TW: this book contains scenes of sexual and physical violence, abuse, racism and PTSD.
Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear of the blood ceremony, a ritual that will determine her ‘purity’ and worth as a member of her village and society. Already feeling like an outcast due to the colour of her skin, Deka prays for red blood. But, on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the colour of impurity, the colour of the demons. Everything Deka ever knew about herself and her family is a lie and she is left with a choice: stay in the village and submit to a gruesome fate or fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her, known as the Alakis.
Namina Forna’s The Gilded Ones, the first instalment in the Deathless series, is a powerful fantasy novel that deals with issues many of us are familiar with: racism, xenophobia, inequality, abuse and trauma. A call for the oppressed, the overlooked and the ignored to rise up and take what is rightfully theirs. The greatest struggles the young women face in this book are not the monsters on the empire’s borders, but the overwhelming misogyny within its confines. Bold in its storytelling, Forna utilises what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal society and what it means to defy those who demean your worth to create a compelling and powerful novel.
With a Black, female character at the forefront, this book excels because of its diverse cast of complex female characters that readers cannot help but get emotionally invested in. The girls are strong, bright and resilient, each with their own developed back stories and their own demons. In particular, Britta stands out for her great contrast to Deka. A warm ray of sunshine, always attempting to find the silver lining despite the harsh conditions and situations in which they find themselves, she becomes Deka’s source of stability and a friendly face.
The primary focus of The Gilded Ones is on the strong bonds of female friendship. Deka and her sister warriors respect and admire each other more than anything and their open vulnerability with one another is unlike any young adult novel I’ve ever read. Deka and her friends are an impenetrable group of allies, a savage force to be reckoned with and it’s incredibly refreshing to see a group of women and their friendships at the centre of a fantasy novel, not pushed to the side-lines for the very minimal romance that takes place. Forna creates a brilliant message about inclusivity and inner strength, making the novel a poignant and relatable story.
Alongside the characters, the plot is easy to read, becoming almost impossible to put down. Filled to the brim with plot twists concerning the origins of the monsters, the Deathshrieks, and their connection to the Alaki, the entire concept is intriguing, innovative and original. Forna promises entertainment with the gorgeous cover and enticing blurb and she delivers, offering growth for future books in series.
My only criticism of this beautifully crafted fantasy is the pacing. The novel would move fast with intense and graphic violent scenes only to slow down to give the reader time to recover and digest. Such a fast pace became an issue when months went by in 50 pages. I only wish we spent more time with Deka’s training and her friends before the battles.
Overall, a thoroughly entertaining, unique and incredibly important novel. The Gilded Ones places an empowered group of women at the centre of fantasy and is a must-read.
By Lucy Lillystone.