Something Dark & Holy, Book 1
Emily A. Duncan
Wednesday Books, 2019
Releasing in early April, Emily Duncan’s Slavic-flavored fantasy novel Wicked Saints promises to be the first in an engaging and dark series. And by dark I mean, Goth. Honestly, it’s about time. Fantasy fiction embraced grimdark but never really understood the fun and seriousness of being Goth. Instead, grimdark became so earnest it’s realism turned into melodramatic brutalism. Goth means emotional conflict, brooding certainly but sarcasm, and more than a modicum of self-awareness. Grimdark is the Emo of the fantasy genre and as an aged ex-Goth, I’m so in love with what Duncan is doing. This is a novel I can read while listening to Dead Can Dance, and it feels right.
All of this is to say Wicked Saints is stylized. Some fantasy readers will absolutely dismiss it, and it’s their loss. No of us will miss them because the story is compelling, the worldbuilding strong, the magic system at once familiar yet innovative, and the characters exceptional. As with nearly all fantasy, war is the background for the novel, a century long conflict between the nations of Kalyazin and Tranavia.
The Bloody & The Divine
Unlike many fantasy worlds, Duncan has crafted something far more Eastern European or, rather, something I prefer to term Cyrillic. The folklore the author draws from, the character and place names, and the terminology casually bandied about between characters is of a distinctly different flavor than what many are used to. The fantasy nations Tranavia and Kalyazin feel like stand-ins for Russia and Poland or, perhaps more accurately, the hostilities between Russian and Ukraine. While Tranavia has gotten the upper hand, it appears the nation has never quite been able to close out the conflict.
Duncan structures her novel to flip back-and-forth between the points of view of two main characters giving us a dual perspective. This allows readers to know what’s going on in multiple locations and feel not just engaged but enmeshed in the story’s drama. It’s a technique which rapidly ratchets-up tension while also a means to give readers a glimpse or a break from such moments. Duncan uses it effectively as she braids the perspectives of two of the three primary characters together: Nadezha Lapteva or Nadya, the first cleric to appear Kalyazin in over thirty years, and Serefin, High Prince of Tranavia and his nation’s top general and blood mage.
Nadya is the heart of this novel. To get a sense of how Duncan presents Nadya, it’s worth noting the author discussing one of her favorite woman characters, Alina Starkov from The Shadow and Bone trilogy by Leigh Bardugo:
“There’s something about a tired, grouchy girl thrust into a world she does not understand and doesn’t always want to be a part of; a story about a girl who doesn’t really fit in anywhere trying to find her place, who was allowed to be both fascinated and repulsed by it all in turn, that I adored. Something about a girl who was drawn by darkness but truly, deeply, ultimately just wanted peace, was something I understood deeply.”
Nadya is a hero, devout and devoted to achieving peace but entirely conflicted by her own very human emotions. She constantly has to negotiate physical, emotional, and existential attraction and revulsion.
These tensions are rooted in the magic system Duncan has devised. Wicked Saints revolves around its magic system, one that isn’t given too much detail other than allowing readers to see how it is used, where power seems to flow from one of two sources—the gods or blood. The Kalyazi side of this magical divide call on the divine communing with the gods and pulling their magic from them. It is a nation of clerics. Or, at least, it was. Over the course of the war with Tranavia, which may have been started in no small part due to the nation’s rejection of the gods and literal embrace of themselves as the font of magical power, true Kalyazi clerics has disappeared. Then, Nadya appears not just speaking with a single deity but all of them. Rather than go mad, Nadya becomes fascinatingly devout learning to navigate each deity. We get glimpses into how she is able to know just how to appeal to a particular god, how that god will react if she acts counter to their expectation, and the kinds of marvelous magical power each grants. This divine magic is in stark contrast to Tranavia’s drawn from the blood of the user.
Tranavian ‘blood mages’ literally cut their flesh pouring their blood onto the page of their spell book to ignite their magic. The stronger the blood mage’s blood and spell design, the more powerful the blood mage. What is clear in this dichotomy is Tranavia have rebuked the gods as well as the notion magic flows exclusively from them or is their sole prevue. In the extreme opposite direction, Tranavians center magic on themselves, their willingness and stamina to self-harm in order to conjure frighteningly powerful magic. One could conclude that to the Kalyzi, this war is one between the devout and heretics, whereas to Tranavians, it is more about banishing superstition.
Between these two warring factions is the mysterious cult called The Vultures. It is a group working within Travania and may be responsible for the culture’s turn away from the gods. Duncan does an excellent job of presenting The Vultures through the third central character of Malachiasz as a mix of blood mages gone mad with power and servants of perhaps a betrayer god or one kicked out of the pantheon.
All this means we may be reading the beginnings of not just a new war on this earth but one in this heaven.
The truest Virgo attempts to save the world surrounded by Scorpios is how I would summarize Wicked Saints. While leaning into YA fiction and embracing its core romance elements (misunderstood youth, emotional confusion, and love triangles), the novel manages to use hone those elements to serve a much more interesting narrative than most. Duncan has created a magic system that expertly blends into the religious system reinforcing, complicating, and illuminating the other. This coupled with the dual/duel points of view give keen readers a nuanced and fascinating story.
About the Author
Emily A. Duncan was born and raised in Ohio and 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.