Review: The Gilded Ones

Anika Reads
3 min readMar 14, 2021

In which I generally like Namina Forna’s YA feminist fantasy

The cover image for Namina Forna’s book, “The Gilded Ones”

I’m not really sure how I first heard about “The Gilded Ones,” and I’m torn about how to review it. First, the good: this book is set in a beautifully built world. Otera is governed by an emperor and his priests. Their Holy Book is a humorless text known as the Infinite Wisdoms, which dictates that women were created to be men’s subservient helpmeets. When a girl turns 16, she undergoes an elaborate ritual blood-letting that determines if she’s “pure.” If her blood runs red, she’s discharged to the ranks of ‘normal’ women, and gains the dubious honor of being able to marry, have children, and dance to her husband’s every tune until she dies. If, however, her blood runs gold, she’s a demon, to be killed immediately. This is a patriarchy with a capital P, broadly drawn and also entirely plausible.

If you see what’s coming next, you’re not alone. Deka, a 15-year-old girl living in a small village, wants nothing more than to be deemed pure. Unfortunately, she isn’t. When she’s cut, her blood runs gold, and the people in her small town turn on her with a viciousness that’s both startling and familiar. She gains superhuman strength and longevity, and becomes the reflection of their fears, in this case, their fear of female power and agency. The villagers lock her in a cellar and leave her to die. She doesn’t. After two dark months, she’s rescued by a mysterious visitor known as ‘White Hands’. White Hands reveals that she’s building a special army of demon-girls for the emperor, and she wants Deka to join up. So Deka evades the guillotine and is instead sent to the capital, there to meet other demon-girls and begin a rigorous martial arts training program that makes Basic Training look like summer camp.

“The Gilded Ones” takes place in a beautiful world, one where statues of lost goddesses guard caverns of salt and treasure, where golden blood can be forged into armor, and where demon-girls can aspire to divinity. The real treasure is the lore, and it’s not easily forgotten. Deka’s pet, a shapeshifting blue cat-lizard she nicknames Ixa, is particularly charming. The story moves briskly, and the pages fly by. When the final conclusion arrives, it’s both slightly predictable and entirely satisfying, and in keeping with the story’s uncompromising feminist message. This is a story rooted, from a literary perspective, in the idea of the sacred feminine; and it draws on themes in feminist social critique: the ways in which society is structured around fear of women, fear of power, fear of the combination of women with power. It is a clear and uncomplicated story: Deka and her female companions are out to smash the patriarchy. The patriarchy is rigid and tangible in its structures, and said smashing takes a viscerally satisfying martial form.

But the story’s simplicity is, in a way, also a bit of an undoing. While the world shines, the characters and plot are held back by fantasy cliché, and dialogue that at times feels cringe-y. Deka isn’t just a demon-girl, she’s the most special of the demon-girls. The other girls she meets in the camp swiftly become her bloodsisters, a bond she neither questions nor spends a lot of time unpacking. A lot of romance reviewers complain about Insta-Love, and at times, that’s how I felt about the relationship between Deka and her sisters. I would have liked to see their relationships develop over time. Instead, they go from total strangers to battlefield besties in the space of just a few pages.

Deka calls to mind a score of other YA fantasy heroines: traumatized, brave, tasked with saving the world. Her realizations seem to arrive abruptly, such as the moment when she goes from viewing her special abilities as a curse to seeing them as a strategic advantage. This enormous personal transition happens between one paragraph and the next. I enjoy books that spend more time with their protagonists’ interiority.

At the same time, this is an imaginative, recognizable book. It takes common fantasy tropes and gives them new life. It’s a debut, and it sketches out who Namina Forna is as a writer: lyrical, creative, feminist, and in dialogue with the Big Ideas in contemporary YA fantasy. All these things are great.



Anika Reads

Reader, gamer, sci-fi/fantasy nerd, reviewer. I love great stories, regardless of medium. This account is for honest reviews, observations, and critiques.