To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods by Molly X. Chang (To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods #1)

Heroes die, cowards live. Daughter of a conquered world, Ruying hates the invaders who descended from the heavens long before she was born and defeated the magic of her people with technologies unlike anything her world had ever seen.

Blessed by Death, born with the ability to pull the life right out of mortal bodies, Ruying shouldn’t have to fear these foreign invaders, but she does. Especially because she wants to keep herself and her family safe.

When Ruying’s Gift is discovered by an enemy prince, he offers her an impossible deal: If she becomes his private assassin and eliminates his political rivals—whose deaths he swears would be for the good of both their worlds and would protect her people from further brutalization—her family will never starve or suffer harm again. But to accept this bargain, she must use the powers she has always feared, powers that will shave years off her own existence.

Can Ruying trust this prince, whose promises of a better world make her heart ache and whose smiles make her pulse beat faster? Are the evils of this agreement really in the service of a much greater good? Or will she betray her entire nation by protecting those she loves the most? 

YEAR: 2024
LENGTH: 368 pages
AGE: Young Adult
GENRE: Fantasy

Queer Rep Summary: No canon queer rep.

*I received a free review copy in exchange for an honest review of this book. 

“Heroes die. Cowards live.”

TO GAZE UPON WICKED GODS is a collaborator's view of colonization, as a girl with the power to wield death agrees to work with a prince among the colonizers because he promises to use her in pursuit of lasting peace. 

Ruying has been trying to keep her twin sister alive and their grandmother cared for even as everything else is falling apart. Their city is divided, literally, with half of it carved away for use by the Roman colonizers from another world who have held the city in their grip for more than two decades. The Romans brought a powerfully addictive drug with them, promising it would unlock the people's magic but all it has brought is pain. After losing their father to the drug, Ruying is trying to wean her sister off of it, bargaining away whatever possessions she must in order to keep her family together. Already in this precarious state, Ruying is unable to say no when a mistake lands her in Roman dungeons, faced with torture and death unless she agrees to help one of the princes with his dreams of peace through Death like only Ruying can wield. 

Ruying is a fascinating main character. Normally I don't like characters who make terrible decisions when a better option is clearly available, but that's not quite what's happening here. There's an ongoing discussion of which definition of "better" should be applied. Ruying's choice might not be the one I would make, but I completely understand why she does what she does, and I don't know for sure if I'd actually disagree under the same circumstances. That tension makes for an excellent story, with Ruying fully committing to her choices once they're made, but then remaining open enough to reevaluate her situation as new facts come to light. At her core, her goal is to protect her family at any cost, and that drives her to a great many things which she would not otherwise accept. Ruying isn't the only one making such choices, early on she interacts with a sort of friend who has been collaborating with the Romans in exchange for access and power. She judges him at first, then comes to understand why he does so. Ruying finds herself in a colonized/colonizer romance, always aware of the coercion which is inextricable from her position. She cares for Anthony, but any safety she feels is always at his discretion. He might really love her, but there's no risk for him in that, not really. Whereas Ruying knows that if she loses his favor, she and her family could lose everything in an instant.

The worldbuilding is excellent. It focuses on the people, the language, and culture, frequently including passages and their translations. There are also frequent reminders of how the Roman invasion changed things, never letting the reader forget that it hasn't always been this way, even though for the reader, it has, because this is our first view of this world. As the first book in the series, this doesn't have to resolve any particular major plot point because it's still setting things up for later. Ruying makes an important decision towards the end in a way that serves as an emotional resolution/climax of the story, while establishing a new status quo for the sequel. 

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Graphic/Explicit CW for colonization, classism, kidnapping, blood, violence, confinement, murder, death.

Moderate CW for sexism, misogyny, drug use, drug abuse, injury detail, war, gun violence, torture, self harm, suicide attempt, child death, parental death.

Minor CW for child abuse, abandonment, neglect, sexual harassment, trafficking, rape, alcohol, medical content. 

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A pale girl with flowing black hair stands with her hands clasped above her head, surrounded by flowing, multicolor robes in front of a palace


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