Goodreads: The Gilded Ones
Series: Deathless #1
Published: February 2021
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 color 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.
Discovering that you are less than impressed with a very hyped book can prove an awkward situation. However, despite incurring the wrath of passionate fans, I have to admit that The Gilded Ones did not live up to my expectations. While it provides plenty of action as well as a strong heroine, the pacing proves uneven and the premises upon which the whole story is based are flawed. A logical narrative is very important to my reading experience, so The Gilded Ones ended up disappointing me largely due to its nonsensical plot points.
I recognize, of course, that not every reader values having a plot that makes sense, and that some may conclude that other aspects of the book outweigh any perceived flaws. However, I personally found the necessary suspension of disbelief difficult to achieve in this case. From the very start, the story asked me to put aside what I know of the world and of human nature to accept that all this could happen. I could not do it.
The first big ask The Gilded Ones makes is, of course, to have readers assume that just about every girl in the nation is unaware of what her own blood looks like by the time they reach the age of 16. This is about the age that the local elders perform a blood ceremony, cutting girls to see if their blood runs red or gold. Gold blood supposedly means that the gods are displeased with the girl’s purity/holiness and so she must die. The book goes to lengths to explain why none of the girls know what their blood looks like until they are cut at this ceremony–they are asked not to use knives, the rich ones go to live in padded rooms where they cannot accidentally be cut, etc. The book even suggests that the blood does not turn gold until later, so a childhood scrape might be red, but not be proof that the girl will still have red blood later.
Still, even if one sets aside scenarios such as bug bites, accidental cuts or scrapes, zits, and any other common reason one might see one’s blood, one does have to wonder: what about the girls’ monthly periods? Surely a large number of sixteen-year-old girls see their blood every month, even if we assume that they get their periods later than girls might in modern society. It just does not make sense that all these girls have no idea what their blood looks like or, if they do, that they would just wait around to be killed by the elders once they realize it is gold. In fact, one of the girls Deka meets does realize her “impurity” from her period and tries to escape, so clearly the author thought of this scenario and then apparently decided not to pursue it too far. I have real difficulty with books that gloss over plot holes, so this aspect of the book bothered me throughout.
However, what really bothered me about the realism of the book occurs at the end. I’ll go into spoilers in the next paragraph for those who are curious, but the basic scenario is the one where a plot “twist” occurs completely out the blue and makes no sense with what we know of the characters and the world. I think some authors believe this is the key to a good plot twist–no one could ever see it coming if it makes absolutely zero sense, right? But this is not good writing.
[Spoilers for the ending!] For those who have read the book and want to know why I think the ending does not make sense, read on! Basically, my problem is with Deka’s mentor secretly being one of Deka’s own kind but purposely killing off her own people in order to “save them.” First of all, it is not clear that she had to use Deka to kill off the death shrieks to gather the emperor’s army in one place. In fact, I think most people would prefer to pick off the emperor’s soldiers in smaller groups, rather than risk an all-out war that they might lose. It would make a lot more sense for White Hands simply to whisk Deka away secretly to the mountain to wake the gods, since apparently Deka just has to walk up and touch them. Why not do this before the emperor knows what is happening, instead of, you know, leading the emperor directly to you while you are attempting to wake the gods, just so he can try to stop you?
[Spoilers for the ending!] Secondly, even if we assume that somehow this master plan makes sense, there is no way that the death shrieks and the alaki would continue to follow someone who purposely lied to them and had one of their own start killing them off in a kind of genocide. White Hands can’t be trusted. She’s willing to kill her own people in the pursuit of her own higher goals. It’s just beyond imagining that they would all be thanking her for her great sacrifices and swearing to follow her into battle. Yeah, it’s a plot twist–because it makes absolutely no sense and therefore no one would reasonably predict it would happen. [Spoilers over.]
Besides all the illogical plot elements, however, I had trouble with the extreme darkness of the book. I know this is on trend for YA, but it’s not a trend I have been able to get behind. It is simply depressing to read about a world where girls are tortured and killed for profit, where it is generally known that the priests are raping the temple maidens and everyone turns a blind eye, where agents of the government are known to be raping girls and selling them into prostitution, where essentially everyone except the protagonist seems to have been sexually assaulted. (She’s been physically tortured and mutilated repeatedly, though.) I think the book is supposed to empowering because the protagonist has supernatural physical abilities and can, I guess, kill people now, but it does not really feel empowering to read a book that keeps saying to girls and women, you are not safe. Frankly, to feel empowered, I would rather read a book where women and girls are just assumed to be capable and respected, and not one where you evidently have to be half-supernatural and able to wield a sword before you can feel protected.
I was excited to read The Gilded Ones because it seemed like a fresh, action-packed fantasy–just the type of YA book I would enjoy. However, in the end, I could not suspend my disbelief enough to overlook the glaring plot holes. And the depressing vision of a world where girls and women are almost all at the at the mercy of wicked men left me feeling disquieted. I wanted to love this book, but, unfortunately, it did not live up to expectations.
Content notes: torture, mutilation, rape/sexual assault, child abuse, human/child trafficking