The Gilded Ones
Deka is a 16-year-old girl, whose main focus is survival in a hostile environment after she is ostracised by her family and community. The Gilded Ones follows her story and whilst it is beautifully written it is not for the faint-hearted. It gives examples of unspeakable cruelty and exploitation in the deeply patriarchal kingdom of Otera. This YA fantasy novel is pacy, confident and has a cinematic feel. In contrast to traditional fantasy novels, Forna creates a world inspired by West African mythology and culture. The message of The Gilded Ones is strong and I found myself often comparing the power dynamics in the story to contemporary and historical settings: ‘Despised are the marked or scarred, the wounded and the bleeding girls.’
The creation of the fantasy world is impressive and I found myself immersed in a landscape full of wonder as well as violence. This description of a key fantastical creature, the deathshriek, gives you a sense of this: ‘A hulking beast of a creature, it’s rawboned to the point of gauntness, its clawed hands dragging almost to its knees, spikes erupting all the way down its bony spine.’ Seeing the magnificent capital of the kingdom for the first time through the eyes of the main character will also stay with me: ‘my jaw drops when I see the colossal walls rising above the docks, twin warrior statues guarding each of its gates. So these are the walls of Hemaira Father always told me about.’
Deka is immediately credible and fully formed as a character. From the very beginning, the reader witnesses her traumatic experiences and is by her side as the world opens up to her and she has to make choices. By the end Deka has a clear purpose in life and a mission. Yet throughout suspicion dominates as she justifiably doubts the motives of those around her and puzzles over her own origins and identity. ‘This whole time, I thought I was the hero, the righteous saviour, here to liberate Otera from the deathshriek scourge.’
This debut by Namina Forna, a screenwriter, born and raised in Sierra Leone, now living in the US, also shows complexity despite drawing on many traditional fantasy tropes. The overriding theme is one of oppression and Deka has to look for allyship. Can she trust the privileged women who benefit from this exploitative system? How does committing further violence help Deka in the end?
The Gilded Ones joins the company of Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone and the successful film Black Panther in the tradition of Black fantasy and speculative fiction and it is a genre that is going from strength to strength. This novel is the first in a trilogy with The Merciless Ones coming in 2022. Perfect for a secondary school library and to recommend to fans of Tomi Adeyemi.
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