Gods and Monsters Clash in This Debut YA Fantasy

Posted by Marie on April 1, 2019
Inspired by Slavic folklore, Wicked Saints is the first installment of a new young adult fantasy series by debut author Emily A. Duncan. In it two kingdoms are locked in a centuries-long holy war. One side follows the will of the old gods, while the other defies these deities with their use of blood magic.

At the center of this war are three main characters: a young girl who can speak to the divine, a prince surrounded by enemies in his own court, and a monstrous boy whose past is as murky as his allegiance. Duncan talked to Goodreads about the crucial role her young heroes play in ending the conflict that ravaged their countries, as well as the trials and triumphs of her writing journey, and more.

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Goodreads: How are you feeling now that your debut novel is hitting the shelves?

Emily A. Duncan: Anxious and overwhelmed and wildly grateful!

GR: Your profile mentions your interest in Slavic folklore. How did this influence the world of Wicked Saints?

EAD: The book has two warring kingdoms: one based on Russia and the other on Poland, and was heavily inspired by folklore as opposed to actual history. Instead of interpreting any particular folktale, I found myself more interested in looking at two cultures where monsters feature heavily in their stories.

There's something very fascinating to me about the monsters in Slavic lore: the domovoy and monsters of the hearth in Russian lore; the vampires that feature prominently in Polish lore.

What kind of world would you have if those monsters were not only a dangerous part of life, but in some cases revered to the point where people aspired to become a monster?

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GR: Religion also plays a huge role in the world-building of your book. Why did you decide to explore this?

EAD: I have some deeply complicated feelings about religion. But theology, especially theology in fantasy, is something I’m infinitely fascinated by.

How are people motivated differently when they have some tangible proof of the gods' existence? How do they revolt against that? This was one of the more difficult parts of the research process for me and ended in me constructing my own pantheon because I didn’t really want to be writing about Slavic gods that people still worship. It's not my place. So better to nod to the origins but go my own way.

And I wanted to construct a religion that had the outward structure and aesthetics of Russian Orthodoxy (monasteries, services, chapels, and saints, to put things very simply), but with a broader pantheon to better align with the magic system that was built alongside it. I wanted it all to be connected, with magic and religion built into the very fabric of the world.

GR: Wicked Saints is told in alternating perspectives from three different main characters. What can you tell us about each of them?

EAD: It was a long journey to get to all three of the main cast. Every iteration of the book had Nadezhda Lapteva, the monastery cleric who can speak to the gods. She's always been impulsive, empathetic, and quick to argue. Serefin Meleski, the high prince and blood mage general and light alcoholic, was the second to show up about a year after I first tried to write this book and it didn't work.

I wanted his point of view to be a counterbalance to Nadya's. This isn't a book where one side of the war is objectively right, but rather a conflict that has gone on for so long that it's become ingrained into the people of both countries. Serefin is deeply weary and deeply paranoid, and while the beginning of the book has him at odds with Nadya, his story goes in a slightly different direction as he's immediately pulled back home from the front to try to set up a political match.

And then Malachiasz Czechowicz came last in a blaze of wild hair and bad jokes and convoluted plot arcs. We're only in his head for a moment in Wicked Saints, but he's my morally corrupt blood mage boy who Nadya meets in the mountains of Kalyazin and is forced into a begrudging partnership. He hides some complicated secrets, and this book would have never happened without him. He pulls the entire thing together.

GR: Your book has elicited some strong excitement from early readers! Did you ever imagine that you would get such a response?

EAD: Nope! The way this book has been received has been utterly mind-blowing for me. I wrote it for me and the teenage girl I used to be and no one else. I truly thought that, if anything, I was going to catch a very small, niche readership. I wanted to explore theology and faith and monsters and write a book that was, at its core, weird and funny while being dark. And I thought maybe a few people would be along for the ride, and the fact that it's resonated with so many readers has been so wonderful and very humbling.

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GR: Have you always been a fan of the YA fantasy genre?

EAD: I grew up on '80s and '90s fantasy—Dragonlance, in particular, and Redwall and Tamora Pierce, so I suppose yes in a roundabout way! And I've loved how fantasy has changed and formed and become more diverse over the years. We have a long way to go, but the change so far has been good to see.

GR: Tell us about your writing journey. What advice do you have?

EAD: My biggest piece of advice is don't let yourself get stuck on one story. I wrote and rewrote and rewrote the same book for 11 years before I finally set it aside, and it wasn't until I set it aside completely that I was able to move past it and write Wicked Saints.

And it can feel like a waste to set something aside after you've worked on it for ages, but sometimes a story just isn’t ready, or will never be ready, or just isn't right, and all it's doing is holding you back from the story you should be telling.

When I wrote Wicked Saints, writing was fun again. Sometimes you just have to let things go. My other advice is finish something because I am someone who writes the first quarter of many books and then wanders off to something else.

GR: There seems to be an uptick in Slavic-inspired fantasy: Leigh Bardugo's Grishaverse, Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy, and Naomi Novik's Uprooted and Spinning Silver, to name a few. What are your thoughts on their emergence?

EAD: I love all of the aforementioned books, so I'm definitely all for it. My eternal hope is that the uptick in interest will lead to more translations of Eastern European writers' works. I adored Vita Nostra by Maryna and Serhiy Dyachenko, and the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski are some of my favorites, and I dearly hope that more books will make their way into English and to Western readers.

GR: What projects are you currently working on now?

EAD: I just started writing book three, after the cosmic horror road trip that is book two. And it is its own particular terror because, not to be overtly ominous, but a lot of things happen in book two that I did not actually plan for and shifted a number of things within the world. I'm excited and, frankly, a little nervous to see how those things shake out in the final book!

GR: What books would you recommend to our YA readers?

EAD: Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young if you want a book where enemies grapple to understand each other! Bright Smoke, Cold Fire by Rosamund Hodge if you want weird theology and blood magic! Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand if you want weird, terrifying horror and a cast of fantastic ladies!

GR: And finally, what’s currently up next on your Want to Read shelf?

EAD: I'm in the middle of my yearly tradition of dropping everything to reread Dragonlance (Brothers in Arms is up next!). And then I’m going to dig into The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, a weighty tome that I feel like I’ve been waiting ages for and it’s finally here!

Emily A. Duncan's novel Wicked Saints will be available on April 2. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

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