A primary criticism of the We Need Diverse Books movement is how books are populated by overwhelmingly white casts. This is definitely not the case in Namina Forna’s YA fantasy The Gilded Ones. Read on for the review.
Back Cover Blurb
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.
Note: this is a review of an Advance Reader’s Copy. In the foreword, the author states that the book is an examination of patriarchy, but it isn’t so much an examination as it is a scathing criticism. I’m not necessarily opposed to such an overtly feminist viewpoint; after all, there are many misogynistic practices that must be called out. Even so, I couldn’t get myself to like Forna’s tale of girls standing up to wrest the future with their own hands. Partly because characters are so blatantly divided into good and bad, mostly along gender lines. Partly because the rules of her fantasy world, Otera, are so convoluted.
Otera consists of four regions, each occupied by different races but all ruled by a single emperor and religion. As part of that religion, all girls are slashed at the age of sixteen in the Ritual of Purity. If their blood runs red, they are accepted as members of society; if it runs gold, it signifies they’re alaki, descendants of demonic beings known as the Gilded Ones. The protagonist Deka, who has always been despised in her Northern village because of her mixed heritage, anxiously prays for red blood so she can finally earn acceptance. However, the day of the Ritual, humanoid monsters known as deathshrieks attack the village, and a sudden transformation overtakes Deka, changing her world forever.
The thing about this narrative is that it often states one thing, then some chapters later, contradicts that established fact. For instance, the races of the Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western regions roughly equate to white, black, Asian, and Latino, respectively, and the story opens with Deka as the one biracial girl in her otherwise all-white village. Her late mother was a Southerner, and Deka describes at length the discrimination she suffers because of her mixed background and the villagers’ suspicions about her mother’s purity. That seemed to infer that race was a factor in the purity tested in the ritual. As it turns out, the state religion is enforced by the Emperor, a Southerner, so Deka’s dark skin has nothing to do with her purity. Also, once Deka leaves her village, the whole issue of racial tension becomes a nonissue.
As another example, the appearance of an alaki is supposedly rare; Deka remarks that the last time it happened to her village was “decades ago.” However, when she goes to the imperial capital, she joins scores of other alaki–and those are only the ones born in Deka’s birth year. That makes them uncommon, but certainly not as rare as the original statement led us to believe.
Then there are the okai. The term is introduced on page 1, but it isn’t defined until halfway through the story, which was confusing. Unfortunately, getting that definition made things even more confusing. Okai are top-tier imperial assassins, and not only are there female okai, there’s an entire garrison in the capital dedicated to their training. Despite the religious rules stating that women can’t leave home without an escort, must cover their faces with a mask (kind of a reverse veil), and are forbidden from running, that same system also allows some women to be trained as elite killers under the Emperor’s auspices? The necessity of female okai, which have supposedly existed for generations, is never explored, nor is the means by which girls are chosen for this path rather than the standard fate of submission to a husband. These inconsistencies in the world order are unfortunate, especially because other aspects of Otera, especially the visual descriptions of setting, architecture, and fauna, are beautifully imagined.
In the midst of this problematic world framework, Deka undergoes a classic hero’s journey. She begins as a powerless, oppressed prisoner, and through the help of the enigmatic noble White Hands, she endures boot camp style training, learns to harness her true powers, and ultimately discovers and fulfills her grand destiny. Between the abuse, the training, and the battle scenes, there is a lot of brutality and death. The violence isn’t gratuitous; Forna has a purpose for those scenes, but if you’re squeamish about torture, this might not be the best fit.
Forna does a pretty good job presenting the psychological scars of Deka and her fellow alaki. Fleshing out the personalities of the male characters, not so much. By and large, the men are one-dimensional brutes, who are often corrupt and self-righteous to boot. The one exception is Deka’s love interest, Keita, who is so perfect he treats deathshrieks with respect, despite the fact they slaughtered his entire family.
Those who enjoy heroic tales will find Deka’s journey from weakling to warrior an engaging one (if you’re willing to overlook the issues in the world order.) For me, the most compelling part of the story was White Hands and the secrets she withholds from Deka. Forna does an amazing job of weaving an air of intrigue around this character. However, when the mystery behind the deathshrieks’ very complicated lifecycle is revealed, all I felt was disappointment. White Hands is presented as the cunning strategist pulling the strings in the background, but her master plan is way more convoluted than it had to be. And despite the excessively unnecessary twists and turns leading to the confrontation against the ultimate big bad, the final battle is conveniently tidy and short.
I really wanted to like this book but couldn’t. The Gilded Ones has strong female characters, vivid visual details, and unfortunately, too many places where you must suspend belief. If you’re looking to read about girls who kick butt and overthrow their oppressive patriarchal systems, this book has it in spades. However, if you need that action presented against a world order that makes some sort of sense, give The Gilded Ones a pass.
First published at The Fandom Post.