Review: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

“Like all the rest, giving us impossibilities and calling them choices.”

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.

In the world of The Gilded Ones, your fate is determined by the color of your blood. On the day of the blood ceremony, if your blood runs red, you are pure, and safe to be married off to a boy in your village. And if your blood runs gold, the color of demons, you are impure and doomed to a swift end. On the day of her blood ceremony, Deka’s blood runs gold. But no matter how many times the members of her village try to kill her, she just won’t die her final death.

The entire purpose of the book from then on is trying to figure out why.

I enjoyed the concept of the blood ritual and I think it is symbolic of the way society attempts to tame girls in real life. There are obvious themes that this book holds of feminism, critique of a patriarchal and tyrannical society and Emperor, the perpetual shaming of women for expressing their sexuality, and more.

In all, this book was fun to read for me in the sense that it catered to some of my favorite tropes in YA fiction. Besides that though, I unfortunately have more to say about what I did not like about this book.

One of the most important things to me in YA fiction is the ability for me to connect with the world that the story takes place in and the characters that the story focuses on. Much to my dismay, I found myself unable to do either of those things with The Gilded Ones. I did not feel completely encapsulated by the world as I usually do for books with strong world-building. While this book does feature complex societal structuring (i.e. different lands/societies), traversing it through Deka’s eyes felt rather lackluster and I found myself unable to picture a lot of what was happening around her. A large amount of page space is dedicated to narrating her inner anxious thoughts about what was coming instead of painting a mental image of the setting for the reader. (Granted, we do get a grandiose description of the Emperor’s Palace when she arrives there, but the world-building for the rest of the book largely goes neglected).

Shifting away from the world, let’s talk about the characters. While I have no complaints about the characters themselves, I do have a lot of complaints about how little I managed to care about their relationships with one another.

[Spoiler warning]

Essentially, the cohort of girls in this book are picked to be the Emperor’s deathshriek assassin squad because they are “the best of the best” alaki in all of the lands. This also apparently means that they are inherent “blood sisters” and suddenly share the deepest bond imaginable in the history of all human relationships. Except somehow, this bond is formed while being devoid of any real meaningful interactions between them. Deka is specifically paired with Britta because Britta is Deka’s “lifeline,” despite the fact that the first half of the book consists of Britta repeatedly pointing out how “unnatural” Deka is and making her feel bad about herself. (But no, Britta can’t die her final death because Deka couldn’t possibly carry on without her! So Deka will magically save Britta despite the fact that she wasn’t able to save another random girl from dying her final death 50 pages prior!)

I am so deeply disappointed with how little I cared about the stakes of this book because the author failed to provide a meaningful foundation for these character relationships to stand on. I did some intense eye-rolling when the alaki girls were paired with the uruni boys and there is an instant connection between Deka and her Uruni Keita, despite the fact he literally tells her almost 100 pages later that he still doesn’t trust her. I could not have cared less about the romantic interest Deka has in Keita because it is so unfounded. The most substantial interaction they have is after their first near-death experience together where she essentially trauma dumps on him and he suddenly reciprocates her feelings.

Finally, the last thing that disappointed me about The Gilded Ones is how much it violated the “show, don’t tell” rule of writing. The specific scene that caused me to put this in my notes is when Deka learns that she is able to sense deathshrieks. She is feeling very unnerved by this strange ability because nobody else seems capable of doing so, and Britta politely points out “besides, isn’t it a good thing you can sense deathshrieks?” (Also, let’s just forget she called her “unnatural” for it a few pages beforehand, shall we?) This prompts Deka to go on this huge inner monologue for a few pages where she’s essentially saying, “yeah, you’re right! Maybe this ability is actually a good thing and maybe these people have made me feel shame when I should feel pride!”

My issue with this scene is that this is 100% a conclusion a reader could have come up with on their own, but Forna conveniently writes a sidekick character that makes all of the thematic connections for us. It also completely undermines all of the inner turmoil she was going through just pages before in just one sentence.

In all, The Gilded Ones is a nice read if you want a story driven by a legend, a character cast with superhuman abilities, and a kingdom under threat by unnatural monsters. However, if you are a reader who values strong world-building and meaningful character relationships, this might not be the book for you.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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