Book Review: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Book Review: The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez

Book Review: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Kieta is just like all the rest, giving us impossibilities and calling them choices. 

I was feeling kind of blah about my 2023 reading choices as winter finally turned into spring. I had loved Demon Copperhead but also been traumatized by it. I’d been craving a really good fantasy but hadn’t found it. I’d started a dozen or so audio books that just hadn’t grabbed me. I hadn’t hated anything I’d read, and I’d had some good experiences, but I hadn’t unequivocally loved anything.

So maybe I can’t be blamed for not putting a ton of effort into finding a book to take to San Antonio at the end of March, when I flew to Texas with my life-long best friend so we could see Depeche Mode. Usually I spend at least four or five hours reading reviews and picking several possibilities for my travel reading. For this trip (which was just so…so good in ways I am still thinking about) I realized I didn’t have a book picked out just the day before we flew out, with no time at all to order anything (I’ve learned the hard way: never take a library book on a trip, as it will inevitably get damaged and you’ll have to pay for it anyway). So I went with The Gilded Ones, a book I’d purchased in February because A—it looked good and B—I always buy at least one book by an African-American writer in February, to mark Black History Month, even if I don’t get around to actually reading said book in February.

Gilded onesThe Gilded Ones is a young adult fantasy that builds out of West African mythology and the culture of Sierra Leon. Girls in Deka’s culture must undergo the blood ceremony, which proves (or doesn’t) their purity. Girls whose blood is gold become outcasts, tortured and killed if they can be—but many with gold in their veins can only be killed in one specific way, unique to her. Deka, whose mother (who recently died) came from a different part of the country, has always been on the fringes of her community anyway, and so is determined to prove her purity, but her blood is gold. Her father abandons her to the village elders, who torture her with many different attempted deaths she always survives. She escapes this torture when a woman arrives in her village to take her to be trained as a soldier.

In a sense, this book is a take on the traditional hero’s journey: Young person who doesn’t know her importance leaves her small community on a quest to find something. But it is much more than that. The blurb calls it a “darkly feminist tale” and as you continue reading you understand why. The alaki (the girls with gold blood) are detested in their community, only allowed to become soldiers to fight the ever-growing threat of the deathshrieks, terrifying monsters whose shriek can kill. They have all been taught that girls are only worth anything if they are pure---modest, quiet, unobtrusive. (Sound familiar?) Yet Deka finds a way to make friends and find her strength, and as she does so she begins to realize that the things she doesn’t know about herself might be the key to freeing the alaki.

This isn’t a gentle book. There is a lot of violence and a horrific, disturbing twist. I sort-of thought of the twist, or some version of it, at the beginning of the book, then doubted myself, then watched for clues, then was sure I was right, then sure I was wrong because surely that couldn’t happen if the twist was true. I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion the novel comes to about violence in the first place.

But. I was absolutely enthralled with the story, and conveniently enough it was a perfect travel novel for me. The plot was not so complicated that I had to struggle to get back into the flow of it with all the interruptions that happen while you’re travelling. It has many of my favorite bookish traits: a strong female character who grapples to figure out what she believes about the world in contrast with what religion has told her to believe; strong friendships between women; a fully-imagined fantasy world with intriguing goddesses; the lingering impact of a lost mother; divine statues. A mysterious catlike creature. And running---running is important in this story.

I enjoyed this book immensely. I think it will prove a turning point: I’ve found my groove and will love more of what I read from now on.


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