Publisher: Usborne Publishing
Publish Date: 04 February 2021
Page Count: 264 pages
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna is a much darker YA novel than I was expecting, but one that ultimately drives home a message of truth and empowerment.
“Blessed are the meek and subservient, the humble and true daughters of man, for they are unsullied in the face of the infinite father.”
In Forna’s world of Otera, the teachings of the Infinite Wisdoms are designed to subjugate women. Prohibiting certain professions, going unescorted by a man, or even running, the mandates of the Infinite Father have created a toxically patriarchal society and the normalisation of misogyny and rape.
As a girl coming of age, Deka must attend the Ritual of Purity and bleed red to prove her innocence in the eyes of the Father. But when instead she bleeds gold, the colour of impurity, she is shunned by everyone she’s ever known and tortured by the village priests. But Deka’s demonic blood also gives her strange abilities, and she is not so easily beaten.
When a mysterious woman asks Deka to use her power in a fight against monsters threatening to overwhelm the One Kingdom, Deka agrees to the gruelling training that will either break her or lead to her redemption.
The Gilded Ones is not an easy read, with trauma and abuse being a common thread that brings together the young women in the story. Early on, I struggled with these themes appearing so blatantly in a YA novel. But discussing this with a blogger friend made me realise that this book wasn’t written for me and that my discomfort is irrelevant. This is a story that validates young women struggling with abuse and sexism, extreme or insidious, and provides them with hope.
While this is the aspect of the book that I’m still processing, there’s still fun to be had in The Gilded Ones. Tentative friendships become life-long bonds, romances ignite, and there’s an awesome animal companion who definitely needs to appear in fan art with Mephi from The Bone Shard Daughter.
The magic and mythology in The Gilded Ones are very cool, and the idea of literal golden blood being seen as impure effectively allegorises the brainwashing of Oteran society. While the story does boil down to a Chosen One situation, it’s nuanced and doesn’t feel like a familiar trope.
I’ll admit that at first I didn’t enjoy Forna’s writing style, and considered DNFing the book at around 20%. She uses a sort of classical, neutral dialogue which made conversations feel a little stilted rather than organic. But I did find a rhythm with it, and I’m glad I continued, as the final 30% is where the story really shines. Or glimmers? (insert gold pun here). I also felt that Deka’s internal monologue could be a little repetitive, but I do see the value of this in exploring the terrible things that befall her, particularly for a younger reading audience.
The conclusion of The Gilded Ones is powerful and goes a long way in healing the pain of the preceding story. There’s a fair amount of foreshadowing, but the author still manages to surprise.
“Are we girls or are we demons? Are we going to die or are we going to survive?”
Forna says that, inspired by her experiences living in West Africa and America, she wrote this book to be an examination of patriarchy, how it is established, and how women survive under it. She does this so effectively that when I finally got to the end of the book, I wanted to reread it with this new insight. If this sounds like something you’ve been looking for in a YA book, I highly recommend The Gilded Ones.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Trigger warnings: Physical and emotional abuse, rape, self-harm, death of family, torture
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