Book Review: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Author: Namina Forna
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publish Date: February 9, 2021
Print Length: 432

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Official Synopsis

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.

The start of a bold and immersive fantasy series for fans of Children of Blood and Bone and Black Panther.

My Review

I’ve finally read The Gilded Ones (obviously). This book was all over book Twitter when I first joined and started my blog. The cover is gorgeous and the official blurb is intriguing. So did it live it up to hype? Overall, yes, I think so.

It has elements that remind me a lot of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I was not expecting such a focus on how much Deka’s country’s culture resembles a cult at worst, religious fervor at best. Nor did I expect to read about a fervent patriarchal society and gore. In this book there are intense themes of purity related to blood and sex, the former of which could be analogus to racial purity; the patriarchy; and propaganda, or controlling the narrative, whether it’s through religion or government overreach. These themes and depictions of such make it feel more like a YA crossover rather than solidly within the YA realm.

After Deka’s blood runs gold, this signifies that she is impure and not welcome to formally join the community. It opens the door for licentious scorn and violence against Deka perpetrated by the community she grew up in for 16 years. Thus, there are certain scenes that squeamish readers may choose to pass over. I’m not particularly squeamish, but I admit I did physically wince at some of the descriptions, or what they implied. The author does an excellent job portraying the callousness of the priests, her father, and general members of her village.

After weeks of brutality (non-sexual) against her person, an enigmatic woman arrives and gives Deka a choice: succumb to her fate in the village or join the emperor’s army to fight the Death Shrieks, which threaten the existense of the empire. Deka chooses the latter and begins to learn more about what and who she is. Once Deka starts to engage in small scale military exercises is when, in my opinion, the plot becomes more interesting. The first third to half of the book is a bit slow, but the pacing improves afterwards.

I found Deka’s origin story, or rather its uncertainty, intriguing. White Hands, the woman who rescues Deka, seems to know more than she lets on. And she’s in no hurry to share her knowledge with Deka until she deems Deka ready. I also enjoyed the incorporation of myth and legend into the plot line and how, over time, it can be subverted by discontent, ne’er do well factions whose foremost goal is power.

The Gilded Ones contains a couple of plot twists, one of which didn’t surprise me. I thought the foreshadowing for the one I guessed fairly obvious; but I also don’t know how the author could have portrayed it differently given Deka is a witness to the event. (Yes, this is vague because spoilers, but IYKYK.) There is some very light romance, but it’s not a main component of this book. I personally would have been content without its development, largely in part because it seemed too convenient and underdeveloped. By underdeveloped I mean I would have liked to see them share more emotional/character-building experiences. However, I’m glad that it’s a slow development between friends rather than instalove. But it is a YA read, so I suppose the level of romantic intensity and development is appropriate.

Lastly, I thought Deka’s character development was written well. As Deka learns more about the world and her blinders slowly lower, she has some introspective moments. She learns to question more, internally, rather than accept instruction with blind faith.

Overall, I recommend this book to a more mature YA audience. My TBR-willing, I do want to read the next book, The Merciless Ones, which hits shelves at the end of May. It’s great for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale with respect to some of the more intense themes. It would also appeal to fans of Akata Witch with respect to learning about one’s true nature.

Rating: 4/5
Content warnings: blood, torture, death
Reading format: Library hardback

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