drown his sorrows in alcohol. Being at war for too long has made him realize that it is destroying his country and he just wants to find a better way for his people. However, conspiracies abound back at the palace and he is constantly on the lookout for who is coming for him. I wanted to hate him because the book starts with him trying to kill Nadya but as the story progressed, I realized he was only doing what he thought was best and he wasn’t the bad guy after all. His character arc is marred by betrayals at every step and I’m even more excited to know where the author takes his story next. The book also some excellent side characters in Rashid, Parijahan, Ostyia and Kacper who are loyal and steadfast and I definitely don’t think the main characters would be so strong or survive their circumstances without these friends by their sides. I wish to see more of them in the sequel and hopefully, we’ll get to know more of their backstories too.
Overall, this is a very strong debut and I highly recommend it if you don’t mind your fantasy novels to be quite bloody and gory and violent. As promoted, it will definitely appeal to Leigh Bardugo fans with its Russian and Polish inspired world building and the Alina/Darkling vibes. This book also given me one of those ships whom I would die for with my whole heart and it’ll probably only end in tears for me but I won’t have it any other way. Such a great start to a series and I can’t believe I have to wait for more than an year for the next one… Why do these books torture us so 😭😭😭
N A DE Z H D A
L A P T E V A
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 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 sec- onds 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 named 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 re- fused to talk about them. The recorded histories never spoke of clerics who could hear more than one god. That Nadya com- muned 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, My- esta. 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 im- possible to forget just who had chosen her for this fate: Mar- zenya, 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 fig- ures 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 tight- ened, 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 be- came 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 si- lently aiming into the heart of the group.
“We can 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 glow- ing 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 any– thing.
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 fleeing 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 skull just underneath his ear.
Not so difficult this time, 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, thank- fully 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 string of words she didn’t understand. His posture was languid, as if he hadn’t nearly been torn to pieces by blood 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 com- municate 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 as- sassin 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 ask 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.
EMILY A. DUNCAN 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. Wicked Saints is her first book. She lives in Ohio.