First sentence: “Today is the Ritual of Purity.”
In a patriarchal society where girls are judged by the blood that runs through them—where abuse, racism, and xenophobia runs rampant—Otera is a brutal world to live in. Deka knows that first hand. As someone who has never felt like she’s belonged in her village, Deka prays for red blood—the color of acceptance and purity. However, when the day comes when she turns sixteen, all the praying she did does not come into fruition; her blood runs gold—the color of impurity.
When Deka is given the choice to stay and be tortured and eventually killed OR leave to fight for the emperor with girls just like her, she chooses the option that will keep her alive. Deka becomes part of an elite team who’s mission is to wipe out Deathshrieks for the Emperor.
That’s when her greatest battle begins.
The lore of the alakis and the Gilded Ones will pull you in. During the Ritual of Purity, the Elders of the village make a cut in your skin to see what color you bleed. If your blood bleeds red, you are pure and accepted as an official member of the village. However, if your blood bleeds gold, you are subjected to torture and death. These girls are Alaki—near immortals with rare gifts who are descendants of The Gilded Ones, four ancient demons who “preyed upon humanity for centuries, destroying kingdoms…until everyone banded together for protection, forming Otera, the One Kingdom.” Most choose to become warriors and fight for the emperor, training and fighting Deathshrieks—beings who the emperor is intent of ridding the world of.
I enjoyed reading about the lore surrounding this world. It’s so rich with history, culture, and diversity; you see it so vividly in the way Namina Forna weaves these stories together.
The Gilded Ones tackles racism, colorism, xenophobia, patriarchy, abuse, misogyny, and much more. It can be emotionally taxing to read because it’s all things that happen (and continue to happen) all over the world. There’s so much trauma happening and a lot of raw hurt that it’s amazing to see how these girls channel that into their actions to prove to themselves that they are worthy of living in this world—that they aren’t demons. The Gilded Ones is a lot more violent and graphic than I was expecting, so warning!
The story can get vague with the descriptions on certain moments that are pivoted in developing the story. Sometimes, the book was vague exploring scenes that should be delved into like when the girls are learning at Warthu Bera—a training ground for the Alaki—and character devleopment. I couldn’t connect with some of the characters because we don’t get to delve into their character. Yes, this is Deka’s story, but everybody involved has a part in the change that happens. It makes certain moments—like Deka’s connection with Keita, her brother in arms and the Deathshrieks—feel like it came out of left field.
More friendships, less romance please. That’s what I wanted. We love to see girls supporting each other, and The Gilded Ones is exactly that. These girls are bonded—not only by the gold in their blood—but by their experiences individually and together as they try to survive a world where they are not wanted. I wanted more scenes with these girls forging close bonds with each other because it was never enough!
Did this YA novel need a romance? Not at all, especially when the romance happened out of the blue like key scenes were missing to naturally develop this budding romance. It just had no place in this story without it being cheesy. It’s like the romance was included to emphasize that regular human beings are capable of loving “monsters” like Deka.
Should you read The Gilded Ones? Yeah. Get this Western African inspired fantasy with girls kicking ass in this awful patriarchal society and dealing with the trauma that put them there. (Just a fair warning that it does get violent and graphic, so if you’re okay with that, read it!) Don’t worry that it’s part of a series; this book ends in a way that wraps up this story arc.