Why You Need to Read: “The Gilded Ones”

The Gilded Ones, #1: The Gilded Ones

By: Namina Forna

Published: February 9, 2021

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

TRIGGER WARNING: This book contains elements of rape, misogyny, familicide, dismemberment, human trafficking, and violence against females. Be advised.

            Confusion lines my face, and I frown at her. “An invitation for what?”

            “For you, Impure One. Emperor Gezo has decided to create an army of your kind. He invites you to join it and protect our beloved Otera from those that would oppose her will,” (3).

            Readers have become familiar with genre-blending—the blending of at least 2 distinguished genres and/or subgenres within a book or a book series—but, every now and then there are books which are “crossovers” for the audience. For example, consider which books you had to read in secondary school for your literature class. You know many of those books were written for adults, right? And yet, many adolescents have at least 1 book from school that they remembered reading, and some even enjoyed the story. There are several examples of books written for adults that should NOT be read by younger readers—The Nevernight Chronicle by Jay Kristoff—but, there are several young adult books containing numerous adult themes that should be read both by adolescents and by adults as well. The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna is the latest book to tackle how the “adult world” influences the youth negatively and why certain societal practices continue to exist through posterity. 

            The protagonist is Deka. She is 16 years-old and is about to undergo the “Ritual of Purity,” a rite to see if a female’s blood runs red or gold. If a girl’s blood runs red, then she is declared a woman and becomes a member of the village they reside in. Deka has become even more terrified of the Ritual since her mother’s death 3 months earlier; her father is the last family member she has left. However, she has 2 close friends who she envisions remaining close to after she passes the Ritual. Unfortunately, 2 events occur on the day of the Ritual that changes Deka’s life. First, her village is attacked by creatures known as Deathshrieks who kill several people. Second, her blood runs gold—the blood of the Impure—and she is ordered to be “cleanse…” that is until a figure—a woman with white hands—arrives with an offer to reclaim her identity: join the emperor’s army of Impure women to defeat the Deathshrieks for good, or be sentenced to death. Almost immediately, Deka leaves her fanatical village for a chance at “absolution.” Along the way, Deka meets and befriends Britta from the Northern Province. Once at the compound, she meets twin sisters, Adwapa and Asha from the Southern Province; Belcalis from the Western Province; and, Gazal and Jeneba their “Honored Elder or Senior Bloodsisters” who help the girls with their training and to become acclimated with their new life. Then, there is Keita, an uruni—(human) men partnered with each of the girls to work together with (and to spy on) the women as they fight against the Deathshrieks. Last, is White Hands, the Impure woman who brought Deka and Britta to the compound for a chance at absolution; but, she has a close relationship with the Emperor, and she has an interest in Deka, and Deka doesn’t know why. All of these characters help Deka accept her new life and her purpose as she becomes stronger—physically, mentally and emotionally—and determined to protect Otera. 

            The plot of this novel has several parts. First, is Deka’s journey towards absolution after her blood classifies her as a demon. Second, is the explanation of the “Infinite Wisdoms,” the religious mandate practiced in most of the provinces in Otera, which limits the roles of females to their families and their households; but, an army of Impure Ones has existed for some time. Last, is the world-building that occurs throughout the narrative including the various provinces of Otera, the history of Otera—including the goddesses and the Infinite Father. There are 2 subplots in this novel. The first is about the Deathshrieks. What are they? Why have they been attacking villages? Why have their numbers continued to grow? The second subplot is about the “Impure Ones,” or “demons” who are descended from the Gilded Ones—the goddesses who founded Otera. It seems that there are some unknown benefits to being “impure,” which are known by those who are “impure.” In addition, why are all the “Impure Ones” female? What about males? These subplots are essential to the plots as the reader(s) learn more about the characters and the world through them and their conflicts. The plots and the subplots go at an appropriate rate as the story reveals everything that will happen in it.

            The narrative is in 1st person from Deka’s point-of-view. And, the narrative is presented in the present tense. This means that the reader experiences everything and learns about everything through Deka’s P.O.V. and her stream-of-consciousness. Deka’s growth from devout outcast to lead warrior—including some revelations about herself—make her a reliable narrator. A reminder that the narrative is intended for young adult readers, and it can be followed easily by both YA and adult readers. 

            The style Namina Forna uses for The Gilded Ones is NOT new, but it is one of the most candid seen in (YA) literature for some time. The author wanted to examine the idea of the patriarchy—how and why it is practiced—and how religion continues to influence this societal practice. Namina Forna is from Sierra Leone and—when she moved to the U.S.—she saw no difference in the practice of patriarchy between Africa and America. And, given what many of us know about similar practices in the rest of our world (i.e. Asia, the Middle East, etc.), this book is a commentary on how females continue to be treated throughout the world. Feminism and misogyny are international themes and issues that continue to permeate into individuals worldwide. Personally, I believe that one of the reasons “change” and “equality” haven’t happened for women yet is because every region of the world acts like gender equality is “better” where they are; and that is a HUGE lie. Namina Forna presents the harsh reality females—especially young ones—face because some males desire to express their dominance over them. Regardless of age, race, sexuality, gender identity, religion, or ethnicity, this book speaks volumes of what girls and women experience throughout their lives. The mood in this novel is domination. The females are dominated by the males and their religion, even the “Impure Ones” are oppressed by men. The tone in this novel is belligerence. The “Impure Ones” are trained to fight their foes, but are they limited to the Deathshrieks? There is a map of Otera at the front of the book and it should be used by the reader(s) whenever they need to consult it. 

            The appeal for The Gilded Ones have been mostly positive with 75% of the ratings on Goodreads being 4- and 5-stars. One thing that needs to be mentioned is the book’s publication. This book’s release was delayed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. That being said, the hype surrounding the author’s debut novel made the wait worth it (I read an eARC of this book). This book is described as being for fans of Children of Blood and Bone, Shadow and Bone, Legendborn and Raybearer. I would describe The Gilded Ones as a combination of The Year of the Witching and Speak. Once again, this book is written for YA readers containing “adult” themes they know exist in our world. Not everyone will view this book for what it is, and that’s all right because it means that the book wasn’t written for them. The next book in this series—The Merciless Ones, which releases in April 2022—continues Deka’s journey to discovering her role within the Impure Ones and warring against those who want her dead.

            The Gilded Ones is the book young girls crave and adult women wished they had as children. Namina Forna found a way to present the truth within the fiction for adolescent readers, but made it alluring for adult readers as well. While this book should NOT be read by everyone, it should NOT be missed by anyone. Go and read one of the best (debut) novels of this year!

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Why You Need to Read: “First, Become Ashes”

First, Become Ashes

By: K.M. Szpara

Published: April 6, 2021

Genre: Urban Fantasy

TRIGGER WARNING: Be advised. This book contains elements of self-harm, imprisonment, rape, torture, abuse, and non-consensual sex. 

I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair review. All thoughts are mine alone.

            Her voice drips with pity I neither want nor need. This is useless—this whole conversation. Nova said outsiders wouldn’t believe us. Not that we were acting in their best interests, nor that we were Anointed. She warned us about their zealots and skeptics. That I could literally work magic in front of them and they wouldn’t see it. Well, I know myself and I’m not going to waste time or magical energy proving their ignorance to them. I don’t care if Miller believes me, I just need her to uncuff me, (5: Lark/Now). 

            Speculative fiction has emerged to have a fandom which rivals sports fans. The last 50-60 years saw the emergence and the growth of fans of this genre through books, films, and video games. As the fandom and the popularity grew, people started dressing up as their favorite characters and recreating scenes from those media. Various activities—especially, Dungeons & Dragons—are familiar as fans take tropes from these narratives and come up with similar stories. Just like with all stories, there are moments of the good, the bad and the ugly. Most of the time, fans—cosplayers and gamers—tend to leave the ugly out of their “stories.” K.M. Szpara does NOT avoid the ugly in his latest novel, First, Become Ashes, a hybrid of Jonestown and Japanese role-playing games.  

            The protagonist in this novel is Lark, short for Meadowlark. He has spent his entire life in Druid Hill with the Fellowship, training to partake in a quest to save the world. He is one of the Anointed Ones—those gifted with magic and abilities—who will leave his home on his 25th birthday to prove himself by defeating a F.O.E.—“Force of Evil”—or, a monster. However, Lark is a couple of months shy of his 25th birthday. The one who gets to leave Druid Hill first is Kane, who is Lark’s training companion and boyfriend. He is an Anointed One, too; but, since he is older, Kane leaves for his quest first. Lark starts counting down the days until it is his turn to leave and to join Kane. Unfortunately, Kane goes off on a different quest, and it involves the F.B.I. and the S.W.A.T. Team. Kane has decided to put an end to the lies told by their leader, Nova. Kane discovered a long time ago that their lives were a lie. There is no magic, no monsters, and no reason to fight. The lead agent on this investigation is Agent Miller, who knows a lot more about the Fellowship and Nova than she lets on. Agent Miller needs Lark to testify against Nova and the Elders for all of the crimes they’ve committed. Lark refuses to cooperate because he believes Kane became “corrupted” immediately after going on his quest. Lark decides he’s the only Anointed One who can save what is left of the Fellowship. Once he escapes confinement, Lark meets Calvin, an outsider—a super nerd and a professional cosplayer—who is willing to assist Lark on his quest by any means necessary. Accompanying them is Calvin’s friend, Lillian, who is a part-time podcaster. Meanwhile, accompanying Agent Miller’s search for Lark is Deryn, Lark’s older sibling. They were one of the first Anointed Ones before Nova stripped that title from them—as a child—for unknown reasons. They are willing to put an end to the Fellowship due to the harsh treatment they received. All of these characters develop as the story progresses, and readers learn quickly that they are not only individuals who are trying to debunk lies, but also are complex people who had their choices taken away from them, and they are seeking ways to reclaim their lives. It should be mentioned that while Nova is the villain, she is NOT the antagonist. One of the characters mentioned is Lark’s antagonist, but do you know who it is?

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is a twist on “the hero’s quest.” But instead of the “hero” leaving to “save the world,” the hero is on a “quest” to prove magic is real and the Fellowship is not the “corrupted F.O.E.” The second plot is the investigation of the Fellowship, which is a cult. Readers learn about the cult’s origins, and how and why Kane decided to “betray” the Fellowship. There is one subplot and it develops alongside the two plots, and it is central to the story. The subplot involves the trauma suffered by all of the characters; and, the common theme involves fantasy and gaming. Remember, 2 of the characters did not suffer within the Fellowship, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have personal demons and reality to face. Please keep in mind the trauma suffered by the Fellowship includes: physical and emotional abuse, family separation, isolation, torture, and sexual abuse. While this subplot is essential to the plots, such incidents are common and occur more often than is reported. In other words, the reality within the fiction is too palpable to ignore.

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Lark, Kane, Deryn and Calvin. They are all reliable narrators because what they experience relates to the conflicts within the story: the influence the Fellowship has had on the characters and whether or not magic exists. The narrative alternates based on which character is narrating the story. Lark and Calvin’s narratives are in 1st-person and follows a sequence which is told in the present. Lark and Calvin are on a quest, and it takes them further away from what they know as they believe they are getting closer towards fulfilling their quest. Deryn’s narrative is told in 1st-person and is told in the present. Deryn travels with Agent Miller in order to track down Lark. However, Deryn isn’t looking for Lark just because he is their sibling, but because they want vengeance for the treatment they and the others who are not “Anointed Ones” were subjected to by Nova. The more time Deryn spends with Agent Miller, the more of their memories begin to resurface, and they realize there is truth behind Kane’s actions. Kane’s narrative is told in 1st-person, but the sequence is presented in the past. This is because Kane’s narrative is his testimony against the Fellowship to the F.B.I. It is through Kane’s memories and flashbacks (not the same thing), readers learn what really was going on within the Fellowship and how Kane was able to interpret the lies and the abuse in Nova’s teachings, and why he decided to betray them, knowing they were a cult. The narrative goes back-and-forth between the present and the past and it moves among the characters so that the story is complete without any bias, which is essential when referring to cults.

            The style K.M. Szpara uses in First, Become Ashes is a homage to the nerd fandom. Several allusions to fantasy novels, video games, anime, cosplayers, comic-cons, etc., make their way into this novel, and it balances the atmosphere and the conflict presented in the story. And, as a member of this fandom, the message is clear, there is a minuscule part of us who desire such aspects to be real. That is not to say that every mundane thing within our reality can be explained—there are a few living things which break the laws of science (i.e. bumblebees, dolphins, butterflies and moths, etc.)—but, how many people are willing to believe in “other explanations”? Nevertheless, this novel is a cautionary tale as to what can happen when individuals use people in order to fulfill their twisted desires. Both the villain and the antagonist use Lark (and the other members of the Fellowship) to get what they want—one wants dominance and the other wants their beliefs to be validated—and, both leave Lark a broken individual who believes he has to go on his quest so that everything he went through wasn’t for nothing. The mood in this novel is wishfulness. All of the characters long for something, and some of them are willing to do anything to fulfill it. The tone in this novel is the brutality these characters are willing to put themselves through, especially with the conflict of the individual versus society. Keep in mind such treatment and desire can manifest anywhere, and are not limited to cults. 

            The appeal for First, Become Ashes will be positive with discretion. The novel has LGBTQIA+ characters, but the presentation of the cult and the treatment will receive the most attention and criticism. Once again, this book has a Trigger Warning of sadomasochism, sexual and physical and emotional abuse, and it should not be read by anyone who either has issues with these topics or has undergone similar experiences. That being said, this novel will be praised for its themes of “living in the real world,” “life is not a fantasy (story),” and “not everything can provide an explanation.” This novel belongs in the speculative fiction canon in the subgenres urban fantasy and low fantasy. An urban fantasy is a fantasy story associated with rural settings adapted to specific (and often actual) locations. A low fantasy—the opposite of high fantasy—is a fantasy story which presents nonrational occurrences without any causality because they happen in a rational world where such things are not supposed to happen (this story is NOT magic realism!). So, fans of American Gods by Neil Gaiman and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin will enjoy this book the most. I believe gamers and cosplayers will enjoy this book, too because of the social commentary and the (familiar) criticism mentioned throughout the novel. 

            First, Become Ashes is an excellent blend of fantasy and reality, and a great social commentary. This is one of those books in which the conflict is more memorable than the characters, and that’s a good thing because this plot device will keep readers immersed from start to end, similar to a great video game. It’s hard to believe this is the author’s 2nd novel, but it means readers can look forward to more works from him in the future! 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!