I couldn’t help it. I had to write about it. I enjoyed this book, but it wasn’t event the content of the book that inspired me to sit down on this Sunday and return to something that I love (reading about fiction and writing what I want). It was the story behind this book. This is one of the first times that I’ve read a novel written by someone who I’ve been able to call a friend, and it inspired me.
So rewind to Spelman College, circa 2008/2009. I was a proud English Major who was such an avid writer that I got tapped to serve as a tutor in the school’s Writing Center. We helped people build writing skills, figure out thesis statements, proofread, and write those last minute course papers in a way that actually made sense. Most of the tutors there were either juniors or seniors when I started as a sophomore, and I somewhat looked up to all of them, but there was one who was my absolute favorite.
Her name was Namina Forna. She and I really got to know each other when we took a trip to a conference in Las Vegas with the head of the Writing Center. She told me stories of fleeing Sierra Leone as a child and coming to the US, and she seemed so sophisticated and cool to me. The one thing that always stood out to me the most about Namina is that she seemed so sure of herself.
“I’m going to be a writer. I’m going to publish a novel.”
She told me that my sophomore year in college. She said it with such certainty that I couldn’t help but agree. Of course she was going to write a novel, like, duh! It was one of those bits of information that I attached to Namina’s name and filed away in my brain (filed under random bits of information that you remember about a person; Namina Forna; “going to write a novel”).
In 2019, Namina announced on social media that her first novel was being published. On November 19, 2019, I pre-ordered my copy and hunkered down for the wait. Then the pandemic hit, and it was a dream deferred. But not forgotten.
In February 2021, my copy of The Gilded Ones finally landed, and in mid-March, I got back into the US to scoop it up and give it a read. And what a read.
So, I will say this – reading the novel, I felt the heavy influences of other Black women sci-fi writers whom I’ve read a lot of and grown to love. There is always a bit of Mama Octavia in novels like this, but the dialogue reminded me a lot of the Children of Blood & Bone series, while the descriptive elements reminded me of The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor and the world-building and characters reminded me a bit of a YA version of The Broken Earth series by N. K. Jemisin.
There are a couple of unique elements of this novel, though. There is a heavy feminist theme that is not as explicit in the works of the authors mentioned above, for one. A lot of the fantasy world described in Forna’s novel seems to mirror the world that we live in, one in which religon and societal conventions are used so frequently to beat women into submission and to keep us from finding our strength. I also thought that this novel was particularly good at having an unexpected twist that I didn’t see coming a mile away until the clues got more meaty.
The only thing I would have liked to see more of in this novel is more world-building and more background on how we got here. Throughout the novel, the character White Hands keeps saying that she will answer all of Deka’s questions and give her much more context when the time is right, but when that time comes, I want a lot more. What exactly is a Nuru? Are there more? What powers do the jatu have? What about White Hands – how is she different from the alaki? What explains the seemingly differign levels of sophistication across different Deathshriek populations? Can other alaki learn to communicate with Deathshrieks? I had so many questions that didn’t come anywhere near being answered. Plus, I wanted to see more of Otera. Hear more history, get a better sense of the dynamics between populations of people, learn more about languages, foods, and customs outside of the obviously opressive religious structure. But, then again, that’s what book series are for – and this is obviously a set up for a book series.
I’ll note that this is a YA novel, but has plenty to love for the not-so-young adults amongst us. Also, some of the elements of the story and language may seem a bit “grown” for YA, but it’s actually nothing that this crazy internet-connected world isn’t showing our children – and it’s presented in a way that springs their minds open for good instead of closed with dumbness.
Most importantly, I got to read – to hold in my hands – the culmination of a dream, a mission, and a purpose that has been over a decade in the making. It reminded me that for every book I read, there’s an author I don’t know who dreamt it and thought it before they wrote it. I’m lucky enough to know this one and I’m so happy that I do! Congrats Namina, and I cannot wait to read more.