Ruthless Gods is every bit the sequel that Emily A. Duncan’s chilling Wicked Saints deserves – even darker, bloodier and even more complicated.
Emily A. Duncan’s Wicked Saints was one of the most original YA fantasies released last year, a dark and disturbing tale of blood magic, vengeful gods and tortured relationships. Ruthless Gods is the second installment in what is titled the “Something Dark and Holy” trilogy, and it basically takes everything readers loved about the first book and just turns it up to the most disturbing of elevens.
The novel is a complex, messy story of betrayal and heartbreak, war and death. It’s not particularly hopeful, it’s distinctly gory in a way that few YA offerings of its kind are willing to even attempt and its trio of “heroes” are often anything but. It clocks in at nearly five hundred pages and you’ll still be hard pressed to put it down once you start.
The trilogy follows the story of three main characters – Nadya, a cleric who talks to gods she can no longer hear, Serefin, a prince whose country has long been at war with Nadya’s and Malachiasz, a deeply disturbed boy who either wants to destroy the gods or become one, we’re still not quite sure on that point. All we do know is that these three people’s lives are intertwined on what feels like a cosmic level and as they try to stop the horrors they all see coming, they seem to accomplish little besides making things worse.
Our story picks up pretty much exactly where the first novel left off – as Nadya tries to process both Malachaisz’s betrayal and the loss of her connection with the divine pantheon that has always guided her life. Serefin, having died and been resurrected, is now king of Travania, thanks to the dramatic events that resulted in his father’s death. (Which also, naturally, involves another betrayal, because that’s how this story rolls.) Yet, his grip on his throne is tenuous at best, and the revelation that Malachaisz is the Black Vulture, leader of a dangerous religious sect of blood mages who are no longer quite human.
But, then again, neither is Malachaisz.
One of the most disturbing aspects of Ruthless Gods is the physical and mental deterioration of the charming weirdo boy from the previous novel into something that feels monstrous and horrible. It’s difficult to know precisely how we should feel about his relationship with Nadya, as both clearly still care about one another even as they both plot to betray each other (again). There’s something about the two of them them simultaneously feels both sweet and utterly toxic, and even if you’re rooting for these two crazy kids to work it out somehow, it’s hard not to recognize how awful they they both are for one another.
The book once again primarily alternates between Nadya and Serefin’s points of view, with a few segments told from a handful of secondary characters, whose POV debuts I won’t spoil. Duncan’s prose is rich and heady, full of gorgeous descriptions of a wide variety of eldritch settings and nightmarish visions, which only become darker as the story continues.
The group must journey toward a frightening magical forest – all for a variety of different reasons that are all generally at cross-purposes with one another – as each of our leads slowly realizes that it’s very likely that they’re going to end up killing one of the others.
Questions of divinity, destiny and fate continue to drive the story, as manipulative beings who may or may not be gods continue to interfere in the decisions of our heroes, and the fate of nations hangs in the balance. Don’t be surprised if, over the course of the story, your loyalties switch sides several times, as Duncan skillfully asks us to question which characters are good, evil or something in between.
Fair warning, when I say this book – and this series, come to that – is dark, I am not kidding. Including everything from monsters and human sacrifice to murder and madness, there are moments where you’ll wonder how this story will ever resolve itself in anything like a happy ending. The likelihood is, unfortunately, that it won’t. No matter what happens in the final installment of this trilogy, it certainly seems unlikely that everyone will walk away still breathing, let alone achieve anything like peace.
But what a journey it will be.
Ruthless Gods is available on April 7. Read it already? Let us know!