Title: The Gilded Ones
Author: Namina Forna
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: ARC – ebook
Page Count: 432
Add To-Read on: GoodReads, StoryGraph
Notable Notables: Female-led, POC cast; original, if underdeveloped, world-building
Recommended Readers: Older teens, but also no one unless you’re really in the mood for some grimdark
CAWPILE Rating: 2.29
Star Rating: ★☆☆☆☆
Thank you, to NetGalley and the publisher, for offering this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Well, what happened here? I’m flabbergasted.
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna was easily one of my most anticipated books since it was supposed to be released in 2020, its publication date pushed back due to the pandemic. Finally reading it, however, has been a bizarre, disturbing, and deeply unenjoyable experience.
Synopsis time. Sixteen-year-old Deka waits anxiously for the Ritual of Purity—for her blood to run red, so she can be accepted as a pure woman by her village at last. In the country of Otera, women must wear masks and defer to the men in their lives at all times, and all Deka wants is to be accepted enough to be considered marriageable. When her blood turns out to run gold, she is deemed impure, a demon, and must face the Death Mandate all her kind go through. Except she doesn’t die. Before the male elders can find her true death, 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. These girls—alaki—are near-immortals with strength and speed men don’t possess, and they are the key to stopping the deathshrieks that plague the empire.
To start, I will say that this book is a quick read, though I was certainly reading it for the sole purpose of finishing it. If you read it fast enough, it’s likely that you won’t notice the glaring errors that I did, but unfortunately, I couldn’t turn that part of my brain off. The deathshrieks—the threat the characters fight—are also interesting in both design and as a monstrous force to be reckoned with. I saw the plot twist about them coming a mile away, though, and I wanted to continuously shake Deka (and the use of the first-person perspective) for repeatedly noticing things about them and then completely forgetting about it. I know the praise here is mixed, but it’s all I can manage to give this book because I frankly didn’t enjoy it.
Oh, wait, I can say one more thing. Remember how everyone got mad at Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education because of the passage that specified dreadlocks as being targets for magical infestation, so the characters all keep their heads shaved? A similar event happens here, except done more tastefully. Upon arriving at the training grounds, all the girls have their heads shaved regardless of hair type because the matron wants no cases of lice to occur. Same idea as in A Deadly Education but Forna wrote a better application of it because the writing doesn’t specify a particular hair type and avoids tripping over a racist stereotype. Forna handled that subject matter very well, and sure, everyone’s hair grew back overnight, thereby instantly eliminating the drama and heartbreak of the scene but whatever.
The main problem with this book is three-fold. First, its characters are wooden. Second, it features graphic content that is far too descriptive for a YA book that has a particular audience in mind. Finally, it lacks all manner of logic, its world-building hanging by a very thin thread of “women are oppressed but make it feminist” that frays with every new burst of contradictory information readers receive.
Even its cover is deceptive. It’s beautiful, absolutely stunning—yet it presents an extremely different aesthetic from what’s inside it. From the beginning, I was thrown by the overly formal language, the backward ideas of female purity, the quaintness of the farm girl milking cows. Is that the image the cover conveys to you of what to expect from this book, I wonder? I’ve seen some reviews compare much of the opening and the world-building in general to be reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, a book I largely dislike and a comparison I tend to hate making, but they aren’t wrong. Before I could fully adjust to how the book actually presented itself, the violence started—the extreme, dark violence, something I don’t tend to mind but which was jarring up against characters speaking like they’re from Little House on the Prairie. Part of me just couldn’t fully believe and commit to what I was reading.
Before the violent upheaval, however, the book is tragically YA in some of the worst ways. Our protagonist, Deka, already knows she’s different and special in some way, but she wants to hide it until she passes the Ritual of Purity. She has exactly one female friend who is less conventionally attractive than her, but Deka doesn’t know she’s pretty until an important village boy tells her so. There is a mean rich girl who bullies her and her friend, with the mean girl’s mom even joining in. It was almost a relief when the deathshrieks showed up to put an end to this.
The saving grace of these tropes, of course, is that Deka is biracial, her skin darker than that of the other villagers. Her internalized feelings of being considered unattractive are born from colorism and racism. However, her being a target for bullying is seemingly caused by another narrative reason: a member of her family was once considered impure, ostracized, and put to death—a fate Deka prays she doesn’t share. I’d hesitate to call this a good example of showing these issues. As soon as Deka arrives at the capital, where plenty of other people are with a range of skin tones, the colorism and racism all but vanish, including internally, because the narrative now only has room for sexism, misogyny, and ham-fisted feminism.
Let’s step back to the violence a bit. It’s unsettling and disturbing how much there is—primarily aimed at women—and yet how little weight it has. It’s gratuitous and draining to read about constantly, yet I know there is supposed to be a larger message behind me reading about characters getting dismembered, getting their spines ripped out, and being raped—to name but a few. I just couldn’t connect enough to the book or the characters to determine what this message could be. “Life sucks if you’re a woman in a domineering, patriarchal society, so look at all the terrible things that can happen to you once your power is all stripped away,” perhaps? Yeah, no kidding. I, too, live in a society.
What I would like to know is why a book with near-constant graphic violence and mentions of minors being raped repeatedly off-screen is being marketed toward younger teens. The grimdark content in this book is easily made for much older teens, and yet the writing—and even the story itself—clearly has younger teens in mind, and I would absolutely not recommend this book to them, even if they do read the trigger warnings. I personally don’t feel like giving warnings is enough, and I like dark and gritty stuff, even grimdark stuff. I had no problem reading The Poppy War, for instance, which is a grimdark adult fantasy novel with heavy influences from the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Rape of Nanking.
On a certain level, the way this book’s content has been handled feels incredibly careless given who their market audience is—younger, POC readers of YA—and this knowledge is part of the reason why I became more and more disturbed as I read. Obviously, people can do as they please, but am I seriously supposed to believe that a 13/14-year-old girl would be fine reading this book? I guess in the world of providing content warnings this somehow absolves all sense of responsibility from the author and publishing house. Personally, I don’t think so. You don’t write multiple scenes of descriptive, horrific violence and multiple mentions that minor girls were raped—which increasingly felt like I was just reading torture porn so that feminism could swoop in and save me—and still slap a PG or PG-13 rating on it. This is easily an R-rated book. While I don’t think Forna or Delacorte should be attacked by this or anything, these are still some interesting thoughts to consider about how creators are responsible for the content they create and who they direct it towards.
The violence being addressed, we can move onto the characters and the narrative inconsistencies. Much of my problems with both are interwoven with each other.
I’ll admit it. Despite the terrible things that happened to Deka, I couldn’t care about her. Nothing about her character arc is written as a natural progression, yet somehow it went exactly where I expected it to. The steps Deka took to get there just so happened to be on an Escherian stairwell, impossible to keep track of. She admits she’s not too intelligent; I just wish the book could have proven her wrong. She is very much not like the other girls, but at least not in a vanity, mean girl way. She is just the only character who is special and who actually matters to the plot.
I like Britta, but it’s a shame that her dialogue is written with a dialect (my guess is it equates to an Irish or Scottish dialect), so whenever she talks, it takes some adjustment to read, instantly taking me out of the story again. She is the only character who is written with a dialect, so I wondered why this choice was made constantly.
I really wish White Hands had been given an actual name, or perhaps I should say, a better name. And just more interesting characterization over all, something that would truly surprise me. I’m also super weirded out and confused about her being the Lady of the Equus, because the book never explains what that means. The equus are centaur-like beings—for lack of a better word, because I can’t tell from the writing if these creatures are supposed to be considered sentient or not. They talk, but it’s in a bizarre way, always saying each other’s names or referring to others by nickname or speaking in unison, which could be a writing flaw or it could just be how they communicate. Since so many writing flaws persisted in this ARC, I couldn’t tell. Despite being able to talk—which this book establishes as a signature of humanity—these equus are treated as beasts of burden, pulling carriages and such. So yeah, I have no idea how to feel about them. Should they be considered people, and if so, are they people who are enslaved? Are they actually just animals who can talk? I have no clue, so this is really weird and I hated whenever they showed up.
As for female friendships, that is a tad difficult to claim this book has when only its main character has characterization, a character arc, and wants of her own. Pretty much all the characters from Britta to Belcalis are there for one reason, and that is to support Deka. Britta is actually told that’s why she’s chosen, because she’s loyal and will protect Deka when she’s vulnerable, not for her own abilities. Beyond that, I know nothing about Britta other than she’s bubbly almost all the time and Deka considers her her new best friend. Literally everyone is a sidekick compared to Deka. Whenever Deka is sad, or freezes on the battlefield, or is physically harmed, one of the girls (or Keita) instantly pops to her side, seeing to her every need like they’re on rotation. This is unfortunate because so many of these characters had great potential, and I somehow liked them better than Deka. Maybe because I wasn’t stuck in their heads, hearing their every circular thought.
As soon as White Hands enters the picture, masks—and the fact that women must wear them to be considered pure—completely disappear with no explanation given as to why. Was this a village superstition? No, the narrative keeps enforcing it as truth even though no one is actually doing it. Huh, baffling. Is it a status issue? Obviously, the alaki don’t need to wear them anymore because they are considered impure, but what about White Hands, the matrons, the instructors? Why are they all exempt? No idea. It becomes a meaningless bit of world-building. It’s funny because I’m reading a Dragon Age book right now where masks are a fashion statement tied to social status in the country of Orlais, and this book manages to establish the world-building around masks—who can wear them, how they are worn, what it means if you can’t or choose not to, what exemptions are made and how the nobility views these exceptions—in two pages. Something The Gilded Ones failed to do for an entire book.
In fact, many things that are introduced as key world-building elements soon become meaningless to the plot. Even the supposedly formidable (and female) Karmoko teachers don’t enrich the narrative in any way in the end because they are barely shown. Any time they would’ve trained the girls to be warriors, we skip right over it and barely spend time on it. We don’t get to know these diverse teachers or how they came to be in their roles at all. One Karmoko is even notable for fashioning armor for the alaki—and sure, despite how hyped up each armor class is, they’re all narratively as useful as paper for some reason. Yet all I get about this Karmoko is Deka thinking, “It’s a shame she was born a woman because she would’ve been an incredible smith.” Is that not… what she’s doing? She doesn’t have “aspiring smith” on her fantasy resume; she is a smith, that’s what she is doing for the alaki regiment.
Then, there are the okai—the elite female assassins for the emperor—who are also never explained as to how they are possible in a world that is supposedly built on female oppression and keeping women jobless, pure, and solely dependent on men. They are a literal impossibility that needed to be explained but for some reason never were—even though Deka’s mother was an okai. How do you qualify to be one? What are the rules? Are these women considered impure or not? Why does the emperor trust and rely on them? How were they formed? No answers given. This is the kind of poor writing I cannot give a pass to for anyone for any reason.
When I wasn’t dealing with a lack of foundational world-building, there were also moments where Forna seems to have forgotten what she had written before. For instance, Deka acts like she doesn’t know things she established a few pages ago. An example is when she notices the physical and mental states of her fellow alaki. Some have been clearly physically abused by their transporters while others have obviously been raped at some point, and Deka’s conclusions are enforced by world-building she intimately knows. Yet when an official asks Deka whether her transporter physically harmed her or tried selling off her virginity to others, she is fully taken aback, wondering if that’s what happened to the other girls. Just as I began to mentally criticize her for forgetting what she’s already established, Deka is suddenly thinking like she’s known this all along. There are many other places like this where the narrative seems to have forgotten itself at some point that I hope have been fixed because this story is tough enough to fall into without my brain snagging on every little thing.
An element of Deka’s character arc that I wanted to see was her growing more comfortable and even accepting of her demonic nature and the gifts it brings along with her rejection of the Infinite Wisdoms, which is the classic “religion that controls women as lesser beings, inferior to and subjugated by men.” Because of how devout and pious she starts out, I knew this would be a difficult, drawn out process, full of progress but also regressions. It can be hard to shift your ingrained worldview you’ve been indoctrinated into believing even though it’s literally been pulled right out from under you.
Instead of a journey, what I got was an unbelievable flip of the switch that happened in between chapters. In chapter 13, Deka can hardly fathom that Karmoko Huon will be teaching her and the other girls how to fight; a chapter before that, she is stunned about running, which women are forbidden to do, and offers up prayers of forgiveness to her god for having to do so for training. In chapter 14, two and a half weeks have passed, and suddenly she’s completely fine with all these things, to the point where she lectures the other girls when they hold back on running in front of the male recruits so as not to frighten them, even the girls who have never had the same issues as her. “Are we girls, or are we demons?” Deka demands, and this quote I’ve seen everywhere that once felt so powerful is now utterly toothless, and I am frustrated.
I’m frustrated because if I had been shown any real growth of Deka’s thought process before now, this would’ve been an amazing moment for her character. Instead, I get a time skip out of nowhere that hides the growth this character has experienced for two straight weeks, making her feminist declarations now ring laughably hollow—and is yet another problem with how this book tells its story that could’ve easily been fixed with just a tad bit more groundwork. And much less ham-fisting.
I’m starting to come to the conclusion that any story advertised to be feminist like this one really isn’t feminist at all because it’s just trying way too hard. If you as an author have to have your characters get on a soapbox to constantly bludgeon the readers and other characters over the head with your version of feminist rhetoric, then guess what? Your book isn’t feminist. If it was, you wouldn’t have to do that. It would just BE feminist. Readers would recognize that. They don’t need to be talked down to, no matter how young or old they are. As for myself, I’ve just gotten far too old for this.
For any male reader who gives The Gilded Ones a try, I will just say I’m sorry. There isn’t a single male character here who is actually a character, but then Deka hogged all the character cred to herself. And I don’t understand why because it’s not like there aren’t boys and men in the book.
You see, all the alaki are also given a male comrade in arms, an uruni, to train with and be their partner on the battlefield. Deka’s is a jatu, an elite solider, named Keita, who starts out being cold and mysterious. I was hoping that this relationship at least would develop slowly, but no. You get a few pages of interaction between them, and by midway through the book, Keita is soft as butter towards her, all tension completely gone. Yep, we’ve got instalove on our hands.
By this point, Deka has also somehow gotten over her fear of men after what happened to her at her village, and the only explanation for that I got was because she just hadn’t thought about it for a few weeks, so it must not be an issue anymore. She can talk casually about her many deaths at men’s hands now—including the death dealt to her by her own father—without feeling anything about it, yet her brain also shies away from certain memories and the fear they bring. Which means she’s not over it, right? Book, which is it? You keep giving me flashbacks of the cellar, of her golden blood on the floor, of these men cutting off her head or burning her whenever anything gets too intense for her. So she’s not over the violence of what happened to her, just the part where men were involved? All so she can have, what? An instalove romance maybe a few months after these horrible things were done to her? Make it make sense.
Regardless, this death-talking is what shakes Keita so completely despite the horrific things he’s witnessed as a soldier, despite also being part of this same world and knowing about the Death Mandate all alaki must face, to the point where he apologizes to Deka over and over for what happened to her, cupping her face, and speaking in her ear, saying he’s much better than a friend to her, he’s her uruni. I get it. I get this is just another form of a soulmate bond, and I’m so bored and disappointed that this is yet another thing this book is skipping over and rushing to establish as truth. We’ve skipped over alaki training, characters forming friendships, crucial world-building, natural character growth, and addressing trauma in a consistent fashion. Why not add falling in love to the list?
In fact, none of the uruni/alaki pairs are given any real bonding moments, of friendship or otherwise, but then every male character is just a name on a page. Even Keita. He has absolutely no development beyond his introduction scene other than being in instalove with Deka. You might also be wondering: is there any mlm or wlw romances to look forward to? One side character mentions she likes sleeping with girls, which of course the rest of the world views as deviant, and that’s all you get.
I wrestled with trying to swallow all of these things while more just kept coming to render this book more and more ridiculous and anger-inducing. For instance, Deka gets a weird feeling about killing deathshrieks with her special gift—that it’s wrong and unnatural to do—despite having absolutely no reason to feel that way narratively. Then, despite all the training, despite all the fear about monsters and deathshrieks, she wanders into an unknown cave, guided by her combat sense, and bonds with an unknown shapeshifting animal that consumes her blood and communicates telepathically with her. But it can shapeshift into a kitten, so that means it’s fine, right? But that’s not the most unbelievable thing. No, that would be that her instructors—her military instructors—all allow her to keep it because “it’s not a threat yet,” in spite of all the other alaki being wary of it and the instructors not knowing what it is. This book makes absolutely no sense.
About 67% into the book, the deathshrieks show up wearing “cochleans,” which protect them against Deka’s voice, and apparently, Deka and the others also wear them under their helmets to protect themselves from deathshriek screams. This is the first time this is ever mentioned as a thing and contradicts what the book has said up to this point. A huge reason Deka’s power is so valuable is because she can silence the deathshrieks before they scream and render serious harm to alaki and soldier alike. So where have these cochleans been this whole time? More issues abound, but if I go any further, I fear I’ll never stop.
I can only hope that my ARC version has gone through some editing rounds since I received it in early 2020, but I’m not holding my breath. The editors should have at least caught where Belcalis speaks with Britta’s accent as well as the many times Adwapa says random lines of dialogue in scenes that have established she’s nowhere in the scene. I hope.
Of course, all of the questions and mysteries that form while reading get addressed in the rapid-paced finale, but unfortunately, little of it sticks the landing because all the pieces that the author lined up to build it are ill-fitting. They, too, make little sense because the foundation just isn’t there. The groundwork wasn’t laid. I understand what Forna was getting at, what she was trying to say with The Gilded Ones; however, it was poorly-told and barely shown. It’s a shame the book takes itself so grimly seriously because the amount of effort you have to put into suspending your disbelief in order to accept what you’re being told is astronomical, and I just couldn’t do it. Also, the violence was gross, and after living through the hell that was 2020, I am just so tired.
Anyway, the best I can do is offer up a rec to those who are as disenchanted as me with The Gilded Ones. If you want to read a good book about female oppression wherein the girls in the book realistically navigate their world and rebel against it—also written by a female POC author and featuring a sapphic romance to boot—I can recommend We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia. The world-building, the characters, the romance, the setting, everything about it is great. For everyone else, I’m glad you enjoyed this—or I hope you can—even though I don’t understand or agree with how you can.