I was granted an eARC of The Gilded Ones by Nanima Forna through NetGalley and unfortunately didn’t end up having time in my busy review schedule to get to it before publication. Better late than never, right? Thank you to whoever approved my request. My thoughts are my own and my review is honest.
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About the Book
The Gilded Ones
Deathless Book One
by Namina Forna
Published 9 February 2021
Genre: YA Fantasy
Page Count: 432
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Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs.
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. They are called alaki–near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire’s greatest threat.
Knowing the dangers that lie ahead yet yearning for acceptance, 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.
My Rating: 4 Stars
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The Gilded Ones is the story of Deka, a 16-year-old girl who just wants to complete the ritual that will prove her blood is clean and be accepted into society by the women of her town to live the quiet life tradition demands of her. Unfortunately for Deka, her blood runs gold. What does that mean? Nothing good for Deka! Believing she’s a demon, her own father attempts to kill her, but Alaki don’t die easily. This story follows Deka as she attends the “school” for her kind and prepares for a war.
I was so excited to get to this book! The cover is stunning, it’s a YA Fantasy which is right up my alley, it has a mixed Black lead, it features a very diverse cast, and it draws from African folklore. All great points in the book’s favour and I expected to love this book right out of the gate. I didn’t. The opening is full of dark cultish scenes in an extremely mysogenistic society, the violence is gorey and very detailed, and time moves quickly. This felt like the setup for an adult horror, not a YA fantasy.
At about 25% through I was toying with the idea of not finishing and took a break to browse the lower starred ratings to see what others who weren’t enchanted with the book thought and was surprised to find that most people thought the beginning was great and that the book loses steam after 100 pages or so. Did we read the same book? I started loving it at about halfway through! It took that long to get through with all of Deka’s inner voice info-dumping and stop with the large and sudden time jumps.
Once the world was built, the scene was set, and stakes started to rise, this book hit its stride and blew me away. If I were rating it based on the second half, I would gladly give this book 5 stars and post a rave review like many of the others who rated it so highly, but I can’t ignore the fact that I wanted to DNF for the first quarter and didn’t love it for the first half. For this reason I’m calling it a modest 4. This book should have been about 100 pages shorter, condensing the beginning, and it should have been written in third person or mixed perspective so that we could quickly gather the world-building information Deka doesn’t know or had to monologue. The latter half is near-perfection and I wouldn’t change much at all.
I’ve seen people complain that the romance was too insta-love even for YA, but I disagree. Deka crushes on any boy who tells her she’s pretty, but let’s remember she’s 16. The final romance is well earned and builds over a period of months, which is slower than many YA romances, we just skip a bunch of time at the beginning of it.
My favourite characters were Deka’s adorable shapeshifter pet Ixa and her sassy instructor/captor White Hands. Britta, on the other hand, really needs to talk less. I was amused by some lines of dialogue that reminded me of other things, and I wonder if the references were intentional. For example:
“Are we girls or are we demons?” Are we human or are we dancer?
“I’ve experienced worse things. This is only a scratch.” ‘Tis but a scratch! Just a flesh wound! Alright, we’ll call it a draw.
I accept that this book was built around a chosen one hero arc, so obviously Deka had to be the chosen one, but she annoyed me sometimes with just how overly chosen one she is. She’s more unnatural than all the unnatural alaki girls. (“She’s not like other girls.”) The other alaki girls think she’s weird or scary or cursed and don’t like her. She starts to believe she’s not alaki at all but rather a unique, created being, first of her kind. At times this character got too tropy for me, and YA tropes are my guilty pleasure.
And once again, the second half of this book is amazing. Stakes were high, character development was great, and although the twist is predictable it’s still so well done. Once I was in the second half, I couldn’t put this book down!
I would recommend this book to YA Fantasy readers looking for diverse characters and stories with the encouragement not to give up before the halfway point. Whether the rituals of the first few pages intrigue or repulse you, the second quarter seems to sag for every reader. Stick with it, it’s worth it!
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