In To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods, a Heroine Puts Survival Above All—But at What Cost?

Books Reviews Molly X. Chang
In To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods, a Heroine Puts Survival Above All—But at What Cost?

To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods is Molly X. Chang’s debut novel, and it’s had quite the journey to publication. First, Chang was one of the victims of Cait Corrain’s Goodreads review bombing scandal, in which the aspiring fantasy author created a squad of bot accounts to downvote and disparage other 2024 debuts and boost her own release. Then, mere months later, Chang and her book became the source of another Book Twitter kerfuffle when a series of anonymous reviewers declared her debut a “colonizer romance” and accused its author of doxxing reviewers and allegedly “invading” reviewer spaces. That most of these claims seem…let’s just call them questionable at best, it’s led to a lot of unfortunate buzz around a fantasy debut that seems to be being defamed and criticized for reasons that have little to do with the content of Chang’s story. Which is, by the way, deeply felt and features a unique perspective that’s genuinely trying to do something different in the YA fantasy space. To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods doesn’t always succeed, but it’s an intriguing, if admittedly imperfect, effort. 

The story is set in Pangu, a magical world where certain individuals—known as Xianlings—can command various elements and other aspects of the natural world. The kingdom of Er-Lang has spent several generations living under the boot of a conquering people known as the Romans. (One does wish Chang had chosen virtually any other name for her invaders, but here we are.) A people of science, the Romans have advanced heavy weaponry, airships, and portal technology, tools which overwhelmed the magic users of Yang Ruying’s kingdom in a single day and left their country virtually enslaved to their invaders. 

Ruying has grown up under the Roman occupation, constantly trying to hide her magical gift—she has been “blessed by Death” and can kill by ripping the life force from others—and avoid catching the notice of enemy soldiers. She and her family—an elderly grandmother and a drug-addicted sister flirting with joining the mysterious Phantom’s rebellion—survive by selling heirlooms and trading on favors to those they once counted on in better times. But when a desperate theft brings Ruying and her unique abilities to the attention of the youngest Roman prince Anthony Augustus, she becomes his personal assassin in exchange for a promise of protection and safety for her family. 

Though the blood on her hands haunts her, Ruying finds herself intrigued by Anthony’s promises that her killings serve a purpose. According to him, they’re all part of a larger plan that will help him ensure a peaceful, more equitable future for both their worlds if he manages to secure the throne. The question, of course, is whether he can be trusted—and whether Ruying can trust the connection she feels growing between the two of them, or if she’s just desperate to feel seen and valued for her belief that her people would be better served by peace, even if it comes at the cost of occupation. 

Unlike many YA fantasy stories about young girls with special abilities who are born into oppressed societies and immediately recruited into a brewing rebellion or uprising, To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods explores the other side of the story. Ruying hates the Romans and the decline they have brought to her city. (They’re rarely punished for crimes committed on the Er-Langers side of the fence that divides Jing City and they’ve purposefully introduced a dangerous and highly addictive drug known as opian to oppress the populace further.) But while she chafes under their rule, she has little interest in rising up to fight back against them, despite her sister’s activist leanings, because she genuinely doesn’t believe her people can defeat the Romans’ powerful technology. To her, the Phantom’s rebellion is a waste—a pointless suicide mission that will just get people killed. Ruying simply wants her to survive, no matter what pieces of herself she must sacrifice to make sure that happens, and she’s willing to look the other way when it suits her purposes. 

Her frequently appeasing behavior makes Ruying a difficult character to like, particularly as she spends most of her time trying not to think about all the people she’s killed or the damage she’s done. (Or what’s most likely happening to those like her who don’t share a similarly powerful (or useful) magical gift.) In books like this, we generally all expect the young female heroine to be Katniss Everdeen waiting to happen, and Ruying is very much not that. Chang leans heavily on the idea of toxic generational trauma to excuse some of her heroine’s choices, but one has to hope that in this story’s inevitable sequel, we get the chance to see Ruying truly reckon with the violent wrong she’s done.

Partly inspired by the Russian and Japanese occupation of Manchuria, the worldbuilding of the novel is well done, particularly the magical system that finds its balance in the trading of life force for individual uses of power. But the dialogue is often clunkily rendered—-Ruying tends to repeat many of the same platitudes about the desperate nature of her need to protect her family—and the story is loath to give readers anything that might be considered genuine information about the Romans’ origins or goals. That Anthony Augustus is keeping things from the girl he claims to care so much about won’t come as a surprise to anyone, but the explanation for his behavior is clunky and not particularly compelling. 

In many ways, the ending of To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods feels as though the series is shifting toward a more traditional YA fantasy narrative, but here’s hoping Chang finds a way to further explore (and complicate!) the tension between Ruying’s deep-rooted desire for survival and her loyalty toward her people. It’s what helps this story stand out, and it’s the question at the heart of her struggle. Is it better to snatch the safety and happiness you can in a dangerous world for yourself? Or fight to make it better for everyone? And what does it say about you if you really want to choose the former?

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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