Deka lives in fear of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she can become a member of her village. If she bleeds red, she will belong. But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold – the colour of impurity, of a demon.
The consequences force Deka to leave her village with a mysterious woman, destined to join an army of girls like her – the alaki, girls who are near-immortals with rare gifts, and the only ones able to stop the empire’s greatest threat.
But as she journeys to the capital to train for the battle of her life, Deka discovers the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem – not even Deka herself…
Length: 412 pages
Content warnings: graphic violence, death
The Gilded Ones was one of my most anticipated books of 2021. Fortunately, this one lived up to the hype.
There is a warning in the front of the book for scenes of graphic violence, and that this may upset some readers. Going into the book I felt a little unsure as to the necessity of the warning and how much violence Namina Forna actually included.. After reading it, I can say that I think it is. This book does contain graphic scenes of violence and graphic descriptions of death.
The Gilded Ones follows Deka, as she is cast out from her village as a demon. She was already an outcast in her home due to the colour of her skin. Though it is set in a fantasy world, it does deal with race and the divisions race can cause. Forna describes Deka’s mother as a southerner, who in the book have dark skin, whereas the northerners, where Deka was born and grew up, have light skin. So Deka is a dark-skinned girl in a white village. All she wants at the beginning is to be accepted by those around her.
Thematically, The Gilded Ones progresses from race to feminism quite easily and smoothly. Forna uses Deka’s status as a demon in this world for having blood that runs gold to augment the narrative of inequality and injustice that the narrative builds up. Forna also uses magic as a tool to further the sense of injustice that Deka feels at the racial discrimination she faces. Later in the story Forna also uses it as a tool for fighting back against those that oppress Deka for both her dark-skin and gender. Magic is therefore a metaphor for the power of women, and Forna easily shows the fear that this power engenders in men, as well as the consequences of that fear.
I really felt connected to Deka as a character. Forna writes in a first-person point of view, so we really feel and see everything Deka does. Deka is a fighter from the start, and she really develops throughout the story as she learns about and understands more fully the world around her. I really enjoyed the supporting characters as well, including the love interest. I would have liked to have seen more scenes building the friendship and (eventual) romance between Deka and her love interest, but it didn’t feel insta-lovey at all.
The world is described really well too. I felt like Forna has developed the world fully, and we are seeing what she chooses to show us. I never felt confused, or unsure about how something worked. Some things were perhaps a little overexplained. But I would sooner that than feel confused and lose the thread of the story. The magic system is not overly-complicated, but definitely interesting. The alaki are the primary source of magic in the story, and it’s only at the end we learn more about magic in this world. I think the setup and explanations were really well done. Forna found a good balance between action, dialogue and description.
Which leads me to the writing style. The Gilded Ones is YA, so Forna does write in a simple way. But I like that. I like the direct writing style that characterises YA, especially when done with a good balance between showing and telling, as Forna manages.
My one big complaint, and it did irritate me after a while, is that Forna ends far too many scenes with ‘everything fades to black’. If I had a penny for every time Deka passes out at the end of a scene I’d be rich (probably not but you get the idea). This can be a useful technique to end a scene, but only works when used very sparingly. After a couple of instances it gets repetitive and starts to become noticeable, taking you out of the story. Which is not what readers or authors want.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Gilded Ones. I read it easily and quickly over a few days. I felt drawn into the story, shocked by the twists, and really rooted for Deka to come out on top. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in this series. For a debut, it is stunning.