The cover of Namina Forna’s The Gilded Ones (Delacorte Press 2020) is a work of art from the way the light hits the warrior’s cheeks, to the details in her hair, to the ombre choice of the backdrop. (Having read the book, I wish her hair had been left naturally in the “soft cloud” around her face, but I think that would have recalled a similar YA fantasy cover.)
Love for the cover aside, this is going to be a painful review. The potential is there. With the plot and Forna’s clear talent, this should have been a slam dunk. So, what happened? In my opinion, it struggled with its identity, it blurred the line between YA and NA, and it focused on perceived expectations of readers. (Half-assed romances do not belong.)
The novel opens on the “Ritual of Purity;” the day 16-year-old Deka will find out if she’s pure or not. All the young women have gathered for the ceremony and are cut. If their blood is red, they are pure. If not, they are unnatural and subjected to the Death Mandate. A horrendous creature spoils the ceremony, and Deka is surprised to see that not only is she not negatively impacted by the scream of the Deathshrieks, but she can command them. Rest assured, her blood is not red; it runs gold.
Deka is subjected to immense torture and is repeatedly bled for the riches of her blood by the elders of her small town. She dies nine times at their hands before a mysterious woman comes to her with an offer: stay there until they figure out what can kill her or join an elite army of girls like her, fellow Alakis, to fight for the empire. If she fights, she’s promised her purity will be restored in twenty years.
As training begins, Deka develops very strong friendships with some of her comrades. The relationships with Britta, Katya, Belcalis, Adwapa, and Asha are part of the rocky parts of the novel; there was so much room for developing the more tender and fragile connections between these young women deemed unnatural and cast together. These relationships would have been preferred a thousand times over the rushed and questionable romance with Keita.
Deka is “the chosen one” but she is far too wishy washy to be likable. I understand she’s 16, and perhaps that flittering and noncommittal experience is because of her age but it makes her extremely untrustworthy. As a reader, I constantly questioned her motivations and goals because *she* was constantly questioning them. The indecisiveness could have been effective for the character had it appearing sparingly; however, it didn’t, and the result is that the book has a nervous condition that should have only been attributed to Deka.
All that aside, I’m still giving it 3.75 stars (and rounding up to 4) because it was a fun, quick read with an exceptional premise and the series still has excellent potential. I’m hoping book two steers away from the romance and focuses on the sisterhood.
Read this book.