4 star, YA

Review: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Series: Deathless #1

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.

This one has been floating around the YA sphere even before it published recently and I can see where all the hype is coming from for it is very well deserved. The Gilded Ones is a female-empowering story that show girls are not only worth more than a subservient role in a patriarchal society, but they are strong and will fight until another day to survive.

Deka was raised in the Northern area of the kingdom although her appearance resembles that of her mother, a Southerner. Already deemed different in this way alone, she’d always wanted to fit in. The Ritual of Purity for every girl come of age would determine if they were pure or impure based on the colour of their blood. Deka was determined to fit in and finally be approved by her village. Of course, nothing goes as planned right?

I loved the pacing of this book from the start. We see quite immediately the inhumane acts done to Deka after the Ritual, losing friend and family in the same moment who have all turned their backs on her. The decision to leave to fight for the emperor was an easy one, and we follow her as she journeys to the capital to train in the army of others who are just like her, dubbed the alaki.

Originally I thought the book would heavily emphasize the training that would take place to get everyone ready to fight but I really loved the balance between plot-driven elements like the training and the character-driven parts. We meet a handful of girls who become close to Deka as soon as she arrived in the capital. They form a little pact to be allies since they know no one else would ever treat them with respect instead of fear or disgust.

I particularly want to highlight how much I adored her closest friend, Britta. Traveling with Deka since the beginning when their mysterious driver, nicknamed White Hands, saved them from their villages. She was sweet and loyal to the bone, carrying an energy that was optimistic regardless of the oppressing circumstances they were in. Without Britta, I think Deka wouldn’t have come as far as she did and I’m so glad she wasn’t just a name thrown in there to “give support” without much character behind her.

There is also some romance elements to this story. Each alaki girl is paired with a boy warrior known as the jatu. Their mission was to fight alongside each other against their common enemy, the fearsome creatures known as desthshrieks which have amassed more attacks against the kingdom over the years. Partnered with a no-nonsense boy with a deep hatred for desthshrieks, Keita gave me an initial impression of fierce dedication and guardedness that would make it hard for Deka to get through. While the romance was not overt, I understood why their feelings for each other developed. It wasn’t super obvious to me so I didn’t always feel like it had to be romantic when these strong feelings could’ve just as well been trust and deep friendship. But I can’t complain though it wasn’t as romantic as one may think.

Obviously, with any fantasy, there is more than meets the eye. As Deka trains, she started to wonder if she was a little bit different from the rest of the alaki. There was just something off about her abilities. Would her mother’s past in the South give her answers? Was there something else going on that made the deathshrieks attack so often? And why did White Hands pick her and Britta to save when it was clear there were other drivers who did this? All these questions zipped through me and pulled me into the story as I read as fast as I could.

While there are many common tropes utilized here, I do believe the story was one that carried those well: the heroine who has special powers unbeknownst to her and a kingdom that needed saving from the least likely heroes. It’s a story that especially showcases the strength and fierceness of women through even the darkest of things. In this world where men had all the rights and women were just those who served them, I’m glad it carried this overall message that gender equality is important and every woman deserves her voice.

Overall Recommendation:

The Gilded Ones was a memorable story about finding where you fit into the world in a super patriarchal society that shuns you for bleeding different. Labeled as demons or monsters, these girls would normally have only one option: death. But Deka was presented with the choice to fight for the kingdom. With an army of strong women warriors, we follow the twists and turns Deka faces as she is confronted with the monsters known as deathshrieks up close. Little does she know, there may be more to this war than anyone even knew.