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  • Published: 16 April 2024
  • ISBN: 9780241620816
  • Imprint: Penguin
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 368
  • RRP: $27.99

To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods


The sky was crying again.

All around me, my world wept. Gray, icy tears caressed my skin, shivering cold in the late-summer heat. With deliberate steps, I passed the Fence that carved my city into halves, guarded by Roman soldiers and their white-knuckled grips on the guns that haunted our nightmares, ready to shoot me down over perceived slights.

I hated these men. Hated their stern, foreign faces and foreign attire from beyond the shimmering portal high in the somber sky that now joined our two realms. A glistening fracture, looming over my broken city like the all-seeing eye of a vengeful God who was not here to love and protect, but to torture.

To inflict unimaginable pain and suffering, as the Romans had for over two decades now.

Every day, I cursed this road, this fence, their loaded guns, and every trace of Rome that marred my world like a permanent stain.

Yet, I still bowed my head for them, still walked this road week after week, under hawk-like gazes, for the drug that killed my sister slowly, but without which she would die fast like a flower cut from the stem. At least with opian, Meiya might live another two, three, or even five years like Father had.

Without it, she might not live through the season.

Some Romans wore disgust and hate clear on their faces. Others wore smirks and lust.

One pursed his lips and let out a sharp whistle that made my spine flinch cold.

Death’s magic thrummed quiet under my skin: embers ready to kindle into wildfire the moment I allowed it.

I had no reason to fear these men. Given my powers, I had no reason to fear anyone.

With an arch of my hand, I could dip into Death’s realm of stark grays, pluck qi from their bodies until only corpses remained. A constant temptation—to take something from them the way they had taken so much from us.

But Grandma had raised me to be cautious. A girl could never be too careful in this age of colonial destruction, where the peace between magic and science balanced at knife’s edge.

I could kill one of them—perhaps two or three if I was lucky. But I couldn’t kill every Roman who marched this city. Their heads high with arrogance, entitled to claim anything and anyone they pleased.

Though years had passed, memories remained vivid like a fresh dream: the first time I witnessed one of my own slaughtered in cold blood under Roman hands.

I was still a child and Father was still alive and kind as he’d ever be.

It was murder by gunshot, execution-style. And the fingers that had pulled the trigger belonged to none other than their eldest prince—Valentin Augustus. Just three years older than I was, he’d shot a man dead before hundreds of witnesses for the audacity of placing soiled hands on the prince’s pristine clothes, for daring to beg him for the pennies he kept carelessly in pockets. Pennies that would enable a father to feed his starving child.

If I closed my eyes, I could still feel my father’s shaking hands holding mine, smell the fear that radiated from everyone in that crowd like a foul stench. The very fear that emanated from my own skin the moment I heard that sky-splitting bang. A primal thing from deep in my belly.

Evil ran in all Roman veins common as blood, but Valentin Augustus was rumored to be something worse.

The city whispered of his brothers, too.

The middle prince who lived on Pangu soil with Valentin, but no one had ever seen him venture beyond the Fence.

The third and youngest prince, who was a bloodthirsty military protégé and the only prince who remained in Rome as their grandfather’s right hand.

Their mighty yet odious grandfather, whose disdain for my kind shaped the politics of two worlds. Whose callous heart doomed my Empire to this bitter fate.

Cruel and monstrous, all of them. Privilege and power fed the evil in these Romans like oil to flame.

So I walked with vigilant steps, hands folded across my torso where they could be seen. Quiet as a mouse, rigid and timid like a ghost drifting away. This was how we were taught to move around them.

Too many stories of trigger-happy soldiers.

Too many warnings from Grandma.

One step out of line and they might slaughter my family in retribution, like they’d done too many times before to the patriots and the martyrs who refused to kneel.

Everyone in this wretched city knew someone who’d died by Rome’s vicious hands, playing Gods with their machines and science that had our once great Empire begging for scraps of mercy.

Stories of horror tangled with stories of awe. Whenever they perused our streets, we knew better than to venture too close.

When it wasn’t Prince Valentin, then it was some other Roman nobleman or soldier terrorizing our crumbling city. Men who dragged my people from the streets in lust or rage or a twisted combination of both, pulled them into alleys in broad daylight where their terrified screams could be heard by all who passed, yet few were brave enough to do something. And of those brave souls, fewer were lucky enough to live and tell the tale.

路见不平, 拔刀相助. When you see someone in trouble, you draw your blade and help.

But what was a blade against a bullet?

What was magic, against science?

What was the point of seeking justice when these vile monsters lived above decency, above rules? Who would punish them? Mortals who lived like Gods, who had such power even our young Emperor Yongle had to lower his head and let them walk all over his dignity . . . just like his father did before him.

How far our great Empire had fallen. From a great beacon of power, shining over the entire continent, to a puppet hung from strings, dancing to Rome’s command.

All in the span of twenty-something years.

That incident with Prince Valentin might be the first time I had witnessed a Roman kill us in cold blood, but it wasn’t the first time it had happened on our soil.

And it wasn’t the last.

Once, an elderly father with a feeble body had tried to seek justice for his son, who had been murdered by a group of drunken Roman ministers because he had dared to look at them with contempt instead of bowing respect—an act of defiance that had cost him his life. That father had bellowed and cried at Rome’s gates before the guards shot him down with a swift bullet, then hung his corpse on the Fence for an entire moon cycle.

A formal warning to anyone who dared to disrespect the Roman Empire.

Our Emperor and his city guards and all of those generals and governors who were supposed to protect us did nothing, said nothing.

The Romans could beat us, kill us, do unspeakable things to us, but as long as they returned to their side of the Fence before authorities caught them, they couldn’t be punished.

Not like anyone in Jing-City was brave enough to arrest a Roman anyway.

To do so would be war.

And nobody in their right mind would willingly start something so horrific over a few lost lives. The Romans knew their power, and they’d never hesitate to exploit it.

Mortal laws don’t apply to Gods: a saying whispered in grief and sorrow.

This might be our world, our home, our land, but the Romans had forced themselves into our lives with guns and grenades and flying machines, with weapons beyond our worst nightmares.

The war that had killed my grandfather almost twenty years ago began and ended right before I was born. For the Romans beat us not in a year, not in a month, not even in a week.

They had beaten us in a single day.

Planes filled the sky like a storm and rained fire and bullets upon the camps where the Er-Lang armies were stationed—a fight unlike anything our continent had ever seen.

And since then, when Rome told us to kneel, we knelt.

For we knew, in a war between magic and science, we stood no chance.

In the aftermath, we surrendered more things than we could count. Nobody knew the full extent of the peace treaty and what our emperor gave up to ensure another war would never take place on our soil.

This was the nature of power. The decisions of Emperors were never relayed to their subjects. So we grasped at every rumor and speculation as our city changed before our eyes. The west half of the capital was surrendered to the Romans, and all of its inhabitants were either evicted or, if they were brave enough to defy the wishes of these cruel tyrants, slaughtered at the edge of the Fence for all to see. And opian—the substance that allegedly sparked the humiliatingly brief war—flooded the streets on unchecked claims of strengthening Xianling Gifts and awakening magic from those who were not born Gifted.

Years passed in the blink of an eye. Babies were born and raised in such times.

Er-Lang Empire existed only in name now. After the late Emperor passed and his last surviving son—three years older than I was, just like Prince Valentin—succeeded the throne, things had only gotten worse.

And while the Romans fashioned themselves as Gods, they refused to answer our endless prayers.

Instead of kindness, we were granted only misery and tragedy. Strings and strings of heartbreak and political upheavals that killed the late Emperor with stress. Though some whispered he had died of an overdose of opian, and had willingly allowed Rome to live beyond the reaches of our laws, had let their sins run free of consequence. All for a steady supply of this supposedly heavenly drug.

Clenching my jaw, I passed a street performer enchanting a small crowd with swirling shadows and honey-sweet words. She echoed the age-old chant we were taught as children: “Somewhere between Life and Death exist our two worlds. One rich with magic. One rife with . . .”

To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods Molly X. Chang

A No. 1 and Sunday Times Bestseller! Red Queen meets These Violent Delights and Iron Widow in an epic anti-colonial YA fantasy from debut author Molly X. Chang.

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