The Gilded Ones – Review

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna is a wonderful West African folklore/fantasy novel that balances multiple real-world themes and fantastical magical elements with a razor sharp precision. Racism, xenophobia, misogyny, inequality, trauma, and more are all mixed in this empowering story that offers diversity through a cast of complex characters, including an incredible lead.

And similar to Bethany Morrow’s superb A Song Below Water series, this book interlaces and intertwines all of its contrivances, integrating them with the story’s central themes in a natural way.

Here’s the summary…

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.

Minor spoilers…

There’s a great line in The Gilded Ones from Captain Kelechi that really seems to set the tone for Namina’s fabulous debut effort…

I will give you so many brutal almost-deaths, you’ll marvel at my ingenuity from here to eternity.

The Gilded Ones is an exhaustive look at the damage inflicted on women by a patriarchal society, and when I say damage, I mean D-A-M-A-G-E. Extreme subjugation, mutilation, violence, bloodletting, abuse, torture, rape, and barbarous sadism, it’s all there. Because of that, this book isn’t always necessarily for the faint of heart, and Namina doesn’t pull too many punches, but she never fully cross that line into exploitive either. It is very fucking important however that you understand that what these girls have gone through, the horrors placed upon them for simply being born with an X instead of a Y, is clear and precise. If that’s hard to read, I guess then all I’ll say is try being a girl sometime.

But fear not, this is mostly a love-story, and I don’t just mean romantic love (which there is), I mean love of oneself, love of friends, and love of found family. In fact, the romantic angle of this book was the least interesting to me and I’ll tell you why.

I genuinely believe, with the untold and countless horrors inflicted upon Deka, Belcalis, and the women of Otera, respect and acceptance would have been big enough mountains to climb. Simply leaving open the possibility for romantic love would be a victory in of itself, and still not denying them any one single win. And for those who didn’t like the “instalove” aspect of Deka’s character I would simply offer this. I wouldn’t dare presume to understand how someone would react to any offer of affection after being raised in a patriarchal society who’s been humiliated and tortured simply for being who she is, betrayed by everyone she felt close to. No, I was fine with the pace, but it just felt a little too soon for a series, but of course, I could be eating my words this time next year, and I’d be glad to do so.

But Namina has created a cast of characters and a system of magic so boundless, so strong, that any sins can easily be forgiven. And again, this is a very minor quip on my part and says more about me than her. Let me be very clear, this book reads like an absolute dream so kudos to co-editors Kelsey Horton and Becky Walker as well.

Now, the pace of The Gilded Ones is vivacious with Namina wasting very little time getting to the “journey” aspect of the story. She treats the passage of time freely and without real meaning with weeks and months flying by, again, shoutout to the trim. And there are no Back to the Future first act exposition dumps either, as you literally learn the remaining vital bits of information on the last few pages. No, Namina takes a methodical approach with the facts, with the reader learning in real time with Deka as she uncovers the truth of her past, present, and future. This leads to a satisfying ending that does leave you with a sense of both finality and hope. For that reason, The Gilded Ones works just as well as a standalone as it does the first chapter in a longer series, which it is.

This style of storytelling based on a good-faith approach is so refreshing, and so rewarding, it’s like feeling the warm sun on your face. I’m never entirely comfortable knowing more than the main character does, I believe it reduces their tactility and the story overall. So, save a few small instances where scheming is involved, you grow with Deka, a fun way to experience her rise to power.

Blessed are the meek and subservient, the humble and true daughters of man, for they are unsullied in the face of the Infinite Father.

The idea of religious extremism and fervor is front and center with Namina making it clear that those who toil in dogmatic pain and suffering would pay for the horrific sins committed in the name of Oyomo. Yes, atonement and contrition are alive and well, redemption, not so much.

Knowing better than to fear the sun isn’t an excuse to inflict pain on women, gilded, demon, or otherwise. And we’re reminded that their time of asking for a pound of flesh in the name of false prophets and that of seeking redemption in the Infinite Wisdoms has run out. Yes, call it faith, call it fear, call it whatever you want, the gig my friends, is up, and their meal ticket has left.

If you read a lot of SFF then the “chosen one” theme is a not a new idea, it’s what the author environs this all-powerful being with that’s supposed to be unique. And she surrounds Deka with enchanted and ethereal landscapes, fantastical beasts, and a strong system of root magic, all which make this journey both slightly familiar and highly entertaining.

This is all well and good because as a lead, Deka gets a thousand gold stars. She’s a sympathetic character until she’s not, and when she’s not? Watch the fuck out fellas. And because so much of her journey is about discovery, awakening what’s inside her, but not necessarily forgiveness, it makes the chosen one schtick extremely palatable. Her magic, which is distinct in a world of full distinct magic, comes from something more guttural than the others. This is the essence of her life, but beyond these god-like powers, she inspires others with a unique brand of courage. I also very much appreciate the fact that if flows from a place of purity despite the need for it to be devastating.

Listen, it’s always important to keep the reader’s attention, and in a series that’s obviously even more vital because you have to do it for that much longer. And so, it’s an understatement to say your MC had better be something special, and Deka is special.

I thought I’d endured unspeakable torture, but something tells me White Hands has not only endured but thrived…

What also helps is a great supporting cast, and The Gilded Ones has that from top to bottom. Next to Deka, there’s no question that White Hands is the best character in the book. I believe she’s written that way and I would suspect Namina would admit as much. Every time she’s on the page, from her first introduction, the story elevates (by design) and we not-so-coincidently get some of Deka’s best moments as well. If Deka is the hero archetype, then White Hands is the sage with a cruel demeaner however that perfectly matches the time and place.

Chapters like eighteen however reinforce the idea that there’s something more to her than meets eye and that her formidability is on another level. Whether we see her unleash that vitality in either a righteous or unforgiving manner, you’ll just have to read. It’s also one of the first times we get a sense that White Hands cares for these girls beyond simply providing warrior broodmares for the alaki war-machine. Her intentions go beyond preparing them for battle, she’s preparing them to take over the world, and with Deka out front, she surrounds her with warriors who are up the task. All I’ll say about that aspect of the plot is, like all things in Otera and this book, nothing is at it seems.

Who better to fight a monster than another monster.

This team she’s put assembled is fleshed out very well and you’ll feel a connection to them almost instantly, Britta getting the heavy lifting. Part of the reason is empathy, because they’ve suffered greatly you can’t help but develop strong feelings of attachment towards them. Even the curmudgeonly Belcalis, who’s endured more than most and goes to great lengths not to be liked, will earn your affection. Namina creates wonderful textures and nuances here that make them both unique within the group, and just fine on their own. But its design carries with it a “there’s no “i” in team” aesthetic and the first time the core group is brought together, and their roles explained…goosebumps.

And there’s an entire population of Otera, including her army, that Namina populates so get your pen and paper ready, you’ll need to take some notes. Because once the training is complete, and the monster vs. monster action starts, figuring out who’s who and taking notes will be the least of your concerns.

Listen, I’ve barely scratched the surface here and have made ZERO mention of the book’s fantastical elements, nor it’s plot. To say anything at all would be to say too much regarding those so I think it’s best to leave it be. But understand that there are bigger forces at work here and finding out their secrets, who can and cannot be trusted, and how Deka fits into all of this, is the mission.

Like fellow contemporaries Jordan Ifueko and Dr. Nnedi Okorafor, Namina writes what she knows, in this case, West-African folklore and magical realism. She creates a tapestry around this expertise that is both mesmerizing and entirely addictive, weaving in a somewhat unique magic system, a strong sense of found family, disparaging dogmatic and barbaric theism, and taking patriarchy to task with a vigor not often seen.

In a word, this book is POWER.

And while there’s no question this is a lot of concept and world-building crammed into one book, I think you’ll find it easily palatable and wanting more. Because rather than use a referential mythology type approach, Namina mostly creates her own and along with Otera, creates an imaginative ethereal world where despite the brutish nature of its people, there’s a simple beauty just below the surface. A world that Deka and her found family will hopefully one day get to enjoy, after enough blood has been spilled.

In a letter to the reader, Namina talks about The Gilded Ones being an examination of the patriarchal system, and she was hoping to find some important answers to some important questions.

And then she offers this admission, “I hope I’ve done a good job answering these questions, and, failing that, I hope I’ve told a good story…

Yes, you have Namina.

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