Questioning your stake in dominant culture and the inevitable answers to which they lead is a mainstay of literature. Namina Forna’s The Gilded Ones adds to this paradigm by exploring what it means to abandon patriarchy when it no longer serves you.
Through the main character, Deka, a sixteen year old who has waited her whole life to feel a sense of belonging within a community who has always shunned her for her heritage, we see all the ways that rejection can lead to complacency. It is only after Deka has been heinously tortured by the men her community respects most, then rescued by a powerful woman from outside, that she comes to question her beliefs about the true motives of her patriarchal society.
Yet, having questions does not a rebel make. As Deka travels through the kingdom to the capital, she is shown the different levels of the human condition; compliance and non-compliance with the strict religious rules that forbid women and girls from taking jobs, gaining an education, or choosing their own life trajectories. She also learns why the golden blood and supernatural abilities that she and other alaki like her carry has been condemned for centuries. Though her growing awareness comes through the supportive relationships she builds with other alaki at the school where they are trained into becoming elite fighters, Deka continues to revere the patriarchal practices that have thrust them all into danger. It was, indeed, Deka’s unwavering belief in a system that abused and assaulted her and her new bloodsisters and her strong discomfort with challenging it after their harrowing experiences that gave me some insight into why so many marginalized people fight bodily for systems that have caused them and many of their loved ones undue harm.
Thematically, The Gilded Ones delivers thoughtful characterization of the ways in which systemic cruelties become embedded into daily life. We gain understanding of the use of erasure, gaslighting, and brutality in reinforcing rules that are inhumane yet perpertuated through ostracization and genocide of rebels. I appreciate Forna’s careful examination of these societal dynamics and was most struck by how she shows perseverance being key to subverting these systems, best summed up in a line I paraphrase here to avoid spoilers: “[The powers of old] made a crucial mistake… In dealing suffering, they taught survival.” A word that we receive in the final pages of the story, making it all the more memorable.