A Refinery29 article, announced that Namina Forna could become the YA Toni Morrison. With her YA trilogy, The Gilded Ones (of which book #1 was supposed to be released this June, but has been postponed to 2021, due to the current pandemic), Namina Forna managed to secure a six-figure book deal in the US from Penguin Random House / Delacorte Press – a huge achievement for any author, but even more so for a debut one. The premise of the YA novel, set in West-Africa with a female protagonist, had me pre-ordering the book as soon as I heard about it, and so you can imagine how thrilled I was when Usborne Publishing, Namina’s UK publisher, got in touch, asking if we’d be interested in an advance copy!
Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs.
But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the colour of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death.
Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki–near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire’s greatest threat.
Knowing the dangers that lie ahead yet yearning for acceptance, Deka decides to leave the only life she’s ever known. But as she journeys to the capital to train for the biggest battle of her life, she will discover that the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be–not even Deka herself.
If I had to describe this book in three words, it would be: BLACK. GIRL. MAGIC.
The Gilded Ones is a West-African YA novel that packs a punch on all fronts: character and world building, social commentary, engaging and gripping plot, and, most importantly, representation!
During her initiation ceremony, Deka, the protagonist, is supposed to prove her purity by bleeding red blood, instead, she bleeds gold. This makes her an outcast in a deeply patriarchal society. She is treated terribly by her community and her own father, until a stranger gives her a choice: fight for the emperor or remain an outcast and die. Deka soon finds out that she is indeed specially gifted rather than irreparably ‘damaged’ and impure, and that is when her story truly begins.
If you’ve been reading my reviews for a while, you’ll know that I can get a bit iffy about YA protagonists – especially when they get overly emotional and dramatic, but Namina Forna has succeeded in writing a novel that is superbly YA without the excessively melodramatic bits.
Some scenes in The Gilded Ones are, at times, a bit graphic in its depictions of violence, but never just for the sake of it. The violence against the female characters in particular is harsh and painful, but, as we come to realise very quickly, it’s a fact of life for the female characters living within a patriarchal society, and, to varying degrees, for women and girls around the world. Denying or embellishing these realities, both of the fictional characters and, by extension, of women and girls around the world, would, unwittingly or not, make this wonderful YA debut part of the problem. That is why I am grateful to the author for cleverly and poignantly adding that important layer to the story. Violence against women and girls, whether in the name of culture or tradition, is one of the subjects that is sharply analysed and criticised in The Gilded Ones. As a reader, one can feel the anger of the characters, and, by extension, that of the author, in relation to the violent and unjust treatment of women and girls in the novel (and in the world). It feels like there has not been a better time to voice that anger than in our current times.
I really enjoyed this book from start to finish, and am saddened that its publication has been postponed to next year, but, considering the current situation, it’s probably for the best, because this book deserves all the attention, PR, book tours and everything else in the run-up to its release.