Reviews · Summaries

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna (Book 1)

# of Pages: 415

Time it took me to read: 3 Days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 59

Rating: 4 out of 5

This is the most important day of Deka’s life. Today is the day she will go through the Ritual of Purity, which will mark her as a true member of the village where she has always felt like an outsider. So long as her blood runs red, she will be welcomed by her community with open arms and will prepare herself for marriage.

But when the ritual goes horribly wrong and her blood runs gold, she is subjugated to the punishment of all girls who fail the Ritual: the death mandate. Just when Deka thinks all is lost, a powerful stranger arrives and offers her a choice: remain in the power of the village elders, or be conscripted into the Emperor’s army of elite alaki warriors, made up entirely of the girls who would otherwise have been under the power of the death mandate.

Abandoned by everyone she thought cared for her, Deka is whisked away from her tiny village and travels to the capital for training, because the alaki army has one purpose: to rid the kingdom of its most terrifying predator, the deathshrieks.

Though it’s not the life she always wanted, Deka is determined to make the best of her situation, and she quickly finds that though she has always felt powerless in the face of her fate, she may be the key to saving her kingdom from the monsters that hold it captive.

Review (No Spoilers):

Oh boy, what a breath of fresh air! It’s been a while since I’ve read a new fast-paced YA fantasy, and The Gilded Ones totally delivered. Namina Forna’s debut novel is extremely engaging with a fantastically immersive world.

Just going to post a brief review here, as I’m going to spend most of this post doing a summary, but this section will be spoiler-free, and I’ll definitely give a warning before I get into the section with spoilers, because I highly recommend this book and you don’t want to be spoiled if you haven’t read it yet.

Starting with pacing, which as I stated above is fast. The reader is undoubtably hooked within the first few chapters because the action starts right away. The way that the author builds mystery after mystery kept me asking questions, which kept me turning pages. As much as I love intense world-building, it often slows down the pace of the story if there is heavy-lifting to be done story-wise, but despite an impressibly imaginative world in Oterra, I felt that the information about the world was thoroughly interspersed, which I love over an info-dump anyday.

Moving briefly into world-building, as I said, fantastic for a debut novel. Oterra is a bright and vibrant world with rich cultures and fantastical creatures galore. The one thing I’ll say, and I won’t get too much into it here, is that there was one creature that should have been left out of the story all together, and that is the equus. They’re supposed to be like centaurs, kinda, but with horsy facial features. But what really alarms me is that they have what appears to be human intelligence and speech patterns, but they seem to be content to be the pack mules to humans, and a lot of their commentary revolves around liking apples, which makes them seem much more like they have horse brains in their human heads. Long story short, I don’t think they add anything to the storyline at all and they creep me out, I wish they weren’t there. Other than that though, I love the world and I love the creatures.

Now characters. I thought that Deka had a really nice arc. She starts out as meek, keeping her eyes down and wanting nothing more than to be the traditional subservient woman that her religion tells her is the only appropriate way for a woman to be. She has an understandable, realistic struggle with completely shifting from subservient woman to elite warrior. The transition happens a little fast in terms of actual timeline of the story, but I think it mostly makes sense for it to happen quickly because there is so much going on with the plot, and Deka has to keep up. Regarding side characters, I think Deka has a really lovable, well-rounded group of friends, including her love interest. I thought their relationship was very sweet, very pure, and I was into it, I wish there was more of it to be honest but hopefully that’ll all be in book 2 *fingers crossed*. But probably the “best” character was Deka’s mysterious benefactor White Hands. Deka goes up and down and up and down with whether or not she trusts her, and I as a reader really enjoyed trying to guess whether or not White Hands had Deka’s best interests at heart or not.

Lastly, I’ll take a moment to talk about style. As a reader, I could tell this was a debut novel, simply because the flow was occasionally a little rough around the edges. Forna is certainly a talented writer, and I can only imagine that the writing will get better as the series progresses. But once again, not a bad writer, I could just tell there was some inexperience there as someone who’s read a lot of YA. However, from the perspective of being a writer myself, I know how hard it can be to make a story flow, so I’m just proud of her for getting it done! And something that was sort of funny was that a habit that I think Forna has is that she really spells out every single one of her tropes. There is pretty much no subtly, which cracked me up. Because normally in YA, the tropes are really obvious, but the author usually at least tries to bury the lead a little bit. For example, a big theme in this story is found family, and where normally in YA the author would just write a nice scene where the found family comes together and leave it at that. But Forna takes it a step further by writing that heart-warming found family scene, but then ending the chapter with a sentence like “and it was like I finally found my family.” Literally spelling out the trope. I’m not mad about it though, because it’s totally something that I would do, because as a writer and a person I’m about as subtle as a punch in the face.

Now, the next book doesn’t come out until spring of 2022 (curse you paper shortage!), so I’m definitely going to do a summary for this one. I’m really going to work hard to make these summaries still contain all the important, juicy information about characters and plot points while being condensed because these summaries are really exhausting to write.

!!!SPOILERS AHEAD, DO NOT READ PAST HERE UNLESS YOU HAVE READ THE BOOK. IT’S SERIOUSLY NOT WORTH BEING SPOILED IF THERE IS ANY CHANCE YOU’LL READ THIS BOOK!!!

Characters:

Deka – The sixteen year old protagonist of the story. Always wanted to fit in, but her mother is from a different province so she’s darker than all of the other people in her village. Taken from her village to be an alaki warrior when her blood runs gold. White Hands is her mysterious benefactor, and she is best friend to Britta. Love interest to Keita. She starts out meek and completely affected by the brainwashing that women are weak, but transforms into a strong, feminist leader of the alaki warriors.

Britta – Sixteen year old alaki, travels with Deka to the capital to train and becomes her protector and best friend. Chatty, optimistic, gentle-hearted, fiercely loyal.

White Hands / Lady of the Equus – All we know about her from the start is that she is a noble, but we find that she is the emperor’s “cousin” and has a lot of influence, so she is able to protect and influence Deka. She’s mysterious, and plays it close to the vest. By the end we find she is one of the firstborn, a daughter of the Gilded Ones (goddesses).

Ixa – Deka’s loyal pet/sidekick. He’s a shapeshifter, and can communicate a little in Deka’s mind. Commonly seen as a little cat with horns, but can also transform into a fierce dragon-type creature for battle.

Adwapa – Friend to Deka, one of the fiercest alaki warriors. She’s from the tribe that always worshipped the Gilded Ones in secret.

Belcalis – Friend to Deka, young alaki warrior. She suffered greatly before coming to the capital to train, it takes her quite some time to lower her walls enough to let in Deka and the others close to her.

Keita – young jatu soldier that is paired with Deka as his alaki partner. He’s got a hard exterior, but he respects Deka for the warrior that she is, and they fall in love throughout the story.

Summary:

I’m going to try a new format, list format rather than whole rambling paragraphs. As I said, I’m trying to reap the benefits of summarizing the book for myself (and hopefully others) without having to write 3000 words. Alrighty, let’s see how this goes:

  1. We meet Deka, sixteen years old and excited for the purity ceremony that will prove she is a faithful woman of her village. She has always felt different, especially since her mother died a few months prior.
  2. During the ceremony, monsters called deathshrieks attack. Deka seems strangely unaffected by their bloodcurdling wails, and, desperate to save her family and friends, she commands them to stop and leave. However, she gets hurt in the process and her blood runs the cursed gold. The boy she has a crush on puts a sword through her stomach.
  3. We find that Deka is an alaki (descended from demons), which means she cannot die, no matter how many times they try and kill her. She is tormented for months by the elders in her village, who want to kill her but also take her golden blood to sell. She’s rescued by White Hands, an emissary of the emperor. She is told that if she wants to escape the torture, she must come to the capital and join an army of alaki warriors to fight the deathshrieks. She agrees.
  4. Deka travels with White Hands and another alaki, Britta, who is from a village north of Deka’s. They bond over their faith and shared experience.
  5. The girls arrive at the capital and are left by White Hands. They go through the process of being conscripted. Their hands are dipped in gilded gold blood and they are such marked. They are paired with a male jatu soldier to be their partner on the battlefield. Deka is paired with Keita.
  6. Deka and Britta make an alliance with the other girls in their transport to the training camp, two sisters from a southern tribe and Belcalis, who is very reluctant and angry, but not about to turn down an alliance.
  7. The girls get to the camp and are introduced to their teachers, who are all human, non-alaki women. The training begins, and the girls go for a run and learn that they can enter a combat state where they are inhumanly fast and strong. They are meant to be warriors, and this is a time where Deka and the other girls come to terms with their demon blood and accept that it makes them strong and worthy to be warriors to fight the deathshrieks for their empire.
  8. One of Deka’s friends is killed (her final death) by some deathshrieks who make it into their camp. Deka feels that her mother was part of the legacy of this place, and finds that she was a shadow, which is an elite female assassin before she was exiled to the north with her father when she was pregnant with Deka.
  9. Deka realizes she can command the deathshrieks, and trains with White Hands and her friends to form an elite deathshriek killing squad, along with their jatu partners.
  10. Deka realizes that she has special abilities that even the other alaki do not have, and tries to solve the mystery, but White Hands doesn’t really give her much.
  11. During a deathshriek raid, Deka discovers Ixa, a shapeshifter creature unlike anyone has ever seen. She feels in her gut that they are meant to stay together, so she starts bringing Ixa with her everywhere. He is often a little kitten with horns, but also can transform into a giant dragon like creature for battle
  12. Deka and Keita form a close connection, Deka learning that Keita is the final male in his family line, his entire family was killed by deathshrieks. While Keita obviously has a lot of emotions toward the deathshrieks, he’s never vicious or cruel to them. Deka and Keita are in love.
  13. Deka realizes that after some time, she can understand the deathshrieks, that they have language and are intelligent, not mindless monsters like she was led to believe. She is not sure what to do, since they are going on campaign soon, the whole army, to destroy the deathshriek nest and “rid the land of the monsters forever”. But she knows she will be destroyed by the Emperor and the rest of the army if they find out she is having doubts about their mission to erradicate the deathshrieks. Especially since she’s found out her commanding voice not only works on the deathshrieks, but on the alaki as well.
  14. During a battle on the campaign trail, Britta is fatally wounded, and it looks like she’s about to die her final death, but Deka commands her not to die and that somehow heals her enough to stop her final death.
  15. During the next battle, Deka comes face to face with a deathshriek that looks to be her friend that was killed at the beginning in the deathshriek attack. Deka can talk with her and believes it’s her, which makes her realize that all deathshrieks are alaki that have died their final death, they come back as deathshrieks. She refuses to fight them anymore.
  16. The emperor wishes to have her killed for this, and Keita says he’ll do it, he’s her partner. But he says it in such a way that she knows it won’t be her final death, because her village elders already tried to kill her that way and it didn’t work.
  17. So Keita takes Deka’s prone body and flees with it away from the army, where they happen to meet White Hands and an army of deathshrieks.
  18. White Hands explains that she is one of the firstborn, a direct daughter of the Gilded Ones, from which all alaki are descendants. Also the Gilded Ones were not demons, they were the goddesses of this land. The first emperor of Otera and the original jatu sought power for themselves, so they trapped the goddesses and wrote history saying that they were demons, and that their descendants needed to be killed.
  19. White Hands tells Deka that she is special, and that she is the only one who can free the goddesses from their prison. The goddesses created her “soul” (basically) hundreds of years before, and White Hands carried it until the time was right, then gave Deka’s soul to her mother to carry to term as an alaki. The deathshrieks who came to her village in the beginning were actually trying to save her, but their plan didn’t work.
  20. White Hands was the mastermind behind all of this, she says it is now Deka’s time to lead the charge, to bring all of her alaki sisters over to their side, and fight the emperor’s army and free the goddesses.
  21. Deka is able to do it, she realizes her destiny. She goes down to the battle between the deathshrieks and the alaki and imperial army, and tells the alaki to not fight their sisters, the deathshrieks. She tells the deathshrieks to hurt none of their jatu partners either, so long as the jatu do not try to harm them.
  22. Deka goes to the cave where the goddesses have their prison, and finds that the emperor is already there, with Britta and Keita prisoner. The emperor gives his villain speech, how he always knew exactly what him and his family did for generations, killing and oppressing woman, human and alaki alike, to keep power. The emperor and his elite army are REAL jatu, which are the male descendants of the Gilded Ones, the ones who imprisoned the goddesses in the first place.
  23. The emperor and his jatu are just as strong and fierce as the alaki, so Deka and the emperor have their final battle, but it doesn’t take Deka long to dispatch him (not kill him).
  24. Deka is able to free the four goddesses, and they plan on uniting the deathshriek and alaki armies to take back their kingdom and bring peace and equality to all of Otera. But with years of oppression, they will likely meet a firm resistance from the men and women alike. But Deka is up to the challenge and believes in the mission of the goddesses.

End of Book 1

!!!END OF SPOILERS!!!

Well, that was still pretty long, but we got there in the end. Thanks for reading along everyone, I really recommend The Gilded Ones, and if you’ve read it, hit me up in the comments and let me know what you think. See ya’ll next time!

If you liked The Gilded Ones, try:

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

Blood Heir Amelie Wen Zhao

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Reviews

Sky Without Stars by Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell (Book 1)

# of Pages: 579

Time it took me to read: 5 Days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 83

Rating: 4 out of 5

Chatine Renard has been a crook all her life. In the Frets of the capital city on the planet Laterre, she must steal, lie, and con as a boy to survive. If anyone knew she was a girl, it would be off to the blood bordels for her, where she’d be forced to sell the nutrients in her blood for money. But she, like everyone else in the Third Estate, dreams of a better life. And she’s so close she can taste it, all she needs is one last, big con and she’ll have the money for passage off of Laterre.

Marcellus is desperate to fill the shoes he was born into. He is constantly in his grandfather’s shadow, the great General of Laterre, and next in line to be commander. That is, if he can show everyone that he is not a traitor like his father, a famous terrorist currently serving life in prison for treason and murder. But when rebellion starts to brew on Laterre, will Marcellus stick to the status quo, or find that he has more in common with rebels than the Regime he is sworn to uphold?

Alouette has lived underground as long as she can remember. Safe from the turmoil on the planet’s surface, Alouette and her father live a simple life with the sisters, an order sworn to a quiet life of protecting the precious books brought over from the old world, the only written history on Laterre. Alouette wants nothing more than to join this order and dedicate her life to the library that would certainly be destroyed if ever discovered by the Regime. But when Alouette braves the world above to help someone in need, she’ll find all is not what it seems. She’ll have to question everything she’s ever known if she’s to discover the truth: about who she is, and how she and her father came to live among the sisters.

The stories of Chatine, Marcellus, and Aloutte become inextricably woven as a rebellion works to rise again, despite the current Regime’s desperation to cling to the way things have always been: with the Third Estate poor, hungry, and submissive, while the First Estate plays and the Second Estate rules. In this imaginative retelling of the classic story Les Miserables, you’ll find that nothing is as it seems, until you’re sure that the only thing you know is that you know nothing at all.

Review (SPOILER FREE!):

Howdy friends! Normally here I’d do a brief review and then a summary, since this is Book 1, but the main reason I do summaries is so that I can review them before diving into the sequel, a little gift for my future self. However, I have learned that Book 2 in The System Divine series HAS A SUMMARY published in the front of the book, which is the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. So I’m just gonna do a regular review for ya’ll.

I have to start by saying that I am a HUGE Les Miserables (Les Mis) fan. I’ve only seen the stage production once, but I’m obsessed with the 2012 move, obsessed with the music, etc. So I fully read this book knowing it was a Les Mis retelling, and looking for every detail that they threw in, every Easter egg. And boy were there plenty, so if you read this review and know nothing of Les Mis, sorry, you might not know why I’m so excited or who all I’m referencing as the characters. So I’ll just leave this here for anyone interested in reading this book, but is unfamiliar with the source material: You should read it anyway! It’s a great story, and it doesn’t require any Les Mis knowledge to enjoy.

Moving on to the main characters. For those Les Mis fans out there, I’ll make it real simple (this is not a spoiler, it’s literally clear from the first time you meet these characters): Chatine = Eponine, Marcellus = Marius, and Alouette = Cosette. They are the three protagonists in this story, as well as in part of Les Mis. And while other memorable character archetypes are present throughout (Marius’s grandfather, the Thenardiers, Javert, Gavroche, and of course Jean Valjean), they don’t all play the roles you’d expect, and their relationships to each other aren’t all the same either. There are some interesting original characters as well, so it’s not a mirror image to the source material.

I thoroughly enjoyed the stories of all three protagonists. I occasionally struggle with stories with casts that I call “in-betweeners”. In my experience, one to two narrators is normal, and indicative of a small to medium cast of characters. Then there is large cast, with the narration changing between 4+ characters, often giving more of an omnipresent narrator or “movie” vibe. I enjoy large cast books, if done well, but read mostly books that stick to one to two perspectives. With three protagonists and thus three primary narrators, this book is definitely stuck between small and large cast. But it totally worked for me, I found myself engaged in the storylines of all three protagonists, which is tough to accomplish.

I’m going to speak briefly about the plot, and how similar or dissimilar it is to the source material. I’ll be brief, because I don’t want to give any spoilers. But I thought these authors did a great job of blending original plot and ideas into this story, while still being true to the source materials. There are some areas that are totally original, for example Marcellus’s backstory (although, tbh, I’m basing that off of my movie/stage production knowledge of Les Mis, not Victor Hugo’s original novel, which I have never read). However, there are some parts that are as by-the-book (or by-the-movie, rather), as it gets. I’ll not reveal which parts, because that’s obviously a spoiler. And there are just some little details that gave me a thrill to read, such as the prisoner number 24601 being used (Jean Valjean’s prisoner number), and the fact that Alouette is a singer. There’s also an awesome little scene that gave me big “Lovely Ladies” vibes, which is one of my favorite songs, so that was *chef’s kiss*.

Alrighty, world-building. I was absolutely HERE for the concept of “Les Mis, but instead of 19th century France, make it a space dystopia that is super based in French culture”. I thought the authors did a great job of not doing a lot of info-dumping, even though they did include a lot of lingo and there was a lot of world building / history to be done. I also mostly thought the little bits of French that they threw in there were fun, even if some of the substitutions did make me giggle/roll my eyes a little bit. For example the sentence “I had never felt so stupide”, like why would you not just say “Stupid”? Anyway, that’s obviously nitpicky, I overall enjoyed the vibe very much.

And now, finally, the reason that I knocked off a star: pacing. This was a long book and I FELT it. I don’t really feel like much happened in the first half, at all, besides the minor event that triggered the story taking off. There is a lot of mystery and intrigue, which is great, but it’s the kind of stuff that you’re like “I’m not going to learn the answers to this until the very end, or even maybe not until the next book”, which makes it really hard to be eager to turn page after page when you’ve still got 300 pages until the end. I think it was probably slow-paced by necessity, there was a lot of backstory, but I do wish there had been more action sprinkled in to keep me going through all the backstory. I have a feeling the next book is going to be much quicker, so I’m stoked, but I had to take off a star because a book that is almost six hundred pages and super slow until almost the last quarter is kinda rough.

Overall, I loved it. I can really see the next book being a five out of five for me, and I’m very excited that the sequel is already out. I probably won’t get to it for a while, but I’m really looking forward to when I do get the chance to pick it up. Once again, I recommend checking out this book, even if you’re not a Les Mis fan, but ESPECIALLY if you are.

Now, I’m off to watch the 2012 Les Miserables movie for the millionth time, see ya’ll next time!

If you liked Sky Without Stars, try these other creative retellings of classic stories:

Troy by Adele Geras is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad with unique perspectives

Thorn by Intisar Khanani is a retelling of the classic Goose Girl fairytale

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong is a dark, gangster spin on Romeo and Juliet

Dark Breaks the Dawn by Sara B. Larson is a fantastical retelling of the Swan Lake story

Reviews

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim (Book 1)

# of Pages: 387

Time it took me to read: 3 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 55

Rating: 4 out of 5

Maia Tamarin is the fourth child of one of the greatest tailors in A’landi, and the most talented of her siblings. But as the only daughter, she is forbidden from taking ownership of her father’s shop and fulfilling her dreams of being a master tailor. Until one day when a messanger comes from the palace, wishing to take her father to the emperor to become a royal tailor. Maia’s father is too sick, and her brother has nowhere near her skill. So with the gift of her grandmother’s scissors and the blessing of her father, she disguises herself as one of her brothers and is off to the palace.

When she arrives, she finds that she will be pitted against eleven other master tailors for the honor of being the new imperial tailor. The tasks are set and judged by the future empress, Lady Sarnai, who is known for her harsh judgement. Maia knows that she has what it takes to fill the role, despite being a woman, and is willing to risk everything, including exposure, to bring this honor to her family.

But what she doesn’t expect is to gain the attention of Edan, the Emperor’s Lord Enchanter. Somehow he seems to see right through her, though to anyone else she seems to be the unremarkable son of a tailor. However, when Lady Sarnai sets a seemingly impossible final task, Maia’s only hope is to team up with Edan to complete gowns known only in legend.

Note:

Hi friends, normally in this situation I’d write a review along with a summary of this book, since it’s the first in a series. However, since the second book is out already and I intend on reading it soon, I’m going to skip the summary, because they honestly take me forever to write and I’d rather just write a simple review for this book. But the good news is that this post will be entirely spoiler-free, so I hope you enjoy!

Review:

I’d like to start out by saying that this book was the breath of fresh air that I needed. Because the last few books I’ve read have either been heavy but wonderful (read Chain of Iron) or lighter but not that enjoyable (the last two books I’ve read for book club). But this month’s book club book was a great pick by my friend Dani. In just one sentence, the reason I liked this book so much was because it was easy breezy fantasy with a romance you’re rooting for and a fast paced, engaging plot.

So let’s break this down. We’ll start with what I mean when I say “easy breezy fantasy”. Much of YA fantasy these days I find gets really into intense world building with really intense fantasy themes, such as leading a rebellion or trying to save a kingdom from eternal darkness, etc. But this story is just about a girl who wants to be a master tailor, despite being forbidden because she’s a woman. And then the girl falls in love with a boy she isn’t supposed to have, and the follow up story is all about how they can go about being together. No super intense themes, just a super chill Mulan-meets-Project-Runway vibe.

I’ll talk about the cast just briefly, because they were certainly not particularly remarkable. Maia is the kind of protagonist that you root for right away. She’s lovably naive but fiercely determined, a winning combo for a YA protagonist, if not a particularly original one. There are “villains” working against her at every turn, I do sort of like the idea that there is no single antagonist that she’s going head to head against. And I’ll just briefly mention Edan, Maia’s charming partner in crime. They’ve got that fun back-and-forth banter going on throughout, and great adventure-partner chemistry. The two of them are enjoyable to read about from the beginning of their journey to the end.

Finally, to end my high notes I’ll take a paragraph to talk about plot and pacing. As I talked about a little bit above, the basic plot of this is like a mix of Mulan, Project Runway, with a little dash of Aladdin/Genie for flavor. None of the bits separately are particularly original, but the combination of them certainly is. I will say that I think the blurb on the back of the book was a little bit misleading, because I thought the Project Runway storyline was going to last longer, but the book has a lot more to offer beyond just that competition aspect, I’ll leave it at that to avoid any spoilers. And because there was so many different plot pieces in a book that isn’t even 400 pages, that meant the pacing had to be quick to fit everything in, which I was into because the last few books I’ve read have not been particularly fast paced, which I’m often fine with but I needed something fast paced and light to help me get back into a reading run.

To finish off the review, I’ll talk a little about why I left off a star. For me, a five star read has to be something that really hits on all cylinders, is entirely enjoyable to read, and usually has some sort of X factor. This book didn’t really have anything that I could fault, besides being a little tropey and cheesy at times (which in my opinion is usually not a fault), but it certainly didn’t have anything that screamed X factor. It is a thoroughly enjoyable story that I am excited to read the sequel to, but I’m not rushing out to my local bookstore to buy it right away or agonizing over having to wait, so this one is a solid four for me.

End Review

If you liked Spin the Dawn, try:

Sea of Shadows by Kelley Armstrong

Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa

The Glass Spare by Lauren Destefano

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngun