The Gilded Ones (Book Review)

I’m excited to read Namina Forna’s third or fourth book because her first, The Gilded Ones, has good ideas but middling execution. The strong ideas are disserviced by uneven pacing and tired tropes that do nothing for it. When she has tightened her craft a bit, I’ll happily give Forna another shot, but I think I’ll skip the rest of the Deathless series.

What’s it about?

Deka lives in a fiercely patriarchal society in which women are taught above else to court piety and purity. At age sixteen, girls undergo the Ritual of Purity during which they are bled. If their blood runs red, it’s all good. If it runs gold, it means that they are unpure and are subject to the Death Mandate. Deka’s blood is gold. In times past she would have no recourse but to die death after death until one sticks—these gold-blooded girls are immortal but for one specific death, which is individual to each—but Deka luckily has another option. She can join an elite army of girls like her who will be trained to kill deathshrieks, the demonic creatures that are slowly invading the empire.

What’d I think?

Rating: 3 out of 5.

First things first: I love the cover. I read this book because of the cover, which broadcasts all the best parts of this novel. Its fierceness. Its Blackness. Its femininity. It is eyecatching, it matches the novel within, and it doesn’t closely resemble any other book.

I also really like the worldbuilding. The society that Forna has created for The Gilded Ones is brutal and unique and at times strangely beautiful. I read enough YA fantasy that most magical worlds feel at least a little familiar or derivative, but The Gilded Ones has a setting that is fresh and exciting, clearly inspired by elements of the real world but fleshed out into something very much its own.

I like how feminist the novel is. The main theme is the subjugation and oppression of women. It is both metaphorically and literally about toppling the patriarchy, and specifically the white patriarchy. Our heroine Deka grows up in a society that would have her quiet, weak, and subservient to the men around her but she suffers the worst men can throw at her and comes out the other side stronger.

That said, this does come with a few unintentional consequences. First and foremost is the idea that strength must come from suffering. Deka occasionally reflects on her horrific abuse and seems thankful for it because it allowed her to access her power. While it is true that some people can find strength in their suffering, it’s a little unsetting that The Gilded Ones seems to posit that strength for women is necessarily borne from suffering.

The Gilded Ones has a very strong thesis about women’s strength, but it accidentally becomes very binary. Deka and her blood sisters are part of a powerful race that is specific to women. Women have one kind of magic, and men have another. And the women’s magic is very much tied to their blood, and while the obvious and intended reading of this is that their power comes from enduring sex-based trauma, there’s also the unspoken implication that it is inherent to them. Defining these women by the blood that they bleed but that men do not feels the slightest bit trans-exclusionary. Again: I don’t think it’s intended, but the world of The Gilded Ones is very binary, with no room for gender nonconformity.

It’s weird to say that I like the brutality, but I kind of do. The Gilded Ones pulls no punches. Deka and the others can be killed and resurrect, and most of them have. Deka’s experiences are horrific, but it’s her comrades who have the more blood-chilling stories. In the rare occasions when they get the opportunity to share their stories, Deka learns of some of the almost-deaths her sisters have endured, and they recall real stories of real women who have been casualties of our real patriarchal world. Belcalis in particular seems to give voice to some of the women who unfortunately aren’t able to resurrect and speak for themselves.

One thing I’ve noticed about feminist books—Moxie comes to mind—is that they always seem to have a token male love interest as though to prove that not all men. Keita is one such token male love interest. For the life of me, I can’t think of a point to him aside from injecting some heterosexuality. For some reason that never makes any sense to me, Deka and her blood sisters are each paired with a male soldier, and Keita is Deka’s. Considering how despised the women and their all-female unit is, though, I don’t see why this elite squad of valued men is linked to them. There’s no plot reason for these pairings. Supposedly all the girls have a jatu partner, but that’s more in theory than in practice. We rarely if ever see the other girls’ partners. Later on in the book, it’s explained that Deka needs someone to watch her back on the battlefield after she uses a power that exhausts her. A fellow alaki girl is assigned to keep her safe. Why, though? If Deka already has a battlefield buddy in Keita, why does she need Britta? But since Britta is a more developed character than Keita, not to mention that her presence is more logical considering the segregation that this society usually enforces between men and women, it’s really Keita who is superfluous. Deka’s relationship with Britta grows steadily; her relationship with Keita feels tacked on. Britta’s closeness is demanded by the plot and the society it exists in. Keita’s feels contrary to everything I know about Deka’s country. When Deka started to fall for Keita, though, it clicked. Cool. He’s here so no one thinks Deka and Britta are gay. Also, Keita is essentially the only character who is not virulently sexist. I understand the impulse to have at least one good guy around to keep from seeming too angry or misandrist, but I’ve always felt having the one good guy love the heroine undercuts that a bit. Is he a feminist, or is he just really into the hero?

Speaking of gay: The Gilded Ones has one of those why-yes-I’m-inclusive paragraphs. You know the ones. When a tertiary character mentions offhand that she’s gay and the main character quickly fills the reader in on her journey to gay acceptance—“It shocked me at first, the fact that two women would have such inclinations, but affection is affection”—and that’s literally the first and last we hear of it. These are so annoying. You don’t get queer points for a relationship so far in the background that I just had to use context clues to know that one of the characters was a woman. Is Adwapa gay to appease anyone who was hoping for a queer Deka? I can’t say for sure, but it feels that way.

The main problem with The Gilded Ones, and the real reason I want to wait until Forna’s writing matures before reading her again, is the pacing. It’s weird. We skip large periods of time of development. One character is unnecessarily cryptic until the very end, letting Deka and the readers blunder down one wrong path for eighty percent of the book or so before correcting the record and drastically changing the direction of the story. A late-in-the-game reveal changes everything, sharpening the themes and upping the emotional stakes significantly, and it would have been fantastic if it hadn’t been so shortchanged by the pacing. We spend so much time with one set of information that asking us to exchange it to uncover and resolve an entirely new conflict in a fraction of the pagetime feels unfair. The whole narrative points one direction, only to point elsewhere right at the end. The new direction is better, certainly, but it arrives and is resolved far too quickly and far too easily.

I’ve since read that there is going to be a sequel to The Gilded Ones, but when I initially finished it, I did so certain that it was a standalone. The main conflict got resolved too easily, but it did apparently get resolved. It will be easy enough for book two to say, oh, yeah. That easy ending wasn’t actually that easy and that will work fine, but The Gilded Ones doesn’t seem to have an awareness that the day is not quite saved.

I went into The Gilded Ones excited for a new fantasy with a powerful woman of color at its heart. I got that, for the most part. A few disappointments in the pacing and the inclusion of some stale YA tropes and unfortunate implications that don’t service the narrative—the unnecessary male love interest, the random pet, the pointlessly cryptic mentor, the shoehorned queerness, the in-passing implication that an adoptive father is less legitimate than a biological one—unfortunately sour me on a book that otherwise has a solid thematic base and excellent worldbuilding. Like I said, I’m excited about Forna as an author down the line once her technical writing grows into her ideas. She’s definitely capable of being a big-name author… just not yet.     

What’s next?

Want another afro-inspired fantasy novel with extensive worldbuilding? You’ll like Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi.

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston is another great new fantasy with a powerfully magical Black girl in the lead. It’s for a slightly younger crowd, but it is excellent.

If you are interested in stories of gendered magic but wish that there was wiggle room for trans or nonbinary characters, check out the excellent Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas.

If you were drawn to the harsher elements of The Gilded Ones, you should try Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan. Like The Gilded Ones, it focuses explicitly on the mistreatment of women in a deeply sexist patriarchal society but it focuses more specifically on sexual violence, so be aware of that before diving in. This is also a good one if you, like me, thought that The Gilded Ones was pointing towards a wlw romance with Britta and Deka. Girls of Paper and Fire has actual lesbians in the leads.

Maybe your favorite part of The Gilded Ones was the interesting religious structure and the warrior training Deka goes through in order to achieve spiritual absolution. Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight follows a young woman training to become a killer for a church dedicated to holy murder.

If you want to move away from fantasy and just want the feminism, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu is a good choice.

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