The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna is a heavy fantasy young adult novel that forces the main character to face her blood, sweat, and tears for a war she’s not sure she should be fighting in.

Deka lives in the village of Irfut inside a kingdom called Otera with her sickly father as she lost her mother recently to red pox. While taking care of her father and the household, she is apprehensive about the forthcoming Ritual of Purity that expels girls who bleed gold instead of red from society. At the ceremony, Deka’s worst nightmare comes true: she is impure. She is thrown into a dungeon where she is killed several times. But she doesn’t die. She falls into a gilded sleep until she awakes repaired without a scar in sight. Her immortality attracts a woman Deka dubs as White Hands, who whisks Deka away with another girl named Britta to a training ground where other young women, known as alaki, who also bled impure are trained to fight flying demons known as deathshrieks. Accepting this journey as her destiny, she trains as hard as she can to fight the deathshrieks, who are known to destroy whole villages, killing everyone in sight. The better the fighter Deka becomes, the more she questions how she became a fighter. When one of her new sisters in training dies in battle, she promises to avenge the killing. But she starts wondering if the deathshrieks are as dangerous as she has been taught to believe.

The storyline emphasizes the impurity girls can be accused of, particularly around the time they begin menstruating. The girls are declared not only discardable but also devilish, another accusation real-life girls face rooted in the story of Eve. Throughout the book, Deka still prays to her god, Oyomo, despite the cards she has been dealt. Others around her tell her she shouldn’t pray because she has been cursed, but she upholds her religious faith.

Comprehending why war is taking place is also a theme ripped from reality. Deka feels saved by White Hands to become a warrior for the king to fight deathshrieks. But Deka can communicate with the deathshrieks and wonders if they are the true enemies. She tries to piece together the origins of the war and why she and the other alaki have been chosen to be the warriors other than their immortality.

With Deka scared about the purity ceremony, she foresees the worst-case scenario is her destiny. Then arriving at the training grounds seems to be her final destiny as a warrior forever bound to killing deathshrieks, but the more she evolves, the more she is realizing her destiny goes beyond what feels like servitude to the kingdom.

As fantasy YA novels continue to overpower the entire kidlit genre, there are still tropes in this book. The girls training together must become sisters in the fight, for example, like many characters before them with finding family along the journey especially when their biological families have disappeared. A furry feline creature arrives on the scene that only knows Deka, and of course, it’s a shape-shifter. The story is so jam-packed with tension that the world-building takes a hit. It sounds like they’re in Africa, but the girls come from all over the world evidenced by their ethnic names that may sound like they’re from Europe or Asia or Africa. More description of the geography would have helped boost the imagination of their location; the map at the beginning of the book shows the kingdom, but the character names steeped in real cultures contradict the map of an imaginary region.

Overall, the book has strong feminist yet disturbing elements of showing girls being disrespected and disregarded because of who they are. There is no ceremony on testing boys’ blood, but these girls are subjected to this sexist tradition that defines their futures that are chosen by men and a patriarchal society. It reflects the minor and major events affecting girls around the world like those who cannot seek an education. Like a lot of other fantasy novels threading real-world themes in make-believe lands, this novel has a lot of scary familiarity in its storyline.

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