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Book Review: ‘To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods’ by Molly X. Chang

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In an alternate world, Rome has survived until modern times. But they have problems, they’ve pushed Earth too hard, and the planet is pushing back. The need to survive has pushed them to discover a way to rip a hole in the universe. They invaded the world they found on the other side and have been exploiting it ever since. Now the young Roman prince, Antony, offers Ruying, an orphan girl from Er-Lang, a chance to change things. He promises to save her world, if she helps him gain the throne in his. Is this devil’s bargain worth it? Ruying will have to decide in Molly X. Chang’s novel To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods.

[Note: While I am reviewing this novel independently and honestly, it should be noted that it has been provided to me by Del Rey for the purpose of this review. Warning: My review of To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods may contain some spoilers!]

A reimagined Roman world in To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods

Roman’s tried to take over the entire known world before their empire collapsed in our world. But Chang has imagined a world where Rome never fell. Instead, they’ve used and abused the Earth for a couple of millennia. Now they need a new place to exploit. And their scientists have found it. Two decades ago, they tore a hole in the universe and invaded the Empire of Er-Lang. The people of Er-Lang can be born with gifts, magical abilities. But these abilities ended up being no match for the Roman weapons, and the war only lasted one day.

Now, the Er-Lang empire is still led by the Emperor, but he’s basically just a figurehead. The Romans do what they want, when they want, with no repercussions. And the citizens of Er-Lang are fed up with it. Sure, some think that a pseudo peace is better than all out war. But some believe that death is preferable to the life they have under Rome’s rule.

And in the midst of all this turmoil there’s Ruying, a young woman trying to care for her drug-addict sister and aging grandmother. Doing this without the protection of a man is very difficult and rather dangerous, but Ruying does it without complaining. Her sense of duty to her family is her one guiding light. 

Then the unthinkable happens. Ruying is captured by the Romans because of her very special power. She is the girl blessed by death. She can kill people without ever touching them. It is a very rare and very feared form of magic. Antony, prince of Rome, found out about her ability and decided that he wanted the power for himself.

Using the safety of her family to control Ruying, Antony turns her into an untraceable assassin. With each kill, Ruying feels a little piece of her soul die and her guilt grows. How long can she keep killing her people in the name of peace? How long before Antony’s promises become just pretty words? Ruying is going to have to decide where the line is, and whether she’s willing to cross it.

To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods by Molly X. Chang Book

Criticisms of To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods

I have seen quite a few reviews of To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods that are harshly critical of “another colonizer romance” because of feelings that develop between Ruying and Antony. But I think those people are missing the larger psychology that Chang has in play. Ruying doesn’t fall in love with her oppressor. She reluctantly grows feelings for the first person to not just show her kindness, not just accept her, but actually value her. She’s had very few people in her life that have cared for her. She can count them on one hand with fingers left over.

And none of them have actually made her feel fully accepted. They’ve all been at best afraid of and at worst repulsed by her death magic. But here comes Antony, offering to protect her family, the only thing that matters to her, and praising her gift. He sees it as a wondrous thing and her as a captivating person. He is manipulating her, of course, but in her emotionally abused state, this small ray of kindness is like a blinding sun. She’s drawn to it, and to him.

But it’s not a head-over-heels attraction. She resists her feelings at every step and never fully trusts Antony. It’s mainly her love of her family and need to protect them that keeps her close to him. I think that people who criticize Ruying for her feelings just don’t understand what a lifetime of emotional abuse does to a person. And in the end, even she has limits to what she can stand from Antony.

My take on Molly X. Chang’s work

So I didn’t have objections to Ruying’s feelings for Antony. But that doesn’t mean that I was fully enchanted with Chang’s story. It was an okay story, but it was very predictable. I didn’t feel like she really went anywhere new. I felt for Ruying, she was a very real feeling character with lots of struggles, but she wasn’t quite enough to save the story. 

To be honest, the introduction was the most interesting part. Being a western kid with a late 20th century education, I had never heard about what happened in China during WWII. Her description was heartbreaking and fascinating, and I wanted to learn more about what her grandfather had endured.

Chang used the events in Manchuria to inspire her story. I would have loved to have a more reality-based story of Manchuria, though. Perhaps in the future these stories will be shared with the world. 

Rating: 7/10

To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods by Molly X. Chang is available in most book stores on April 16, 2024.

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Luna Gauthier

I've always been a bookworm and fantasy is my favortie genre. I never imagined (okay, I imagined but I didn't think) that I could get those books sent to me for just my opinion. Now I am a very happy bookworm! @Lunagauthier19 on Twitter

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