A lot of us have been waiting a long time for Namina Forna’s debut young adult fantasy novel, The Gilded Ones. Originally slated for earlier last year, the pandemic pushed it all the way into 2021. In that time, the excitement has only grown. The big question is does the book live up to the hype? Happily, the answer is “mostly yes.”
On the day of the Ritual of Purity, sixteen year old Deka’s blood turns from red to a shimmering gold, marking her as impure, as a demon. Imprisoned by her village, abandoned by her family and friends, and tortured by the men in power, Deka begins to lose count of the times she has teetered over the edge into death only to be revived by her new powers. A nameless woman rescues her and gives her a place among the alaki, an army-in-training made of other girls like Deka, girls who escaped their death sentence in exchange for two decades of indentured servitude to the emperor. The alaki will be used to fight against deathshrieks, horrifying monsters attacking villages all across Otera to steal young girls and slaughter everyone else. If the emperor’s plan goes well, the alaki will rid Otera of the deathshrieks once and for all. But the more Deka trains, the stronger and stranger her alaki powers become. Is she like her sisters or is she something else, something more?
The first book in the Deathless series wades into some emotionally weighty territory. Violence is ever present. Content warnings for torture, abuse, and sexual assault (the latter is alluded to, not seen or described). Forna deftly walks the line between not pulling her punches and not letting the violence overwhelm the narrative.
This is a story about oppression and all the ways they move through an abusive and exploitative system. Forna does not shy away from discussing the ways in which men exploit women when the system is built to oppress, or the ways in which privileged women reinforce their own oppression because they benefit from the system. Deka and her alaki sisters had their freedom and personal autonomy stripped from them, and on top of that, the people who are supposed to be their allies force them to unknowingly commit even greater atrocities. This is a complicated revolution where both sides are lying to the girls trapped in the middle.
The Gilded Ones plays heavily into some classic YA fantasy tropes. I’m not generally bothered by that—marginalized authors have been largely denied access to the trope sandboxes for so long that I’m actually happy to see it—but it does have the unfortunate side effect of rendering the plot fairly predictable. The plot twists and ending are telegraphed so early it’s a wonder Deka takes so long to figure them out. Those new to YA fantasy will like trying to figure out what’s coming next, and long-time fans will enjoy seeing how Forna uses tropes in her own unique ways.
Frustratingly, Deka is the kind of character who, when given an unsatisfactory answer to an important question, does not press the point and lets the issue go. Because she does little to uncover the answers herself, the plot tends to progress by her stumbling onto something she didn’t expect or someone handing her information she didn’t know she needed. For a girl supposedly desperate to know about her past and understand her abilities, she doesn’t do much to actually solve the mysteries. It gets so bad that Deka being unobservant becomes a running joke in her friend group. To be fair, Deka has other things on her mind, namely survival. It’s understandably hard to be curious when you’re focused on staying alive.
The thing I dislike the most about gendered magic is how it often ends up reinforces the binary. Men do this kind of magic and women do that. Men’s magic is good and women’s is bad. And trans and nonbinary/gender nonconforming people apparently don’t exist. The book has two openly queer characters (both of whom are in a relationship with each other), but their queerness isn’t revealed until toward the end and is done in a such a casual way that it almost feels like an after thought. Everyone else is, as far as I can tell, cis, het, and allo. I hope the rest of the Deathless series moves beyond the gender binary and cisheteronormativity.
This leads me to my bigger point which is that the themes in The Gilded Ones were not as revolutionary as they could have been or pushed the envelope as much as they needed to. I wish we could have seen more of how Otera fails not just women but the disabled, fat people, queer people, and trans and nonbinary/gender nonconforming people. Part of this comes down to the tropes being used. As I said earlier, playing into tropes isn’t inherently bad and is more often than not a lot of fun for the reader. But extra attention must be paid when those tropes have historically been used to flatten the range of marginalized experiences.
Despite these issues, there is a lot more to like in The Gilded Ones than dislike. The historical West African-inspired setting is vividly depicted and imbued with detailed worldbuilding and a complex magic system. The deathshrieks are an intriguing development, as is everything involving the original four Gilded Ones. Forna is very good at setting the tone, effortlessly shifting from bone-chilling terror to playful excitement. And although the story moves quickly and jumps over big chunks of time, the pacing is solid and the story unrushed.
In Deka, Forna offers a driven and determined main character who wades through intense trauma and violence and comes out the other side fueled with righteous fury. For that matter, all of the alaki are engaging characters with a lot more going on under the surface that the story initially lets on. I am genuinely eager to see where she takes Deka in future installments. Forna clearly has talent. I hope she has a long career ahead of her.