Book review: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Title: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Publisher: Usbourne Publishing

Publication date: 4 February 2021

Genre: Young Adult | Fantasy

Rep: Black/African characters

Page extent: 432 pages

Rating:

Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs.

But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death.

Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki–near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire’s greatest threat.

Knowing the dangers that lie ahead yet yearning for acceptance, Deka decides to leave the only life she’s ever known. But as she journeys to the capital to train for the biggest battle of her life, she will discover that the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be–not even Deka herself.

Content warnings: torture, murder, blood/gore, rape (mention)

The Gilded Ones has one of the most stunning covers of the year, and after reading it, I think it’s going to be one of the biggest YA fantasy books of the year! It’s a very fast paced, action heavy fantasy with some really excellent worldbuilding and a fascinating patriarchal society built on a religion. I do think the pace was at times detrimental, but this was still a very fun read and it was great to see some grimdark fantasy make the move to YA!

The Gilded Ones opens brutally: Deka is going through a rite of passage that will prove whether she is a pure woman, or if she is a demon. When her blood runs gold, she is proven to be demon and tortured by those she once called friends. Until, rescue comes from the most unlikely of places: the emperor, who wishes her to fight for his army. What follows is a bloody and brutal journey as Deka is trained to fight deathshrieks, unnatural creatures who are viciously murdering hoards of people across the empire. But not everything is quite as it seems, and the more Deka trains and her demon powers grow, the less convinced she is that she’s even a demon.

The worldbuilding is one of the best things about this book. Forna has built this West African inspired society, a place where religion has built a society based on the suffering of women for the will of men. The religion and history of the nation, the history of The Gilded Ones, demons who terrorised the nation before they were imprisoned, and the whole process of women forced to go through the violent rite of passage to prove they are not demon, are all detailed excellently. There is such a sense of history that really put fear behind the power of men. The way Forna writes about the way women have been trained to fear themselves, to fear their power, and to make themselves small for the sake of men, was absolutely brilliant and the parallels to our world were so clearly rendered.

I also thought the plot was absolutely fantastic. The way the mystery of the deathshrieks, the alaki and the Gilded Ones play out was so interesting. I absolutely sped through the book whenever I picked it up because the mystery really drives you forward, it’s so fast paced. There are lots of unexpected twists to the story that I really enjoyed because I was always kept on my toes!

In saying that, the speed of the book is also often it’s downfall. There are so many times, particularly the more emotional behaviours, decisions, feelings etc, that just happen far too fast and it really dragged me out of the story. From how quickly Deka seemed to get over the horrific torture she goes through, to the romance that kinda hits you out of nowhere with almost no time on page with the two characters together, it’s just very jarring in what is an otherwise pretty excellent YA. There’s also a couple of rather annoying plotholes that I couldn’t stop thinking about – where did the awful sense of fear and control at the barracks disappear to after the first scene? I mean, for example, Deka is even allowed to keep a pet?! In the place where they flay you if you don’t kill enough deathshrieks?! It doesn’t really make a lot of sense.

(Please note the next para has minor spoilers.)

The plot between White Hands and the emperor also really annoyed me. How the fuck does White Hands have so much power if the emperor knows exactly who she is? Why would he trust her? It makes absolutely no sense.

(Spoilers over!)

But despite these issues, I think teens are going to absolutely love this book. It has such an impactful and interesting plot that you can get over the few issues with it. It was a very enjoyable read and I’ll definitely pick up the sequel when released!

2 thoughts on “Book review: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

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