[ARC Review] Ruthless Gods: A D&D Campaign Gone Wrong

Exclusive Cover Reveal + Excerpt: Emily A. Duncan's Gothic Fantasy ...

rating: ☾ ☾ ☾ {3/5}
goodreads
publication date: april 7th, 2020
age range: teen (13+)
tw: body horror, mutilation, blood, ritualistic self harm

summary: Nadya doesn’t trust her magic anymore. Serefin is fighting off a voice in his head that doesn’t belong to him. Malachiasz is at war with who–and what–he’s become.

As their group is continually torn apart, the girl, the prince, and the monster find their fates irrevocably intertwined. They’re pieces on a board, being orchestrated by someone… or something. The voices that Serefin hears in the darkness, the ones that Nadya believes are her gods, the ones that Malachiasz is desperate to meet—those voices want a stake in the world, and they refuse to stay quiet any longer.

Disclaimer: This eARC was provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

“Divinity corrupts… We are not made to hold this much power without it twisting us.”

Initial Thoughts

If you’re curious to know my full thoughts on the first book, you can check out my review here. I thought Wicked Saints was incredibly mediocre. But I was told this book would be better since it was going to pick up the plot and incorporate a lot more eldritch themes in it. So I decided to give it a try in hopes that my initial issues with the first book would be solved. Boy was I wrong. It was when I hit the 50% range that I realized this book reads like a very bad D&D campaign. Once I had this realization, it was so much easier to put my frustration into words and I decided to approach this review from that angle.

Incredible World Building

Without fail, the most interesting part of the story is the setting and mythology. Duncan is FANTASTIC at creating a dark and atmospheric story. You can tell she puts a lot of thought into how she wants the gods in her story to interact with the world and vice versa. She delves deep into the question: What are gods and how are they created? Throughout the story, her characters are constantly discussing their various theories and beliefs about the gods that are influenced by their culture. Since they all come from different backgrounds, there’s a lot of varied perspectives and Duncan manages to make each culture’s interpretation of the gods partially correct. As someone who is deeply invested in historical perspectives, I enjoyed seeing how each culture’s understanding of magic reflected very real aspects of these gods that other cultures hadn’t seen. Plus, I absolutely love the concept that gods are these chaotic, eldritch beings that can’t be fully known and this story really shines in that aspect.

never Ending Journey

In terms of plot and pacing, it felt like this story would never end. So much of this story happened while the characters were on the road and there were only a few encounters to break up the monotony of it. In a good D&D game, there is plenty of traveling but there are also towns and stops to break up the story and make it more lively. Usually, these stops also help shed some light on the world and give the readers more background. Yet most of the information in this story is briefly mentioned by characters in passing and you rarely see much of the world outside of the road. Not going to lie, my biggest pet peeve was that there were a few fight scenes where Nadya was using her magic and the story would just cut to a Serefin’s perspective as he was passing out. Those scenes made me so upset because the magic use in this book is one of its STRONGEST features and the scenes are just getting cut to black! Like if I wanted to read about a character missing a big fight scene, I would read the Hobbit! Anyways, the tedious pacing only broken up by vague fight scenes or random character arguments really brought this story down and it made me disappointed.

The DM was In It But The Players Weren’t

The strangest thing about this book was the extreme disconnect between the descriptions of the setting and the descriptions of character interactions. Everyone just felt so hollow. In D&D, the DM is in charge of creating the “flavor text,” which is the descriptions of the world around the players as they are role-playing together. In this story, Duncan’s descriptions of the world and setting are beautiful! I seriously would want to be in a D&D campaign if she was a DM because you KNOW that her descriptions would be amazing. However, the characters in this story felt so flat. If it was a D&D session, you would think the players were half-assing their role play with how the characters in this story acted. It all felt very stereotypical but not in the fun way where the author does something new or innovative with the stereotype. There was a scene in this book where Nadya argued with her friend Kostya and I felt like I was just re-reading a scene from Shadow and Bone where Mal and Alina are arguing. Most of the character’s POVs were literally them repeating the same few things and were occasionally broken up by a few conversations they have with others.
The only character that I genuinely felt was breaking the mold was Serefin. He has a lot of interesting growth and I greatly enjoyed the official confirmation of his bisexuality. We love (1) alcoholic prince. Nadya’s character felt too consumed with her focus on the gods, it was hard for me to discern where her character started and where the goddess she served stopped. Most of her chapters were consumed with the ever-present conflict of choosing between Malachiasz and her religion. I’ll be honest… I just didn’t care.
Malachiasz was too bland of a character for me to even empathize with her struggle. If I took a shot every time he was described as “chaotic” I would be dead. I understand that she wanted to emphasize how eldritch he was but girl… if ya man doesn’t do anything remotely chaotic half the book maybe you need to rethink your descriptions or at least find a thesaurus. My second issue is that Malachiasz is described as being both “anxious” and “smug” in the same phrase and in the context of the sentence it made no sense. Either make him chaotic and smug or make him chaotic and anxious. I’ve never seen a character pull off that many opposing traits in one conversation. The fact that the scene was so unrealistic it broke my focus is enough to be a turn-off for me. Plus this wasn’t a one-time thing, there were lots of conversations where Malachiasz was described in multiple ways that conflicted with each other. If you want to write a sympathetic villain character then do it, but you better make damn sure you know what their personality should be because flip-flopping between a smug villain and an anxious villain only serves to confuse your readers. (Note: If this was done as some writing style to emphasize the “chaotic-ness of an eldritch entity” this was done poorly and there are better ways to characterize an eldritch villain then just these extreme personality conflicts.)

Overall

If you’re looking for a story with a great setting and interesting commentary on gods and magic, this story delivers. In terms of pacing and characters, this story is rough and after two books there isn’t much development, which is frustrating. I want this series so badly to live up to the potential it has, but there’s a lot that needs to be sorted out in regards to pacing and characters before it gets a higher rating from me. The reason the story got a 3-star rating from me is that a lot of the conversations and lore revolve around the mythology and magic system, which are huge strengths and I’m glad Duncan emphasized them. Moving forward, I’d like to see how some of the events in the climax will push Nadya’s character development along and it might be enough to make me stick around to see if book #3 changes anything. 

Have you read Ruthless Gods? If so what did you think? If you haven’t, what books have you been reading lately?

4 thoughts on “[ARC Review] Ruthless Gods: A D&D Campaign Gone Wrong

  1. This is an incredible review, Em! I love the framework of comparing it to a D&D campaign. I am sorry this didn’t live up to your expectations/hopes, though.I pretty much hated the first book so I decided to not continue with it, even though I was REALLY interested in the lore & the religious components of the story, but it sounds like this book would infuriate me to no end.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Kal! It definitely frustrated me so I understand that. I’ll admit, I’ve been wanting to write my own novella in a haunted forest with eldritch beings, so a lot of the reason why I read this was more to study Duncan’s settings.

      Like

  2. Wow! This is such an interesting review! I really enjoyed the comparison to a D&D campaign and immediately understood what you meant by it. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

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