Review: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Summary: Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death. Then 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. Deka decides to leave the only life she’s ever known. But as she journeys to the capital to train for the biggest battle of her life, she will discover that the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be–not even Deka herself.
Genre: young adult, fantasy
Rating: 5/5 stars

The Gilded Ones is only one of two books I’ve read this year that I rated five stars, and that’s saying something because I am generally not a huge fan of young adult fantasy series. But there’s something about The Gilded Ones that left me excited and begging for more. This book goes so far beyond the regular qualms of young adult fantasy and tackles serious issues that have you rooting for the cast all the way through.

The summary of this book gives a lot of the plot away (we know Deka is an outcast, that she joins an army of girls like herself, and that turns out to be the special one in the group). The first lines of the summary tell us Deka’s blood runs gold and that means she’s “impure” and will face a life of scrutiny and abuse, but there’s still so much strong worldbuilding and tension that even within the first few chapters I was on edge the entire time. I knew exactly what was going to happen, and I was still biting my nails and squirming with anticipation, and that’s exactly how a strong story should be written. It’s absolutely mind-boggling that this was Forna’s debut book because of how beautifully written and well done it is.

I adored all the characters in this book, as they all go from wounded, damaged girls to genuine warriors. Deka, especially, goes through the most growth in this story. In the beginning of the book, she lives a life of fear, worrying that she won’t be fit to live in her village, letting other villagers kick her down about how dark her skin is. By the end of the book, Deka has completely transformed, no longer letting other people’s opinions of her dictate how she feels. She truly discovers who she is and thrives off her newfound power. She takes complete control of her life, a concept she’d once never even understood.

Another aspect of this book that I loved was all the inclusivity. Without giving away spoilers, this book touches on a lot of major issues. Deka and the other “impure” girls face racism, classism, a disgusting amount of misogyny, along with the obvious aspects of war: torture and even death. There’s even a slight nod to a female/female relationship where the reaction from the other characters is along the lines of “I’m glad they found each other and are happy,” and that’s it! Sometimes a nod is all we need.

As I said, young adult fantasy series aren’t generally for me. I love a strong fantasy story, but I feel like most young adult books are too childish and all follow the same plot. True, The Gilded Ones isn’t much different in that Deka escapes her normal, unhappy life and discovers her True DestinyTM, but I loved how unique the characters and main aspect of the story were. This is truly young adult fantasy like no others. Although I did feel like this could work as a standalone, I’m excited to see where the new book takes us.

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