We Who are Dead Salute You: The Gilded Ones

But are we girls or are we demons?

Deka

When we dive into the world of Otera, we meet Deka and we quickly learn how much her desires mirror that of any other typical kid her age: she’s a teenager hoping to be accepted into her society after meeting certain requirements. She listens to her father, follows the rules, prays steadfastly, and hopes that all of this will be enough for her to earn her rightful place among her village. Unfortunately, we come to learn that she’s not a typical teen.

In order to earn her place in her village, Deka must first undergo the Ritual of Purity, a custom that each young girl must endure in order prove their purity through their blood. If their blood runs red, they’re pure. If not, well…

During the ritual, the village is attacked by deathshrieks, deadly creatures that can kill with a single scream. In the midst of all the chaos, Deka learns she is able to control the creatures! She uses this sudden and newfound ability to make the creatures flee, sparing her village anymore bloodshed. That makes her the hero right?

Wrong.

When Deka makes the creatures flee, she changes and it doesn’t take anyone in the village long to realize that Deka will not be pure. Without wasting anytime, Deka is killed, viewed as nothing but a deadly abomination at this point. When she is stabbed in the belly, her blood runs gold, confirming what she feared and what everyone else suspected after the attack:

She is a demon.

Beings such as Deka, known as alaki, must experience the Death Mandate when they are discovered. Nonnegotiable. But because she is cursed, she does not die right away. She merely enters what is called the Gilded Sleep, a comatose state where beings like Deka heal from near-death wounds. But that won’t be the only time her village tries to find her True Death.

When Deka’s village elders spend months trying to find her True Death, it becomes clear that not only is Deka a demon, she’s an unnatural one at that. For most alaki, their True Death is discerned after the 2nd or 3rd try. After several more tries than that, Deka still lives.

Deka, an innocent girl in all this, desires absolution. After all, that’s what girls in Otera are taught: that girls must be meek and subservient in order to be granted a place in the afterlife. Demons like Deka cannot hope for any such thing.

Or can they?

After being locked away in a dungeon, bled so that her golden blood can be harvested by greedy village elders, Deka gets an unexpected visit from someone she has never met: a mysterious woman granting her the opportunity to attain the absolution she very much craves. In order to achieve this, Deka must leave her village and everyone she’s ever known behind. Everyone Deka loved turned their backs on her the moment she bled gold. Everyone, even her father, who had a hand in trying to find out her True Death. It’s not a hard choice.

Deka leaves and from this point on, her life turns upside down. She learns more about the world than she ever expected to learn. She learns of the cruelty of humans, men in particular, and how far they will go to keep the status quo. She learns more about her enemy, the deathshrieks, and she vows to stop them. But at what cost? Even among alaki, Deka is special. Unnatural. Will winning the ultimate war be as simple as wielding her rare gift to control these deadly creatures?

Absolutely not.

It wouldn’t be a best-selling book if that were the case! Dear reader, I devoured this book. Nothing was simple, all the hard roads were taken, and I lived for it. What I was most impressed with was Deka’s growth over the course of the book. It was gradual, deliberate, and pronounced. Deka started this journey as a timid, insecure little girl, absent anyone in the world who loves her, and ardently praying to Oyomo to grant her absolution. By the end of this book, she is confident in herself and her lineage, outspoken, invested in the bonds of her sisterhood, loved by many, and leads an army.

This book is the ultimate ode to girl power.

The Gilded Ones is the first book in a planned trilogy series titled the Deathless series. For obvious reasons, this fits. I loved the world that Namina Forna built and the way she weaved this story left me salivating. I couldn’t stop thinking about it whenever I had to set the book down. As quickly as I was devouring this book, the pacing was masterful. Each and every major, and minor, event happened at the right time. The easter eggs were so subtle yet so meticulously placed that I have to applaud all of them. All of these things bring the first book to a beautiful close.

I am ashamed to say I let this book sit on my shelf for far too long. It was gifted to me, but pandemic fatigue absolutely sucks and I was smacked with an extremely long reading slump as a result. This year, I’ve found myself able to get back into reading and this was at the top of the list. And it’s just in time–the second installment is already out!

To be honest, the way Forna brought this first book to a close, I have no idea how far the next book will go. She teased a few morsels concerning the direction, but that means nothing. And if you read this book and experienced all the twists and turns that we went on throughout this journey, you’d know why I say that.

No easy road was taken and it mirrors the gruesome choices that we all, women in particular, must face in order to merely survive. I love a good allegory.

Fans of Children of Blood and Bone will adore this. Much like Tomi Adeyemi’s book, the Gilded Ones is a fantasy inspired by West-African lore and mythology. If you have neither read nor heard of either of these books, I implore you to read them if you’re a fan of fantasy.

I give this book a perfect five. Truthfully, I can find no fault with it. I do have a question about Deka’s mother, but maybe it will be answered in the next book. With a rich and immersive story, relatable characters, and allegories out the whazoo, Namina Forna proves with her debut novel that all that glitters is indeed gold.

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