What if your blood ran gold?
In The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna, girls who are found to have golden blood are sentenced to death for being impure. Except, as sixteen-year old Deka will find out, there’s more to her golden blood than has been shared with her.
This is Forna’s debut novel. Initially, it was supposed to be published last year, but due to the pandemic the publishing house opted to wait. The Gilded Ones is a good debut novel, but it felt clunky and clumsy at times. I wanted to like this book, I really did. It had some strong aspects to it that I found particularly interesting, but ultimately, there were some aspects that I couldn’t move past.
Here’s a quick synopsis:
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.
One of the strongest aspects of The Gilded Ones was the worldbuilding. Forna built a beautifully diverse world with creatures that are both fantastical and terrifying, with an intricate culture and belief system that guides the character’s actions in their everyday lives.
Forna clearly spent a lot of time delving into the culture and fleshing out what this world would look like. It is rich, and complicated, and interesting, with all the hallmarks of high fantasy writing. However, it happened a few times where things were mentioned and spoken about, only to never be mentioned again. As a reader, this made it difficult to decipher what information was important to the plot, and what was only a passing element that we wouldn’t see again.
The world of The Gilded Ones is an intensely patriarchal society that is unabashedly misogynist. Girls are tested for their purity, and are forced to always be accompanied by a male relative after reaching adult age. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with including this in a story. However, what is odd is that The Gilded Ones is often touted as a feminist work. Although a case can be made as such, seeing as there are quite a few strong female characters, the story reads more as a dystopia akin to the Handmaid’s tale.
Whereas the worldbuilding was one of the strong suites of the book, I found that the characters were one of the story’s weaknesses.
The main character, Deka, was very two-dimensional, which is interesting considering the story was entirely told from her perspective. I found Deka’s character arc was not nearly as pronounced as it could have been. For a long time she remained stagnant as the narrative moved forward. It’s really only in the very few last pages that suddenly, her character flourishes in a surprising way that would have been nice to see earlier in the story. Ultimately though, I found it difficult to care for her, and never really got the impression that the reader got to actually know her very well. Her struggles through training were only glanced upon, which is a shame.
The book also bounced around between being so slow and introspective that it didn’t feel like anything was happening, to so fast that it was difficult to understand what was going on.
AIMED FOR THE RIGHT AUDIENCE?
The Gilded Ones was a very brutal and violent book. Although violence isn’t outside of the scope of YA literature, the violence in The Gilded Ones was often of a sexual nature that seems at odds with the YA genre.
Frankly, with a few changes to the quality of the dialogue, and with slightly older protagonists, this would have made a really great New Adult book. And with an older, more mature audience in mind, the dark themes of this work could have been thoroughly explored without the constraints of the YA genre.
Ultimately, I’m so far divided on this book. On the one hand it was refreshing and interesting to read a book with so many cultures and diverse characters. But then again, it also fell into many of the pitfalls that YA is critiqued for, and clumsily at that.
It’s a book worth reading, and I’m not giving up on the series just yet. But I think there are other books who deal with these very serious issues in a better manner.