REVIEW: To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods by Molly X. Chang

Reviewed by Dave Oei

Molly X. Chang’s To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods is an Asian fantasy debut novel about Yang Ruying (Ruy), a young woman who lives in a land conquered and occupied near the time of her birth. Ruy’s once well-regarded family has fallen into despair and hunger through atrocity and war crime, and her mission now is to safeguard what little remains— the lives of her sister and grandmother. The story is inspired by Chang’s grandfather’s experience living in Manchuria, China during World War II, surviving the horror that was Unit 731, the Japanese military’s subjugation of and experimentation on the local population that resulted in at least 200,000 deaths.

With the magical world of Pengu as her foundation, Chang sets the stage for a compelling exploration into how far one will go to ensure their family’s survival, weaving science fiction and bloodthirsty, modern-day Romans into her portrayal of the subjugators. Imagine China from the early 1800s, except one that is split into five kingdoms, each gifted with citizens who could call upon their magic powers. This is Pengu from twenty years before the story begins, a world almost foreign to Ruy, who was born after the Romans flew through a rift in the sky, sending planes carrying gun-toting soldiers who swiftly conquered the kingdom.

Chang grounds the fictional Pengu in the specific architectural details, sounds, and places reminiscent of the era, such as bustling tea houses and familiar foods at the night markets. Atop this foundation, she weaves in the description of the Xianling—those who hold magic, of whom Ruy is one. Like the un-gifted, however, Xianling are powerless against the infinite supply of enemy bullets and the ensuing flood of opian (a drug similar to opium) the Romans unleash onto the population. Under this rich backdrop, the story unfolds with Ruy walking the streets, seeking the narcotic to aid her sister through deadly withdrawals.

Ruy’s present-day is bleak—from the scenes of poverty and hunger, to the Romans’ casual use of violence, to their racism against Ruy’s people. This is a time of scarcity, where every valuable has been relinquished in order to bring her family enough food; Ruy has sold everything to give her sister a chance to break her addiction. Chang reveals Ruy to be a passionate, caring sister and granddaughter who endures multiple hardships—one who risks venturing near the enemy, who will own nothing after this purchase of opian, who will do anything to ensure their survival. This is exclusively Ruy’s burden. In Ruy, Chang renders a pragmatic young character whose morality will be continuously tested, her values eroded. The result is an authentic and tragic portrayal of a woman attempting to stay whole.

Ruy’s chief adversary is Antony, one of three sons who might one day lead Rome. There is also Antony’s brother, Valentin who advocates for war to solidify Rome’s hold. Antony, on the other hand, offers sympathy to the poor, despises unnecessary death, and seeks to solidify control to ensure his vision of peace. But he needs Ruy, who can deliver Death’s magic and assassinate the unwary without leaving evidence behind. Through Antony, Chang acknowledges the non-binary nature of war, and presents Ruy with a conundrum: Is it possible to align oneself with the lesser of two evils and still be on the side of good?

Chang does not make anything easy for Ruy, and the difficult choices are what make her character more relatable. When Antony’s promises to ensure Ruy’s family’s safety, she compromises her beliefs to become his assassin. Here, Chang balances the potentially treasonous nature of Ruy’s decision against the perceived benefit of peace for all. Similar balancing acts follow Ruy throughout the narrative through tests both logical and barbaric. Wading through this moral gray area, Ruy’s harshest judge is her own conscience. Through these harrowing choices, Chang builds suspense like rising water on the verge of bursting a dam—what will happen when Antony asks Ruy to kill and she refuses?

Antony’s Romans are fictionalized versions of what we know, but they are a compelling stand-in for the World War II-era Japanese referenced in Chang’s Author’s Note. While the narrative offers no definitive reason for using the ancient civilization, the choice is effective. These Romans come from our past as if their empire navigated through all its trials from the early first millennia, only to strengthen and persist to the modern day. They are ruthless, science-based, technology-rich, and militaristic. No real nation has demonstrated such longevity or tenacity, but this fictional Rome makes for the perfect antagonist, especially when personified through Valentin’s racism and warmongering on one side, and Antony’s empathic and more surgical approach on the other. This dichotomy is key to cultivating sympathy with Ruy’s character. Even if her path is disagreeable, the other choice is clearly worse.

Ancient Rome is a familiar touchstone, and drawing a connection between this authorial device and our own history, Chang challenges readers to ask themselves: if this version of Rome closely resembles my own world, how am I like the antagonist? The use of Rome elevates Ruy’s plight to social commentary, a point Chang further hones when she reveals the society’s global challenges bear a striking similarity to ours. When the pieces come together and the connections are made clear, the tension of Chang’s societal critique, pitted against Ruy’s desire to create a best of all possible futures, drives and delivers a gripping story. With Rome utilized as both the seed and the mirror to judge Ruy, Chang makes it near impossible to condemn her without also implicating ourselves.

Is Ruy a hero, a villain, or a victim? Chang’s narrative makes prodigious use of introspection to show Ruy’s never sure herself. Through this constant struggle, she elevates Ruy from the spotless hero into one who is multidimensional and decidedly human. Her resulting story is too rich, perhaps, to carry simple labels. Villain, hero, victim—Ruy is all three.

Dave Oei is a writer, husband, father, student at UC Riverside’s Low-Residency MFA for Creative Writing, and advisor at his family’s veterinary hospital, not necessarily in that order. When he’s not crafting romances, fantasies, or science-fiction thrillers, he can be found on the soccer pitch or on sunset beach walks with his wife of many years.