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: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Coming-of-Age

NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned. 

            “My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five). 

            In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it. 

            Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers. 

            The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi. 

            The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers. 

            Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!

            The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.

            Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.

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