YA Fantasy debut with a beautiful cover, that doesn‘t quite deliver

The Gilded Ones (Deathless, #1)
by Namina Forna

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I am not a YA fan, but the very pretty book cover drew me. It‘s a debut novel.

Deka grows up in a society that discriminates against her due to her gender and skin colour. Women are helpmates, there to elevate men. And they have to prove they are pure, to be allowed to fulfill this submissive role. Deka is determined to do her best and conform, but predictably that doesn‘t work out so well. She fails her test spectacularly and is forced to take another path. That leads her to meet other girls like her. Or rather, similar to her. She is special.

Trigger warning: The Gilded Ones includes scenes of sometimes graphic violence, torture, hints of rape (off-screen, in the past) and child abuse. Strong stuff for YA. The main characters are mainly 16-year-olds with symptoms of PTSD. I would not recommend this for anyone younger than that. In the first half of the book this feels more like adult grimdark.

The world building could be more comprehensive, there are a lot of holes or very slim explanations. The author jumps weeks and months, that could have helped to flesh out this world and the characters. New things happen and the reader just gets a brief sentence to give context. A lot of telling instead of showing.

After a slow start and light build-up the story is actually quite entertaining at first, despite all of the above. It‘s all quite straight forward and a fairly typical set-up for this type of YA. Unusual youth in hard circumstances, being shunned and fighting her way to to a better future, proving her worth and showing everybody how special she is. A typical coming of age story of an underdog, with a war against monsters thrown in, with focus on racism and women’s rights and lack thereof. I could have done without the shown brutality.

Around two thirds into the book, with chapter 22, the story became a little more mysterious. And then Ixa showed up and I was enchanted. Sadly this didn‘t last till the great finale. Towards the end it all got a little to surreal and abrupt and Deka and her companions were just too easily convinced and uncritical for my taste. And it was all a bit too easy.

I also never connected emotionally to Deka or the other characters, despite the horrors they go through.

There is some light romance, but it‘s not essential to the story.

It is very unlikely that I will continue with this trilogy.

Bottomline this was ok for YA, a bit too much in its descriptions of physical violence for that age group. I was lacking coherent plot and character development. It was all a bit too straight forward and simple for me and with too many gaps in the narrative. Based on the book description I expected more critical thoughts on racism and feminism. They were there, but treated fairly superficially. 

In the beginning I thought this would be a four-star book, but the later half of the book didn‘t keep up, so I am somewhere around three stars.

I received this free e-copy from the publisher/author via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review, thank you! #TheGildedOnes #NetGalley

My review in German is here.