There’s always something especially delicious about dark, religious-based fantasies. The complex world-building and magical hierarchies, the sense that this world we’re stepping into has existed long before we found it, and the fact that they’re not afraid to confront difficult issues of belief, faith, and corruption head-on. (Because let’s face it, though these stories often include heavy religious elements and themes, it doesn’t mean the characters in them are anything close to holy.)
M.K. Lobb’s debut novel Seven Faceless Saints is the best sort of dark fantasy. Its story is set in the medieval Italy-inspired city of Ombrazia, where those descended from the titular saints are gifted with special abilities, but those who do not possess magic live much harder lives, deemed unfavored and excluded from society, forced to live in poverty, and often drafted into military service. The tale follows two young people who were once much more than friends to one another—magically gifted Roz, whose powers manifested when she turned sixteen and subsequently radicalized her as a fighter for justice, and soldier Damien, who is sent to the front when he fails to develop magic and returns home jaded and angry. But when the sort of teens the city doesn’t care about start turning up dead—and no one makes any effort to investigate—they’ll take matters into their own hands.
A dark fantasy with a murder mystery twist, this buzzy debut boasts detailed worldbuilding and is as interested in debates about faith and fate as it is in the prickly, unresolved emotions between our two protagonists.
Here’s how the publisher describes the story.
In the city of Ombrazia, saints and their disciples rule with terrifying and unjust power, playing favorites while the unfavored struggle to survive.
After her father’s murder at the hands of the Ombrazian military, Rossana Lacertosa is willing to do whatever it takes to dismantle the corrupt system—tapping into her powers as a disciple of Patience, joining the rebellion, and facing the boy who broke her heart. As the youngest captain in the history of Palazzo security, Damian Venturi is expected to be ruthless and strong, and to serve the saints with unquestioning devotion. But three years spent fighting in a never-ending war have left him with deeper scars than he wants to admit… and a fear of confronting the girl he left behind.
Now a murderer stalks Ombrazia’s citizens. As the body count climbs, the Palazzo is all too happy to look the other way—that is, until a disciple becomes the newest victim. With every lead turning into a dead end, Damian and Roz must team up to find the killer, even if it means digging up buried emotions. As they dive into the underbelly of Ombrazia, the pair will discover something more sinister—and far less holy. With darkness closing in and time running out, will they be able to save the city from an evil so powerful that it threatens to destroy everything in its path?
Although Seven Faceless Saints won’t hit shelves until February 7, we’ve got an exclusive excerpt from the book for you right now!
Rossana Lacertosa detested crowds.
She hated the unnerving sense of pure anonymity as she waded through swaths of people, giving them a good shove whenever they didn’t get out of her way fast enough. Crowds were so infuriatingly slow, and Roz did nothing at a languid pace.
She scanned the colorful night market that spilled from the piazza into the side streets. Disciples moved among the stalls in groups, excited voices permeating the night air. Held every weekend from dusk until dawn, the Mercato was one of many things in Ombrazia that catered solely to disciples. There, an assortment of magical wares would be for sale: robes enchanted to repel flame, knives that never needed sharpening, locks that opened only at a specific person’s touch. The latter was a thing Roz herself had been working on intermittently for weeks. Given the recent rebel activity, the locks were in high demand, so she and the other disciples of Patience had slowed their creation of wartime supplies to meet it.
In Roz’s opinion, that was the worst part about being a disciple: the expectation that one spend so much of one’s time creating magical items. She had no interest in using her affinity for metal to support Ombrazia’s already booming economy. In fact, she was hard-pressed to give a shit about the economy at all. Not when it only benefited a portion of the population.
She cracked her jaw, pushing her way through another group of people. The Mercato didn’t consist only of magical wares. There were also regular items: weapons and expensive rugs, hand-carved statuettes, and herbal elixirs. All things disciples could create in less than half the time required by someone without a magical affinity. All things that fetched a pretty price when exported.
It was beautiful, this part of Ombrazia, where moonlight gilded the flagstone in spaces the lamplight didn’t touch it. Where those descended from the saints could pretend the less savory parts of the city didn’t exist.
Across the way Roz could see a disciple of Cunning poised behind a display of vials, opaque black liquid swirling within them. The scent drifted to her, smelling strongly of sugar and iron. She let it draw her over, heeled boots clicking against the cobblestones, and smiled sharply at the vendor.
The red-haired disciple’s eyes flicked to the scowling man Roz had stepped in front of—the man who ought to have been next in line. But she didn’t argue, reaching under the table of wares to procure a vial of shimmering liquid. Roz took it, passing her payment over. “Thank you.” To the quietly fuming man behind her, she batted her lashes and said, “My apologies, Signore. I’m in a rush.”
She wasn’t, but he straightened at her direct address, looking appeased. “No matter.”
He seemed to hope she would say more, but Roz only shot him another vague smile before turning on her heel. She shoved the vial into the pocket of her jacket, thumb skimming the wax stopper.
Fire danced in her periphery as she passed a stall manned by a few of her fellow disciples of Patience. Surrounding them was the familiar metallic tang of their magic, and Roz quickened her step, keen not to be spotted. She slowed upon noticing two security officers at the edge of the piazza, and pretended to be interested in a display of silk dressing gowns. As she strained to listen in on their conversation, a third officer joined the duo, dragging a youth along with him. The boy was about Roz’s age, with a shock of ginger hair and an upturned nose. His clothes were so dusty they looked gray. The officers ignored his curses as he struggled against Patience-made handcuffs, trying to free himself.
Fool, Roz thought heavily. He should know as well as anyone that the cuffs wouldn’t budge for anyone save the officer to whom they’d been issued.
“I’ll give you five seconds to answer my question,” the third officer snapped, and Roz chanced a furtive look. He was a tall man, unsmiling, with a shock of black hair. A former soldier, no doubt. Most Palazzo security were.
It wasn’t him, though, and something within Roz eased.
She knew Damian Venturi was around—had seen him from a distance over the past year—but the idea of running into him here always set her heart racing. She wondered what the other officers thought of Damian as a commander. Whether they feared him the way people feared his father. She had no doubt her childhood sweetheart was following in Battista Venturi’s blood-soaked footsteps.
The dust-covered boy yanked his bound hands away from the guards. “What, no good-cop, bad-cop act?”
Roz grinned into the dresses as the officer scowled, not condescending to answer. “Why are you lurking around the Mercato?”
“I wasn’t lurking!”
“Sure looked like it to me.” The officer paused to dip his head at a passing disciple of Mercy before turning back to the boy. “No ring, no entry.”
Roz automatically glanced down at the slim band on her index finger that marked her as a disciple. As always, the sight of it made her grimace. She’d discovered her affinity later than most—when she and Damian were tested together at age thirteen, neither of them had shown any signs of magic. Her connection to metal hadn’t reared its head until three years later. By that time, Damian had gone off to the front lines, and her father had been killed for deserting them. Roz might’ve been able to hide what she was, but without Jacopo Lacertosa’s meager military stipend, Patience’s guild was her only option. She might hate what she was, but at least it was a way to support herself and her mother. When you were a disciple—traitor father or not—you were never left to starve.
The officer’s voice recaptured her attention as he asked the boy, “What do you know about the rebellion?”
Now, this was new. Roz went preternaturally still, adrenaline surging in her veins. As far as she was aware, the chief magistrate and the Palazzo weren’t taking the threat of the rebellion seriously.
“I know nothing,” the boy snapped.
The officer gave him a long once-over, eyes narrowed to slits. “Hmm.” Eventually, he relented.
“Pay the fine and you can go.”
Rather than sag in relief, the boy went even more tense. “I—I don’t have any money.”
Before the officer could respond, Roz turned and sauntered over, pulling back the hood of her jacket. Her dark ponytail tumbled free, spilling over her chest. She grinned at the three guards in what she knew was a disarming way.
“I couldn’t help but overhear. I’m happy to pay the fine if it means you’ll get rid of him.” She made a show of wrinkling her nose, hoping the boy didn’t take it personally. As if she hadn’t done this before. “How much?”
A bland smile replaced the officer’s frown, and he backed away from the boy as his gaze dipped to Roz’s hand. “Never mind Signora. You don’t need to concern yourself with this.”
It was likely meant to be polite, but it felt placating in a way Roz didn’t appreciate. She tilted her head, eyeing the man with disdain. “He said he doesn’t have the money. Either take me up on my offer, or let him go.”
Something in her tone must have been convincing because the officer unshackled the boy and all but shoved him away from the piazza.
Roz smiled again, less nicely this time. “Mercy is an honorable quality, I’m told.” She didn’t mention she possessed precious little of it.
While the guards gaped, she redonned her hood and slipped into the dark.
As she walked, the expertly crafted pillars and wrought-iron accents gave way to dreary architecture and feeble wooden gates.
The air turned acrid in her nostrils. There were no streetlamps here, and darkness stretched to occupy every space the moonlight couldn’t reach. Ombrazia was divided into six sectors for each of the remaining original saints, leaving the unfavored to build their lives in the spaces between. As such, they had decided to take over the abandoned sector that once belonged to the seventh saint.
Every disciple was descended from one of the original saints: Strength, Patience, Cunning, Grace, Mercy, Death, and Chaos. But every so often, a disciple was born whose power rivaled that of their respective original saint’s. When that happened, they were considered a reincarnation—all but a deity in their own right.
History, Roz knew, had shown it was dangerous to have a saint on earth. Seventy years ago, two reincarnations had existed at once: Strength and Chaos. Each vying for power, they had split the country in two. The northern side—now an independent city-state called Brechaat—had lost horribly. They’d rallied behind Chaos, and he had fallen, like each of his predecessors dating back to time’s inception. It was for the best, everyone said: Disciples of Chaos were illusionists with an affinity for the mind, and they were simply too powerful. They couldn’t risk another reincarnation of Chaos being born. And so his surviving disciples had been destroyed, his likeness struck from all renderings of the pantheon. In Ombrazia—the southern side, and the winning side—merely mentioning the fallen saint was considered heretical.
That had been the First War of Saints. Now, they were embroiled in the second.
Despite the less pleasant scenery of unfavored territory, Roz felt her tension lift. Her steps echoed across the stone, earning her furtive glances from a couple of passing youths. Their clothes were threadbare, expressions fearful. Roz wondered whether they’d managed to avoid the war draft, or if their time hadn’t come yet. She offered a nod that neither of them returned.
“I wouldn’t be out this late, if I were you.” Roz tried not to make her quiet words a threat, though she wasn’t sure she succeeded. “I take it you know what happened to Amelie Villeneuve.” One of the youths blanched, pulling the collar of his jacket closer. The more daring of the two, however, shot her an accusatory look.
“You’re out this late.” He must have been around thirteen, the same age Amelie had been. Roz’s answering laugh had him taking a step back.
“Yes,” Roz acknowledged. “Well, I’m a lot harder to kill than most.”
The boy’s face twisted, and his companion tugged wordlessly on his arm. Of course, they’d heard about Amelie—who hadn’t? The way her body had been found two months ago, cold and abandoned, in an unlit alley down the street from her home.
And no one had done a saints-damned thing about it.
“Get out of here,” Roz urged the duo, who by now appeared positively horrified. “Go home.”
They obliged, all but sprinting away from her, and she watched until they disappeared around a corner at the end of the street. Her stomach was a hollow pit.
Fools. Amelie was freshly buried, and people were already throwing caution to the wind. She wasn’t the only victim, either—the other day a young man had been discovered dead on the riverbank outside Patience’s sector, his identity undetermined. There was no reason to believe the two incidents were connected, but Roz couldn’t help noticing how little effort had been put into tracking down the culprit. In fact, the Palazzo had yet to address the deaths publicly.
They weren’t disciples, so they don’t matter, Roz thought, and spat onto the street. If she were the next victim, how would she be treated? Would her death make headlines and thrust Ombrazia into a frenzy? Or would the Palazzo know her to be a traitor’s daughter and be glad for her loss?
She slowed as she approached Bartolo’s, a dilapidated tavern with no sign designating it as such. Three children sat out front— street urchins whose parents had been drafted, no doubt—in hopes the tavern owner might spare them some food. They stared at Roz on her way to the door, eyes enormous in their pinched faces.
Voices emanated from inside the tavern, slurred and uproarious. Roz reached for the handle, braced for the noise that would greet her, only to find herself face-to-face with an exiting drunkard.
The man let out a whistle as his liquor-glazed eyes took her in. “Well, well. Good evening.” A hand reached to loop around her hips, but Roz caught his wrist before it made contact. He was shorter than Roz—which many people were—and too slight to be any real threat.
“Staring is free,” she told him coolly, flicking her knife out in a single, smooth motion. “But touching costs a finger.”
The man reared back, ruddy face reddening further, and nearly tripped over his own feet. “Filthy whore.” His voice was a slur.
Roz tsked. “Should I take that tongue, instead?”
When he withdrew a knife of his own, it was with so little finesse she couldn’t help laughing. Could she go nowhere in this saints-forsaken city without encountering a man who thought himself entitled to her?
But he was too drunk for Roz to bother with a real fight. So she dragged him by the collar into the street, then kicked him in the stomach. He released a huff of breath, taking a stumbling step back before landing on his ass.
Roz left him there, slamming the tavern door behind her.
She stepped into an assault of light and sound. The hazy air was thick with smoke and the reek of various liquors. Bartolo’s was often busy, particularly on weekends. Roz blinked as her eyes adjusted, shoving her way through patrons to the bar, where a dark-haired girl waited.
“Nasim.” Roz raised her voice to be heard over the clamor. Outspoken and unfailingly loyal, Nasim Kadera was one of the few people she considered a friend. “Where’s Dev?”
Nasim loosed an inaudible sigh, tilting her head toward the back of the room, where a blond boy sat alone.
Devereux Villeneuve, grieving elder brother of Amelie, was slumped over in his chair. The table before him was littered with empty glasses, and Roz’s chest gave an uncomfortable twinge. Doubtless, he had been there all day, and yesterday, and the day before that. It hurt to look at him. He’d been the one to find Amelie cold and unresponsive on the pavement, and they hadn’t seen him smile since.
“Well, fuck.” Roz propped her elbows up on the bar, motion- ing at the man behind it to bring her a drink. He did so without needing to take her order.
“Yeah,” Nasim agreed, clinking the rim of her cup against Roz’s. “Salute, I guess.”
Roz took a sip. The wine tasted more bitter than usual. “What time did he start drinking today?”
“Just before noon,” the bartender cut in gruffly, overhearing their conversation as he swiped a dirty cloth over the counter. “Running up quite a tab, he is.”
This time it was Roz who sighed. Nasim’s eyes were back on Dev, bottom lip trapped between her teeth. “He’s still not making much of an effort to talk to anyone.”
“Can you blame him?” Roz said. She remembered the night she’d met Dev. How he’d come across her throwing knives at the side of the tavern after dark and leaned against the wall with a wicked expression curling his lips. She’d feared he was about to proposition her when he said: You may want to aim at something softer if you want those to stick. Then he’d tilted his head at a man exiting the building. How about him?
His words had startled a laugh out of Roz, and they’d been friends ever since. Carefree, impish Dev, who wouldn’t know solemnity if it hit him upside the head.
He’d asked for time to grieve, and Roz had given it to him. But he wasn’t getting better, and she’d be damned if she was going to sit here and watch him drink himself into a stupor every day.
She grasped her own drink with more aggression than necessary. “Come on,” she said to Nasim, who gave a humorless laugh. “Maybe you should talk to him alone.” Nasim passed her glass from hand to hand, not meeting Roz’s gaze. “He didn’t want much to do with me earlier.” “I’m sure that’s not true.”
Nasim peered at Roz from beneath her lashes. “I know when someone doesn’t want me around, Roz. It’s fine.”
It wasn’t fine, though. Roz had seen how Nasim and Dev appeared to be drifting closer in a way she couldn’t touch. It made the petty, selfish part of her uneasy. After all, who did she have if not the two of them?
Lately, though, Dev’s misery seemed to have become a contagious thing. His relationships were fracturing, and Nasim was content to let him pull away.
Roz was not.
Maneuvering among the tables and patrons took considerable dexterity, and she stepped on more than one foot on her way to the back of the tavern. Despite the raucous noise and ever-present stench, the place was a comfort to her. She’d memorized every stain on the wooden tables and noticed every time Piera replaced the art on the walls.
“Dev,” Roz said by way of greeting when she finally reached him. “Mind if I join you?”
Dev gave an inelegant shrug.
It was close enough to assent for Roz. She dropped into the chair across from him, shoving the empty glasses aside and setting her own down with a wet thunk. “You can’t keep doing this.”
Dev ignored her statement. His hair was an uncharacteristic mess, and his eyes were half-lidded. “Did Nasim send you over to bother me?”
“Nasim doesn’t send me to do anything.” Roz folded her arms on the tabletop, getting straight to the point. “No amount of alcohol is going to bring Amelie back, you know.”
“You don’t say?” Dev drawled, raising his cup to his lips before realizing it was empty. “In that case, I suppose I ought to stop drinking for necromantic purposes. From now on, it’s purely for fun. Excuse me!” He thrust out a finger in an attempt to get the bartender’s attention. Roz smacked his hand down.
“I know what you’re doing.”
He blinked dolefully at her. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “You think if you can stay drunk, you won’t have to face what happened.” Roz knew she was being harsh, but she hadn’t seen her friend sober in weeks. “You think it’s your fault because you weren’t there to protect her. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“Don’t,” Dev said grimly, softly. “You don’t underst—”
“I don’t understand?” Roz gave a disbelieving laugh. She slammed her fist on the table, jolting him into meeting her gaze. “You know what happened to my father. Do you think I didn’t want to drown in misery when his head showed up on our doorstep? Or when my mother nearly lost her mind because of it?” Her voice was a hiss, and she made a concerted effort to rein in her frustration.
Dev seemed to hunch in on himself, thin shoulders curving. When he spoke, the words held a vitriol with which Roz was acutely familiar.
“They’ve done nothing, Roz. I know the coroner examined her, but my parents and I weren’t allowed to see the report. We still don’t know how she died.” He flexed his fingers, veins standing out beneath translucent skin. “The Palazzo hasn’t assigned security officers to the case. No one’s spoken to potential witnesses. Amelie wasn’t a disciple, so . . .” Dev swallowed. “It’s like she doesn’t even matter. At least you know who killed your father.”
Roz exhaled, pushing her anger out with the breath. “You’re right. I do know. And what difference does it make? He struts around the Palazzo, constantly protected, never to face any consequences.”
General Battista Venturi—Damian’s father—had given the order for Jacopo to be hunted down and butchered like an animal after he fled the front lines.
A shadow crossed Dev’s aquamarine gaze. Harshly contemplative, he drew his index finger over the rim of the nearest glass. “What’s the point of anything, Roz, if we can’t even get justice for those closest to us?”
That was when he cracked. His face came to rest behind his hands, and his shoulders shook as his breathing grew labored. Roz didn’t try to comfort him with futile words; she knew he wouldn’t want to hear it. She only sat there, waiting until he’d finished.
“We’ll get justice,” Roz said quietly. “For my father. For Amelie.”
When their gazes met, she saw that Dev’s eyes were dry. She hadn’t lost him yet, then. They were two sides of the same coin: Both had honed their misery into something vicious. She only had to remind him that vengeance was sweeter than spirits.
Seven Faceless Saints arrives on Tuesday, February 7, from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, but you can pre-order it right now.
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.