Member Reviews

Main character Ruying is all about survival. So much so that she's lost herself. She has deadly magic, which is both gift and curse, for obvious reasons. She loves her family and wants more than anything to keep them safe, to be the hero of their community. But otherworldly colonial oppressors called Romans get in the way. Yes, its Planet Rome vs a world reminiscent of ancient China. Science vs magic, which kind of pissed me off to cast all of science as a villain. And the love story is just as problematic. Ruying falls for her oppressor, and I'm not sure how I am supposed to feel about the relationship. If I'm supposed to feel icky and creeped out, then the book's a success. But ... ew.
On the plus side, I am intrigued by the Phantom character, their followers, and plans. I wish this book hadn't been such a long preface to that story. 

[Thanks to Del Rey/Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine and NetGalley for an opportunity to read an advanced reader copy and share my opinion of this book.]

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To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods was a solid start to a new fantasy trilogy! The magic system is unique (everyone’s is different and it feeds off your qi), and the worldbuilding is imaginative and a strong metaphor for history/colonialism (it’s the West bringing opium to China, where the West is still “Rome,” China is a different world altogether, and opium aka opian is a magic-enhancing drug).

I found the main character, Ruying, to be a breath of fresh air. She’s not a hero (at least, not yet in this book). She’s making morally gray choices to stay safe, stay alive, and keep her family fed and off the streets. I do think she’s tending toward chosen-one territory, but for this book, it was neat to spend time with an MC who isn’t focused on good vs evil, just survival.

There are a good number of reviews (mostly from early readers who were served, it seems, a different framing from the way this book was eventually marketed) calling it a colonizer romance. (Warning to skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want even the softest of spoilers.) While there IS a romance plotline in this book between Ruying and a prince of Rome, I thought it was pretty clear that he’s the Tamilin of this series (LOL). I guess we’ll see if that turns out to be correct, but just know he’s not her only option, people! Plus, she’s an unreliable narrator and probably has Stockholm Syndrome. TLDR, I need to read the second book before deciding if this feels cringey or not, because there’s a LOT of story left (at least two whole books!).

At the end of the day, I enjoyed this and look forward to the second book.

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2 Stars

Thank you NetGalley and the publisher for this ARC!

I really really should stop requesting based off the cover because I am a sucker for a pretty cover and the substance of the books are difficult for me to get into. I actually had to pick this up on audiobook when it was available at my library because the thought of physically reading it put me off for so long. I really like the world building and was intrigued by the relationship between Ryuing and Antony (for about a second, one line really GOT me) but nothing really stood out about this book. I was not really into the plot until the ending reveal and I did not feel like I needed to go back and re-listen to any parts that I may have missed.

By the end of the book, it felt more like a chore to get through, but the concept and world is interesting. Just not the book for me!

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Molly X. Chang’s To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods is an Asian fantasy debut novel about Yang Ruying (Ruy), a young woman who lives in a land conquered and occupied near the time of her birth. Ruy’s once well-regarded family has fallen into despair and hunger through atrocity and war crime, and her mission now is to safeguard what little remains— the lives of her sister and grandmother. The story is inspired by Chang’s grandfather’s experience living in Manchuria, China during World War II, surviving the horror that was Unit 731, the Japanese military’s subjugation of and experimentation on the local population that resulted in at least 200,000 deaths.

With the magical world of Pengu as her foundation, Chang sets the stage for a compelling exploration into how far one will go to ensure their family’s survival, weaving science fiction and bloodthirsty, modern-day Romans into her portrayal of the subjugators. Imagine China from the early 1800s, except one that is split into five kingdoms, each gifted with citizens who could call upon their magic powers. This is Pengu from twenty years before the story begins, a world almost foreign to Ruy, who was born after the Romans flew through a rift in the sky, sending planes carrying gun-toting soldiers who swiftly conquered the kingdom.

Chang grounds the fictional Pengu in the specific architectural details, sounds, and places reminiscent of the era, such as bustling tea houses and familiar foods at the night markets. Atop this foundation, she weaves in the description of the Xianling—those who hold magic, of whom Ruy is one. Like the un-gifted, however, Xianling are powerless against the infinite supply of enemy bullets and the ensuing flood of opian (a drug similar to opium) the Romans unleash onto the population. Under this rich backdrop, the story unfolds with Ruy walking the streets, seeking the narcotic to aid her sister through deadly withdrawals.

Ruy’s present-day is bleak—from the scenes of poverty and hunger, to the Romans’ casual use of violence, to their racism against Ruy’s people. This is a time of scarcity, where every valuable has been relinquished in order to bring her family enough food; Ruy has sold everything to give her sister a chance to break her addiction. Chang reveals Ruy to be a passionate, caring sister and granddaughter who endures multiple hardships—one who risks venturing near the enemy, who will own nothing after this purchase of opian, who will do anything to ensure their survival. This is exclusively Ruy’s burden. In Ruy, Chang renders a pragmatic young character whose morality will be continuously tested, her values eroded. The result is an authentic and tragic portrayal of a woman attempting to stay whole.

Ruy’s chief adversary is Antony, one of three sons who might one day lead Rome. There is also Antony’s brother, Valentin who advocates for war to solidify Rome’s hold. Antony, on the other hand, offers sympathy to the poor, despises unnecessary death, and seeks to solidify control to ensure his vision of peace. But he needs Ruy, who can deliver Death’s magic and assassinate the unwary without leaving evidence behind. Through Antony, Chang acknowledges the non-binary nature of war, and presents Ruy with a conundrum: Is it possible to align oneself with the lesser of two evils and still be on the side of good?

Chang does not make anything easy for Ruy, and the difficult choices are what make her character more relatable. When Antony’s promises to ensure Ruy’s family’s safety, she compromises her beliefs to become his assassin. Here, Chang balances the potentially treasonous nature of Ruy’s decision against the perceived benefit of peace for all. Similar balancing acts follow Ruy throughout the narrative through tests both logical and barbaric. Wading through this moral gray area, Ruy’s harshest judge is her own conscience. Through these harrowing choices, Chang builds suspense like rising water on the verge of bursting a dam—what will happen when Antony asks Ruy to kill and she refuses?

Antony’s Romans are fictionalized versions of what we know, but they are a compelling stand-in for the World War II-era Japanese referenced in Chang’s Author’s Note. While the narrative offers no definitive reason for using the ancient civilization, the choice is effective. These Romans come from our past as if their empire navigated through all its trials from the early first millennia, only to strengthen and persist to the modern day. They are ruthless, science-based, technology-rich, and militaristic. No real nation has demonstrated such longevity or tenacity, but this fictional Rome makes for the perfect antagonist, especially when personified through Valentin’s racism and warmongering on one side, and Antony’s empathic and more surgical approach on the other. This dichotomy is key to cultivating sympathy with Ruy’s character. Even if her path is disagreeable, the other choice is clearly worse.

Ancient Rome is a familiar touchstone, and drawing a connection between this authorial device and our own history, Chang challenges readers to ask themselves: if this version of Rome closely resembles my own world, how am I like the antagonist? The use of Rome elevates Ruy’s plight to social commentary, a point Chang further hones when she reveals the society’s global challenges bear a striking similarity to ours. When the pieces come together and the connections are made clear, the tension of Chang’s societal critique, pitted against Ruy’s desire to create a best of all possible futures, drives and delivers a gripping story. With Rome utilized as both the seed and the mirror to judge Ruy, Chang makes it near impossible to condemn her without also implicating ourselves.

Is Ruy a hero, a villain, or a victim? Chang’s narrative makes prodigious use of introspection to show Ruy’s never sure herself. Through this constant struggle, she elevates Ruy from the spotless hero into one who is multidimensional and decidedly human. Her resulting story is too rich, perhaps, to carry simple labels. Villain, hero, victim—Ruy is all three.

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"To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods" by Molly X. Chang presents a captivating blend of fantasy, science fiction, and historical elements, offering readers a thought-provoking exploration of colonialism, power dynamics, and the complexities of morality.

Set in a fantastical world where magic and technology collide, the story follows Ruying, a young woman gifted with the power of Death, as she navigates the oppressive rule of a futuristic Roman empire. Chang's narrative deftly weaves together themes of identity, loyalty, and resistance, inviting readers to reflect on real-world issues such as imperialism and environmental degradation.

While Ruying's journey is compelling, it is her complex relationship with Antony, the prince of Rome, that truly shines. Their dynamic, though fraught with manipulation and conflicting loyalties, offers a nuanced exploration of power and desire in the face of oppression. Chang's prose is evocative and immersive, painting a vivid picture of the world of Pangu and its inhabitants.

Despite some shortcomings in character development and pacing, particularly with the supporting cast, Chang's rich world-building and thematic depth make "To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods" a captivating read. The novel's exploration of moral ambiguity and the consequences of colonialism resonates deeply, leaving readers eagerly anticipating future installments in this promising new series.

Overall, "To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods" is a compelling debut that challenges conventions and sparks important conversations about power, identity, and the nature of resistance. With its engaging narrative and thought-provoking themes, it earns a solid four stars and establishes Molly X. Chang as a talent to watch in the world of speculative fiction.

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“You can look away from the horrors of the world but that doesn’t erase their existence.”

To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods—Molly X. Chang’s debut novel—offers a compelling narrative set in a fantastical world where magic clashes with science and the struggle against colonisation is at the forefront. The story revolves around Ruying, a girl blessed with the power of Death, navigating the complexities of her world under the oppressive rule of a futuristic Roman empire.

Chang intricately weaves together themes of power, duty, and the blurred lines between enemies and lovers in a tale that challenges traditional YA fantasy tropes. Ruying’s journey is one of moral ambiguity as she wrestles with her role in the empire’s machinations while striving to protect her family and her people. Chang’s prose is lyrical and evocative with vivid imaginary and, despite at times having repetitive monologues, the narrative feels engaging and immersive, keeping the readers invested in the character’s journey.

Although slow and not very strong, there’s some character development throughout the book, particularly Ruying’s transformation from complacency to conflicted agency. Her relationship with Antony, the prince of Rome, adds layers of tension and introspection as they navigate their intertwined fates amidst a backdrop of political intrigue and personal turmoil.

However, this hint towards a romance between Ruying and Antony may be polarising due to its complex dynamics which explore themes of manipulation, trauma, and the allure of power between the coloniser (the prince) and the colonised (Ruying). The slow burn nature of their relationship does allow for a deeper exploration of their emotional and psychological entanglement, making their interactions both captivating and thought-provoking but it still feels conflicting and morally wrong.

Beyond Ruying and Antony, we don’t really get to know the supporting cast that well but it’s clear that each of them have their own motivations and struggles: from Ruying’s childhood friend who to her eyes became a traitor of their own nation to her addiction-ravaged sister. Hopefully in the following books these characters will have a stronger development and a more prominent role.

Even though the novel has a lot of infodumping, the world-building is rich and captivating drawing inspiration from Chinese mythology and culture to create a vibrant and distinct setting. Chang brings the fantasy realm of Pangu to life, a world where Xianlings are people who possess diverse and unique abilities. This realm is currently colonised by Rome, a nation that is heavily focused on technological advancements and who use (or kill) these Xianlings to their own advantage.

At its core, this novel is one that explores themes of colonialism and its impact on both sides. Through Ruying’s perspective, readers are confronted with the realities imperialism: cultural erasure, exploitation, and resistance. It also has a strong theme of identity and belonging with Ruying being torn between the allegiance to her people and her (forced) allegiance with Antony. Moreover, the novel also serves as a platform for social commentary as Chang’s narrative invites readers to reflect on real-world issues: environmental degradation, patriarchal structures, and societal inequality.

Overall, To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods offers a dark and engaging tale that challenges conventions and delves into the complexities of morality, power, and love in the face of oppression. While not without its flaws, the novel succeeds in delivering a captivating story with mostly compelling characters and thought-provoking themes. Hopefully, in the next two installments the issues with this first book will be resolved and characters will continue to grow and achieve a bigger development.

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I unfortunately could not get past the first few chapters of this book due to the constant over-exposition and repeated explanations. I didn’t find it engaging and dreaded coming back to it. I’m disappointed, as the concept sounded very interested and I enjoy reading about ambiguous protagonist, but ultimately this was not for me.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to read this in exchange for an honest review. Star rating included for completion of review, I will not be reviewing this on commercial cites as I did not finish it.

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this book was a roller coaster. Molly X Chang is someone that I had never heard of before this book went viral on the internet. I am eager to hear about how the second book goes because as of right now I am worried about this only being a colonizer romance as it is so far. though I loved the romance between the two, I felt like it had a lot of growth to go.

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I can’t do colonizer romance even if it’s an “enemies to lovers” trope. I found the pair lacking chemistry given that the book seemed to be trying to build up the idea of a romantic relationship between Ruying and Antony. There was also such a lack of world building. I feel like we know so little about the world and how it is day-to-day having magic. I also just love heavy world building so I had a hard time without it. The writing seemed choppy most times and repetitive. As for the characters, I felt no connection with them but I wanted to. I just found that I wasn’t carrying for the story and how it resolves.

All that to say, I would like to still thank Penguin Teen for sending me a NetGalley arc of this book. I appreciate the opportunity to read and review books honestly.

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I wanted to like this book, but it wasn’t for me. I didn’t enjoy the “colonizer romance”, as others have called it. I think there could have been a way for the story to be successful without that romance aspect. I recognize that I might not be the target audience for this book either, which may have affected how much I enjoyed the book.

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I hesitated to give my review because I ended up DNF-ing this book. I tried multiple times to read it, but I wasn't able to get into it. The writing was difficult to follow and confusing. I felt like there was a lot of into dump in the early chapters, but also not enough actual information I needed to really understand what was going on. I wanted to make sure I wasn't misunderstanding something, and saw there were many reviews that felt similarly to me, so I decided not to continue with the book.

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To be honest, I stopped fully reading this book 50% of the way through. I wasn't enjoying where the story was going, so I started skimming after that to see how the plot might progress and how this first book would end. The main reason I didn't like this book is the romance - Beauty and the Beast, but insert a colonizer for the Beast. Don't get me wrong, I love an enemies-to-lovers book, but this just wasn't it for me; some lines shouldn't be crossed and it seems that our FMC forgets about those lines when she develops a heavy case of Stockholm Syndrome. Ruying was rarely faced with an easy set of decisions, but in her panic, she rarely chose the least bad of the two - not until the end of book 1. I struggled quite a bit with this book as the world-building was minimal (at least in the first half of the book), the self-loathing was all I was taking in from Ruying, and the morally grey characters were outright terrible people, clearly far from the grey zone between right and wrong. I likely will not continue on to the second book.

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group - Bellantine, Molly X. Chang, and Netgalley for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for my honest review - I truly do appreciate it.

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Thank you to Netgalley for this ARC, my opinions are my own. I was hesitant to read this after seeing others say it was a colonizer romance, but after reading I'm not sure that's the case. I'm definitely intrigued to read more and see where this goes and if there's a bigger statement being made here. This is one to read for yourself and not fully trust the masses who just repeat each other.

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I absolutely loved this book! From start to finish it had me on the edge of my seat. The action, the angst, the tension... all amazing! I can't wait for the next book!

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I have this five stars and a heartfelt review.

This book held personal meaning to me because I am the grandchild of many missing and murdered indigenous people.

Molly X. Chang did an excellent job of weaving a survivors story of love lost, love gained and the love that remained. Self love, self loathing- the things we do for survival, the things we do when we believe in someone so sincerely and often it is borne of political value. The limitless love we have for someone who has only done their best.

While a fantasy genre, this was so raw and so real! It brought tears to my eyes, it made me angry. Happy. Sad. Fulfilled. Torn in two pieces.

Over all an excellent piece of literature that touches on so many subjects but still allows the reader to engage in a different world entirely. Still brutal, yes. But also beautiful.

Thank you to Molly X. Chang and the publisher Del Rey for an advanced readers copy. This one will go on my favorites shelf and I’ll never let it go.

The words herein are my own.
Trigger warnings:
Genocide, torture, death of a good friend, child neglect, drugs.

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A debut fantasy about the Roman invasion of Er-Lang (inspired by<a href="">the Second Sino-Japanese war when Japan invaded Manchuria in China and the horrors of Unit 731</a>), rich in cultural detail and prose, but also pensive on the costs we're willing to pay to survive and protect our loved ones, the moral lines we cross, and what it means to fight for our people. The first in the Gods Beyond the Skies series by [author:Molly X. Chang|23053455], the narrative focuses largely on Ruying's internal conflict as a Xianling (one who has magic) trapped in her circumstances in Roman-invaded Jing City, having witnessed firsthand what the Romans have done to her family and her people, the Pangulings.

There's some romance involving the enemies-to-lovers trope, but I wouldn't really call it a romantasy - it reminded me a lot of [book:Fathomfolk|173404001]. Also woven into this part of the plot are themes of ambition, politics, and greed.

Personally, I like the premise/themes and the world and the prose, but I'm not quite attached to the characters yet.

It's a bit slow-paced as the world and the characters are built, and I thought a lot more will happen in this first book, but I think it will pay off - at the risk of turning away a lot of readers at this point.

I'm definitely looking forward to reading the rest of the series - book 2, [book:To Kill a Monstrous Prince|63347409], is slated to come in 2025! I'm excited to see a little more plot development there!

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This book was just okay for me. It is being marketed as an adult fantasy in the US and a YA fantasy in the UK. It definitely read more YA, and if I had know that I wouldn’t have requested the Netgalley arc.

I won’t go into a detailed synopsis because this book doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. It’s a pretty typical YA fantasy. There’s a girl with a special power and she falls for the enemy prince, but she also has a childhood best friend that could possibly become a love interest. That pretty much sums up the entire book. Not a lot happened, and the “enemies” fell for each other pretty quickly. I won’t be continuing the series.

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I have to admit that what drew me in to this book was the gorgeous cover and its description. Reading the book was a different vibe entirely. If I could assign this book a color, it would be grey; it's all one volume, all one color, and repetitive to the point that I had to put it down about 60% of the way in. Nothing changes, the stakes aren't raised, everyone is just doing what they would usually do while stating on and on about the fragile peace or possible war. I also don't enjoy the "attraction to the oppressor" type love story, which is where this story seems to want to go.

You come into this story at the least interesting moment in the world's history! Give me a book about when the Romans first burst into this reality/plane of existence. The battles between science and magic! Without having any attachment to this universe, caring about anything that is going on in this book is very difficult - the writing implies that everything that will happen is already in motion, it made me feel like everyone involved was swimming against the current of the inevitable.

A lack of investment in the characters, the bland world-building, and the boring story were all reasons that I chose to place this title on my "Did Not Finish" shelf. It's a shame, that cover was very enticing and promising.

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This book had so much potential when I read the synopsis I was so excited to have received the arc… but it didn’t live up to expectations due to two big reasons for me. First was the opian (opium) there was a lot of talk about addiction and how deadly it is.. I related to Ryuang a lot because I have a sister who was an addict and I know how hard that is but the fact there was no warnings about the drug addiction was a turn off for me. So if that’s a trigger for you now you are aware.. and second the colonizer/colonized relationship was an ick for me. Antony who is a Roman prince has so much power over Ryuang and has threatened to harm her family if she doesn’t do what he wants.. I wish there was no romance in this book that would have made it better rather than this almost Stockholm syndrome budding relationship.

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Anything featuring Asian characters with a romantasy element instantly makes it to the top of my list of everything.

It has been a long time since I've been this confused about how to evaluate a book. I'm usually able to emerge out of a read with a clear rating like 99% of the time. This book is that 1%.
The ambiguity is mainly because I devoured this book so fast and I couldn't stop reading, but when you think about it after the fact, some things start popping up that are a bit of a question.

Touching on some of the good stuff, I loved the concept of this. There's so much potential with this plot, and the world-building was good enough that there will be plenty of material to continue with this series. Ruying wasn't the most likable main character, but I think that was the intention (morally grey boss women, yes), and the use of her power as a weapon was interesting to see develop. She made some questionable choices in this book, but I liked seeing her navigate the circumstances she was thrown into, while protecting her people from back home.

Her relationship with Antony was something I actually really liked throughout the book. Until the plot twist at the end, I thought they had a steady partnership that had grown into mutual care and protection, and I always enjoy the villain arc that Antony loosely fit into. I was eating up the way their dynamic was evolving, until I started to touch upon the fact that this was very resembling of romanticization of colonialism. A lot of the reviews with this book pointed out the clear power struggle here, because Antony wasn't just someone on the opposite side, he was in a ruling position. Direct colonization of Ruying's people. And he continues to exercise this even with Ruying by his side, using her own powers. The line there is so ambiguous that I'm not sure how to interpret that relationship and how it might build in the next books in this series.

I also didn't quite understand the existence of Ruying's sister to the story. She only showed up for one scene towards the end to badger Ruying about her choices. That didn't end up hindering Ruying at all, honestly, and the shift only happened when she saw everything with Taohua.

Barring the morality of the romance here and some plot holes, I think there is potential and I look forward to the next book!!

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