Hello everyone, and also a very happy 2nd day of the Lunar New Year! Today, I’m here to persuade, convince and urge YOU to pick up this raw, fiercely feminist YA fantasy novel filled with SO. MUCH. SOUL, with my favourite quotes littered throughout. Thank you so much to TBR and Beyond Tours for organising this blog tour.
THE GILDED ONES by Namina Forna
Genre(s): Fantasy | Age Group: Young Adult
Series: Deathless #1
Published: 9 February 2021 | Read: 9 February 2021
No. of Pages: 432 (kindle)
Click here to view trigger warnings ▼Grief, Death of a Loved One, Mention of Abuse, Beheading, Drowning, Torture, Blood Depiction, Sexism, Impaling, Mention of Rape, Whipping, Mutilation, PTSD, Child Abuse, Racism, Xenophobia, Colourism
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.
Thank you to TBR and Beyond Tours, the publisher and NetGalley for an Advanced Reader Copy of this book in exchange for a sincere review.All the quotes used in this post are from an advance reader copy and may differ in the final publication.
The Gilded Ones takes place in a harshly patriarchal society, whereby girls are forced to undergo a ritual at the age of 15 to determine her purity. Red blood if she pure, and gold blood if she is of demonic descent, and these near-immortal demons, are tortured over and over again, and killed over and over again. To her horror, Deka’s blood runs golden and she is subjected to this suffering until a mysterious woman comes and recruits her to train with other alaki, other girls with that cursed gold blood with exceptional physical power, to form an army against deathshrieks, monsters who are the kingdom’s greatest threat.
The Gilded Ones was so rich in tropes and themes and thus I will structure my thoughts based on them.
First off, we have the strong, badass YA female lead with more to her than she realises. We are all definitely not foreign to these kind of powerful girls, and are so familiar with them to the extent of many books utilising them ending up as cliche in our eyes. Admittedly, Deka does fit right into this trope but her character arc through the book was simply breathtaking. From a girl fervent in her religion, only desiring to be pure and nothing else, to one who grows into the community of alaki around her, and finally accepting and taking pride in her identity, again, it does sound cliche but its execution was anything but. This is where the theme of pain comes in. Deka has been through intense physical abuse, dying nine times through various methods, and her character suffered too from the derision of her identity as a demon and as a woman. Tragic past trope double check. However, The Gilded Ones portrays how much this past haunts and influences her subconsciously, and how her pain shapes the person she becomes. Rawly executed, brimming with emotions through the hard-hitting and chilling narrative, I was convinced to the point of being moved by Deka’s journey spurred by pain.
“The way I see it, we all have a choice right now. Are we girls, or are we demons? Are we going to die, or are we going to survive?”
Yes there was pain, but isn’t it a core trait of most literary found families whom we hold dear to our hearts? The Gilded Ones was no different with the heartfelt kinship between all the alaki (the girls with demonic blood). Despite the divide, most entering with some sort of past abuse and suffering, how these bloodsisters banded together in their common identity, were fiercely empathetic and loyal was incredibly empowering to read about. These ferocious fighters who believed in themselves and each other and were such a collective force to be reckoned with made The Gilded Ones such a compelling and emotional read for me.
“First lesson, neophytes: alaki do not yield. You conquer or you die.”
Their unity was made significant mostly because of the central theme of discrimination and misogyny throughout The Gilded Ones. Women have to wear half-masks, be accompanied by male guardians wherever they go, either be brutally killed if deemed impure or just as housewifes if their blood flowed red. This was to the extent of it being embedded in the religion, with a religious text known as the Infinite Wisdom often being referenced to, in order to legitimise the obvious misogyny as well as atrocities done to girls deemed demons. Not only was this prejudice so explicitly weaved into the setting, it was evident through Deka herself and her actions. Her behaviour in the presence of men even outside of the village, her thoughts portraying her astonishment when seeing women empowered, kept reminding readers of her upbringing and kept that theme of discrimination hang heavily in the air.
”Blessed are the meek and subservient, the humble and true daughters of man, for they are unsullied in the face of the Infinite Father.”
Yet, these women finally seeing themselves without any biases, proving themselves and holding their own destinies in their hands was incredibly empowering to read about and I give Namina Forna a standing ovation for this fiercely feminist novel.
So far, all the tropes and themes mentioned have truly carved a place for themselves in my heart but we all know, no book is perfect and this one did have its downfall, being the romance. It is rather ironical that the cliche YA enemies to lovers trope failing to deliver has also become typical in itself. Important, softie love interest. Feels like it escalates over a few days. Unnecessary. To make matters worse, I felt that this book would have been improved without the romance at all for to me, the romance juxtaposed the feminist vibe in this book. With a central focus on women empowerment, I was hoping for it to show that strong, powerful women do not have to always fall in love, but alas Cupid decided to pay The Gilded Ones a visit.
“I’m your uruni, now until the day of our deaths.”
Another issue I had with The Gilded Ones, would be the pacing. I did get the flow and severely addicted to the story but I felt that the narrative was inconsistent, skimming over a lot of bits and thus one day could feel the same as a few weeks which did hinder the development of the story.
The narrative may have been an issue, but the plot was most definitely not. It did include many familiar tropes such as “the chosen one”, the “not-everything-is-as-it-seems” trope and others but I thought with the great amount of foreshadowing as well as the element of mystery unravelling strand and strand and accelerating, they were executed rather satisfyingly.
“All this time, I’ve been afraid of my ability, when instead I should have been regarding it as a treasured weapon.”
Like a good tropey YA novel, the ending was spectacular and I was teetering between exuberant and intoxicated as the book alternated rapidly between intense action scenes, subversion of expectations and just moments where I would have to remind myself to breathe through swollen eyes.Adding on, the world was incredible. It was packed with an intriguing magical system, with some rich history and lore, political intrigue at the end but most importantly with so many themes such as discrimination as mentioned above, I could draw so many parallels between it and our world today which is just terrifying given how brutal the kingdom is.
The Gilded Ones managed to incorporate so many tropes like found family and the badass YA female lead, and themes such as those of discrimination and pain into this story of strength and empowerment of Deka, a young girl who goes through tremendous character and identity growth. A brilliant, brilliant, brilliant novel that you guys HAVE TO pick up soon.
“No matter my origins, there is worth in what I am.”
rating // ★★★★½
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Namina Forna is a young adult novelist based in Los Angeles, and the author of the upcoming epic fantasy YA novel The Gilded Ones. Originally from Sierra Leone, West Africa, she moved to the US when she was nine and has been traveling back and forth ever since. Namina has an MFA in film and TV production from USC School of Cinematic Arts and a BA from Spelman College. She works as a screenwriter in LA and loves telling stories with fierce female leads.