In a quiet village on the edge of an empire, a girl carries demon blood.
She doesn’t know it, of course––Deka, like every other girl in Otera, hopes she’ll be found to bleed red and “pure.” The Gilded Ones opens on the day all of this is to be revealed, and as such things tend to go in the first chapter of a fantasy novel, there is no red blood to be found in Deka. Instead, she bleeds gold: the mark of an alaki, a female demon with supernatural abilities, and, at least as far as the Oteran Empire is concerned, no prospects beyond death…or war.
From this, Namina Forna crafts an engrossing girl-meets-magical-combat story with a keen eye on the political and no shortage of gory details, courtesy of the book’s monsters, the sonically fatal deathshrieks. The joy of this book is in its many subtle triumphs: a charming supporting cast, excellent reveals, rich West-African-inspired worldbuilding––and, with precious few exceptions, every element is at the top of its game and basically never leaves it. Some of it, you’ve admittedly seen before, but I’d wager that it’s been quite some time since you’ve seen it done so well.
When Deka is brought to the capitol to train in an elite battalion of alaki, for example, her quest hits a familiar beat in YA fantasy, but what makes Forna’s approach to it stand out lies in what is both obvious and deceptively easy to omit: the actual training.
Forna doesn’t just use Deka’s training as an excuse to bring her closer to the action; it is a stage of the journey all its own. The Warthu Bera, the elite training complex where Deka learns to harness her talents, is incontestably the most crucial and vividly-rendered set piece between The Gilded Ones‘ covers, both in the literal, actual details, and in the elusive emotional ones. With a paradigm shift as drastic as the one Forna puts into play later on (no spoilers, but it’s impressively foreshadowed and deeply satisfying), it’s easy to let the implications taint the training of the first and second acts, but she strikes an excellent balance that allows the reader to look back and see the foreboding signs while also regarding that time with fondness. [And fondness, mind you, is a very powerful tool. Half the reason Leigh Bardugo has me by the throat like she does is because of how fervently I love the Little Palace, and, uh…the Warthu Bera might just be my new Little Palace.]
Beyond the Warthu Bera, however, things are just as exciting. Otera is a rare treat of a fantasy world whose secrets are delicately kept until necessary. Forna, also a screenwriter, controls and reveals information with the timing and precision her second craft requires, much of it entangled with memorable, cinema-ready imagery. The Gilded Ones, frankly, has too many iconic/notorious scenes to name: hidden temples, deathshriek raids, monstrous encounters, and vivid deaths, all of them positively begging for an adaptation. (Pretty please?)
Also––another thing I’m sensing as a screenwriter strength––Forna never wastes a side character. Deka’s journey from complacency to action is plausible, well-paced, and inextricable from our understanding of her world as readers, but it rests on a cast of distinctive, diverse, and well-thought-out supporting players, and that under-sung strength is as important as a great lead.
For Deka’s peers, Forna is careful to inject some complexity into their girl-to-warrior journeys. Even though Deka finds liberation in gathering warlike strength, not all the alaki feel the same way, and those who don’t are present, too, which keeps The Gilded Ones from falling prey to conflating weaponry with women’s rights in an all-too-common 1-to-1 conversion.
In some way, all the alaki are carefully thought-out responses to the world of Forna’s creation. They’re compelling in a literary sense, as much or even more than they are lovable human beings to root for, and strength in those areas combined is what truly rounds out a solid cast of peers.
Things really get interesting a little higher up in the ranks, however. With the Karmokos, elite teachers at the Warthu Bera who all share a background as assassins, Forna toes the line between dangerous and trustworthy, letting us waffle in uncertainty as Deka senses sedition in her immediate superiors, and is torn on what to do about it.
This applies most heavily to one character whose identity it is a spoiler to reveal, but there are glimpses of it in the other Karmokos; enough to make what would otherwise be an innocuous training scene in another fantasy novel feel deliciously heightened. (My favorite minor character, Karmoko Huon, only gets the spotlight for one scene, but boy, is it memorable.)
While the novel’s conclusion, sadly, is so heavy with exposition that it’s a slog to the rest of the book’s impeccably smooth sailing, The Gilded Ones is, by and large, exactly the thrill its premise promises. With a sequel on the horizon and a gorgeously expanded scope to accompany it, this budding trilogy is definitely one to watch. The Merciless Ones comes out in May of 2022, and there’s already an empty space on my shelf waiting for a copy.
Have you read The Gilded Ones? What did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 💕