- On: 7th Apr 2023
- Category: Reviews
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna, first published in 2021
The Gilded Ones is an action-packed young adult fantasy novel, and I enjoyed it for several reasons. First and foremost because it’s an exciting story set in an imaginative world, and at the same time, it shares a lot of parallels with our world, and second, I can’t think of a similar book in my reading history so to me the story was also quite distinct and unique. So, what’s the story about?
We follow sixteen-year-old Deka, who lives in a remote village in a deeply patriarchal and religious society where women are controlled and oppressed. All young women must go through a Purity Ritual, and their entire future depends on the outcome: during the ceremony, they are cut across the chest, and their blood is allowed to run. If it runs red, the girl is pure and will officially be deemed a woman, eligible to marry and have a family, but if the blood runs golden, they are Alaki - cursed demon spawn - and sentenced to execution under the Death Mandate which states Alaki must never be allowed to live.
Naturally, as the protagonist, Deka’s blood is golden, but she earns additional ire from the villagers when they are attacked by gigantic, all-male monsters called Deathshreiks, and Deka exhibits the ability to command them, her eyes darkening when she tells the beasts to stop their attack. She is slain for her demonic heritage but comes back to life – an ability of the Alaki whereby they have a unique true death – a singular method by which they can be permanently killed. Any other fatal attack used against them results in the gilded sleep – a process in which their bodies heal, and they are resurrected from death.
Deka is eventually rescued from a tortuous cycle of death and rebirth as the Emperor has ended the Death Mandate in favour of an alternative strategy: training the Alaki into a fighting force and using their unique abilities to fight the Deathshreiks. As Deka begins her training, she discovers that her ability to command the monsters is unique, even among Alaki. As the campaign against the beasts unfolds, the fabrications that’ve been taught to Deka all through her life begin to fall away, revealing the more sinister truth of the world and those who rule it.
Spoilers ahead: skip to the last two paragraphs if you want to avoid those, and read my conclusion!
The story deals with many challenging topics: racism, xenophobia, misogyny and inequality, abuse, and trauma. Many of these elements stem from the inworld religion and patriarchal society. The monotheistic religion isn’t explored in too much detail, but we’re given enough to gain an understanding of its tenants: the holy book, the Infinite Wisdoms, teaches of the Infinite Father and his Afterlands. He created women as a helpmeet to serve men, their sacred potential, and divine glory. Women must be meek and subservient, light and graceful – activities that aren’t conducive to a girl’s future role as a wife and mother are forbidden.
We experience a lot of this in the story through Deka’s eyes. More than once, she must work through the internal conflict she experiences as she fights against years of that ingrained indoctrination when her Alaki training or discoveries contradict what she’s been taught. This ‘truth’ that the Infinite Wisdoms and priests uphold is shattered when Deka learns that this world’s demons are, in fact, goddesses who were imprisoned by men and vilified in the scriptures they invented as they took power. After a few generations, the truth of the goddesses was well and truly forgotten, and the knowledge that remained paints them as evil beings, sinful and unholy.
I thought this was a fascinating theme within the story as a larger reflection and examination of real-world religions and their effects on society. The parallels between the Purity Ritual and historical virginity tests; both ways of determining the ‘purity’ of a woman. Or how the modern world is dominated by monotheistic faiths, which supplanted the previous polytheistic faiths. Similarly, the lesser and subservient roles that women are taught they must fulfil, or that they are sinful and dirty by virtue of simply being female, punished and shamed for menstruation or for partaking in ‘male’ activities, are also real-world issues that many still contend with. I hope that, much like the women in The Gilded Ones, society will be able to develop and grow past those archaic ideas sooner rather than later!
The book isn’t for everyone; there are graphic and violent scenes and discussions of torture, trauma, rape, and abuse. If those aren’t things you can stomach, you might want to give this book a pass. But if you can handle it, you’re in for a good read. Some downsides for me were that whilst it deals with some very real, earnest situations, they aren’t delivered in a way that makes you sympathise with the characters' trials and tribulations, lessening the emotional impact that there might have otherwise been. There are tropes and romantic subplots that are relatively inconsequential, which perhaps ties into the lack of emotional connection.
Regarding the positive aspects, I loved the worldbuilding, the characters, and the plot. I found the examination and parallels of religions and patriarchal societies particularly interesting, and the themes of female empowerment and the deconstruction of patriarchy are powerful and important. I look forward to reading book 2, The Merciless Ones, and continuing Deka’s journey of self-discovery and revolution!
Background image by Casey Horner on Unsplash