Molly X. Chang On To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods, Her Chaotic Debut Year and Why It Felt So Important to Tell This Story

Books Features Molly X. Chang
Molly X. Chang On To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods, Her Chaotic Debut Year and Why It Felt So Important to Tell This Story

Debut years are often described as chaotic for authors. After all, there’s a tremendous amount of stress baked into the process: general anxiety over the release of a first published work, the need to network with other authors in your cohort, the pressure to constantly be promoting yourself and your work on social media. And that’s without the addition of an industry-wide scandal on top. Molly X. Chang’s first YA fantasy, To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods, hit shelves this past April, but even for a debut, it’s had a rather rough road to publication.

Chang was one of the victims of a complex plot spearheaded by fellow YA author Cait Corrain, who created a squad of bot accounts to downvote and leave negative reviews on the popular website Goodreads that were clearly aimed to disparage other 2024 debuts while boosting her own upcoming release. That book, A Crown of Starlight, has since been dropped by its publisher, but the damage—both financial and mental—was already done. Just a few months later, Chang found herself at the center of another online kerfuffle, when a series of anonymous reviewers began once again leaving one-star reviews of her book, insisting that To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods was a problematic “colonizer romance” and accusing the author of attempting to “doxx” those who left negative comments. 

To be fair, most of these claims seem questionable at best—particularly when the book itself directly wrestles with themes of complicity and collaboration—-but they lead to a lot of unfortunate buzz around To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods, mostly for reasons that had little to do with the content of the story itself. But now that the book is finally on shelves, readers will get the chance to decide for themselves, how they feel about Chang’s novel, which follows the story of a young woman blessed with the ability to manipulate death whose magical kingdom has been conquered by the highly scientific and militarized foreign power. Ruying finds herself torn between her loyalty to her homeland and her desire for survival and must ask herself what she’s willing to sacrifice to keep her family safe. 

We got the chance to chat with Chang herself about the inspiration behind To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods, her heroine’s journey of corruption, and what fans can look forward to in the sequel. 

Paste Magazine: Tell us about To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods! What can readers expect from the book, and what kind of story were you trying to tell?

Molly X. Chang: When a dystopian/sci-fi Roman Empire conquers a Chinese Fantasy world, a girl blessed with rare Death magic must choose between dying a hero or living as a villain in order to protect those she loves from the brewing war. 

I first began writing this book the summer after both of my grandmothers passed within months of each other and I couldn’t be there for their final days, so I wanted to write about a morally gray heroine whose greatest desire is not saving the world, but simply seeing those she loves live long and happy lives. Readers can expect a morally gray narrator who makes some terrible choices out of desperation, and a book that will keep you on your toes about what is actually right.

Paste: You’ve spoken before about how this book is heavily inspired by your grandfather and stories from his native Manchuria, as well as the things his people endured there. Tell our readers a bit about how he helped shape this book and what it was about his story that inspired you to write this one.

Chang: Growing up, my grandfather always told me stories of how our ancestors had survived the coldest of winters on what is now the Siberian Plateau, and what our people had to do to survive so much trauma and pain, so I really wanted to capture that need for survival. “Heroes die, cowards live” was one of the first lines I ever wrote for this book, and that is exactly what I want to capture: That human desperation to survive at all costs.

Paste: Ruying’s journey through this book is very complicated and messy. How do you see her arc over the course of the book and the emotional journey she goes on throughout it?

Chang: I think Ruying’s arc in book one is definitely an arc of corruption. She is a character who was born into a time of instability and turmoil, and, as a result, she really struggles with finding and holding onto hope. Without giving anything away, Ruying grows a lot over the course of this book, and she makes a lot of mistakes. Book two will have her dealing with the consequences of those mistakes.

Paste: One of the key tensions of this book surrounds the ideas of survival and sacrifice, and what characters like Ruying are willing to give up in the name of peace, or in the name of protecting those they love. And the story, I think, does a surprisingly fair job of showing both Ruying’s perspective and those of her sister and family, who believe that fighting back is always worth it no matter the cost. How did you, as the writer of this story, walk the tightrope of showing Ruying’s evolving perspective without judging her for her feelings and fears?

Chang: I read a long time ago in an English class that a good writer should be able to make any character from their book into the main character, and I really tried to achieve that.

I think Ruying’s sister is more of that idealized fantasy heroine who believes in sacrifice for the greater good, where Ruying is more of an everyday character. If the biggest bully on the playground asked you to fight, would you agree to a fight that you don’t think you will win?

This is something Ruying contemplates throughout the book. She possesses an incredibly rare magic, and many people around her believe that, because of it, she has a responsibility to fight and protect those who cannot protect themselves. Ruying tries to make the best decision available to her at every turn, and I think as a writer it is my duty to serve as a vessel for my characters and not let my own opinions influence theirs. I do not live in Ruying’s world, so I do not know what kind of terrible choices I would make if I were in her shoes. That said, Ruying also doesn’t know the ending to her story, or all of the secrets that are being kept from her, which I do as an author, so obviously her choices will be different from mine.

Paste: How do you see Anthony as a character within this story and his claims of wanting a different/better kind of future for Pangu than the other Romans? Is he for real or is he just trying to justify his horrific choices?

Chang: This might be a mild spoiler, but I think—at least in book one—Antony truly believes that everything he does is right. But how much mental gymnastics did he have to do to reach that conclusion is up to the reader to decide. 

Paste: Talk to us a little bit about how you see the (admittedly, somewhat controversial) relationship between Anthony and Ruying in this book. What draws them to each other? How genuine is their bond, in your mind?

Chang: The book is called To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods, and in the book, the Romans kind of believe they are Gods among men. From Antony’s perspective, he covets Ruying’s magic because, in his eyes, she is the closest thing to a God he will ever meet. Yet Ruying is born into an impoverished family, and sees her rare magic as more of a burden than a gift. 

Also, every time she prays to the Gods that she doesn’t believe in, she prays out of desperation, as if searching for someone to save her. In this book, for a time, she believes that to be Antony. There is a line in the book that goes “I prayed to the Gods I no longer believed in, prayed to any God who would listen . . .  Even those I hated . . . When footsteps sounded, I knew a God had answered my prayers. But he wasn’t the God I wanted.” 

Paste: In contrast, how do you see Ruying’s relationship with Baihu? I feel like that’s absolutely going to be a big part of the To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods sequel — and they have a history already! (The tropes write themselves!)

Chang: Haha, the tropes do write themselves! There will definitely be more scenes with Baihu in book two, and he and Ruying will definitely develop more trust—and perhaps rekindle some old feelings.  

Paste: What particular element of this book excited you the most while you were writing it? Do you have a particular moment from this book that you were really looking forward to seeing readers react to?

Chang: I loved how Ruying becomes an unreliable narrator. I love being inside of her head, and hearing how she thinks and justifies all of her choices because deep down she knows she is doing bad things. 

She is the sort of character I have always been fascinated by: The desperate character who could be a hero if she was born into better circumstances, perhaps. But when trauma and fear is all you know, how does one find the hope and courage to see themselves as a hero? 

Paste: An author’s debut year is often chaotic in the best of times, and you’ve had what can only be described as an especially rough time of it. (I’m so sorry for that, by the way.) Now that the book is out, how do you feel? Did this experience tarnish any of the joy of finally seeing your story out in the world?

Chang: I feel super relieved that the book is out. I have been working on this story for eight years, and I just hope it finds the right readers. I know Ruying is not a typical hero, and certainly not the selfless and sacrificial female heroine that society wants women to be. 

But I believe she is a character whose story deserves to be told, and that To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods is a story that is deeply human. If any of us were put into Ruying’s shoes, we would most likely make similar choices. 

Paste: Can you tease anything for us about the To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods sequel? What’s next for Ruying and the other characters?

Chang: Well, the sequel is called To Kill a Monstrous Prince, so… Haha, I will let you guess what happens next.

Paste; My favorite question always — what are you reading right now? Anything on your radar that our readers should be sure to keep an eye out for?

Chang: I am reading the edits for my [upcoming] YA Fantasy, Immortal The Blood which by the time this comes out should be announced. If not, well, here’s a surprise easter egg, dear Paste readers! I hope my publisher doesn’t try to eat me, haha! 

Other than that, I have my friend Thea Guanzon’s Monsoon Rising manuscript on my laptop, and can’t wait to start reading!

To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods is available now wherever books are sold. 

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB

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