Member Review

Cover Image: To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods

To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods

Pub Date:

Review by

Bon G, Reviewer

"None of us could have guessed that hell opened from the skies above, not from the ground beneath."

Thanks to Del Rey and Ballantine for a copy to review. This title is out April 16th; given recent events, this is going to be a long review. Thank you to those who check it out and give this book the fair chance that many have denied it. There are several things I'm going to address, and first and foremost are misconceptions by mainly online communities about this book that were coined and spread by people who haven't read it.

Disclaimer: I am not an ownvoices reviewer for this book, and all of this is of course my own personal takes. While I have a dissenting opinion from the reviews I've seen, my own is not meant in any way to invalidate their experiences or reactions to the subject matter if they actually read the book. In the end this is a work of fiction, open to interpretation. No one should be personally maligned for setting it aside, but the DNF reviews I see are citing gross oversimplifications or outright untruths. If my review or opinions can help a debut BIPOC author, whose family suffered the history that inspired this story, I'm going to try.

I disagree vehemently with the colonizer romance label going around. This is not a colonial apologist story. There is no fully-fledged romantic relationship; in fact, this is not a romance at all, not a romantasy, nor is it YA. This adult story, voiced by young characters, contemplates the complexities of human morality and what is "right". Is it better to die upholding nebulous concepts like honor and pride, or abandon scruples to live and fight another day? The story does not romanticize colonization; there is death and suffering on nearly every page attributed to Rome. There are moments and inner thoughts that signal potential affection, but serve a larger plot gotcha rather than actual romance. I approached this book as more an alternative historical dark fantasy, which I found worked for me. (There is potential for romance with a third party in later books, something I'm not opposed to at all since I liked that character.)

The worldbuilding was admittedly a mess and hasn't helped the misinformation campaign. An alternative Earth, represented by the Romans, has colonized Ruying's Pangu, traveling through some vague portal. There are common elements from our world, but it is a <i>fantasy</i> with those inclusions to help familiarize the reader. The problem is that the unique parts of the world are not well expanded upon, from the geography, to nations and peoples, and the technological state of Ruying's part of the city, to the extent that it does resemble poorly done parallel history at times. A majority of the worldbuilding heavy lifting is unfortunately left to terribly clunky, lengthy diatribes that happen in random casual conversation. It was risky of the flawed marketing campaign (more on that later) to have presented this book, including a badly worded blurb, and including an unfortunately lengthy foreword, in a way that provided a launch pad for online abuse of both book and author - and that's even aside from the review bombing campaign revealed back in December. The story is very promising, but the book, the narrative conveying it, could use much work (this ARC draft at least).

The writing had rare moments of shiny prose, but was largely unimpressive. I'm not certain how much editing will have taken place for the final printed book, so take this with a grain of salt. As mentioned before, the dialogue was prone to descending into long monologues, worded more like political speeches than actual organic conversation. The descriptions were nonexistent; I found it extremely hard to picture anything besides Antony's too-often mentioned green eyes, which was upsetting, as an Asian-inspired world should've presented a lot of opportunity for unique wardrobes, hair styles, etc. Even the inter-world portal in the sky is mentioned pretty vaguely. As a result, many scenes were rendered grayscale and blurry in my mind. There were SPAG errors, and also larger scene glitches, like a character being named on-page before Ruying realizes it's them, which made no sense. Chapter sixteen was only a couple paragraphs long, so I was unsure if it was cut off, or meant to be labeled as an interlude, like other parts were. The random chapter from Antony's POV was entirely unnecessary.


The characters were a fascinating spectrum of agency and determination. On one end there are more passive characters like Ruying, who despite her incredible deadly powers exists in a perpetual state of self-delusion that inaction can save her world. On the other are Taohua, her best friend and an army commander, and Meiya, Ruying's twin sister who suffers from addiction yet longs to join a growing band of shadowy insurrectionists. And somewhere in the middle is rogueish Baihu, my favorite, Ruying's childhood friend and a man whose motives are unclear for most of the book. Antony is given some dimension by his past, and he uses this to build rapport and "empathize" with Ruying and entice her to help him. Some of the worst villains <i>do</i> rise from relatable strife...

Ruying was an unique narrator whose assumptions should be questioned at every turn. As for the potential romance: after years of scraping by, living in constant danger of violence, I think she's drawn to what she sees as a source of abundance, of security, rather than Antony himself. And a very flawed protagonist making terrible choices provides huge amounts of space and fuel for character development, if you're willing to invest in the story. While Ruying takes an awfully long time to face facts, it was all the more satisfying for me when she did.

I think the strongest part of this story was the question of right and wrong, if motives determine morality. I don't think we're meant to like Ruying much, even if we empathize with her desperation, caught between a rock and a hard place. This book is not a how-to manual on ethics whilst living under oppressive, violent colonial rule; it's simply an imagining of how one young woman living alongside unimaginable horror manages to do so. It's about a girl who has to make constant life and death decisions at a moment's notice, who has both beloved family on her mind and oftentimes a gun aimed at her head. Ruying's resignation to bending the knee for most of the story, infuriating as it is, is incredibly human. Her desire to sugarcoat Antony's motives, believe in good intentions, also made sense; after so much death and destruction, it's a hallmark of human nature to want to grasp at potential goodness, at some sort of hope, however delusional.

This isn't a light read, and it's far from perfect like its protagonist, but it was satisfying, with a cathartic ending showing the story's potential. Despite the writing poorly setting up the world, leaving me struggle to picture everything in my mind or understand the different nations and minorities at play, I find myself invested in seeing where this goes. I also give it points for standing out in a market that is full of unremarkable books these days, and hope the right readers find it.

Notes on marketing:
These ARCs went out incredibly early, even for traditional publishing. I just checked and mine was sent August 30th. The final printed book likely - hopefully? - has many of its issues solved, though I am surprised such a flawed ARC was sent out, and so early. That's only one piece of Del Rey's absolutely catastrophic marketing campaign for this book, from misrepresenting its genre and audience, to a cover that doesn't fit the vibe of the book (gorgeous as it is!) and that in turn misleading people as to what kind of book this is. And the fact they haven't spoken out against the abuse directed at Molly X Chang is shameful.
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