I will be 100% honest – I picked up this book solely based on that cover, and I have zero regrets. This is a hard-hitting and fiery young adult fantasy about overcoming the patriarchy.
In Otera, it’s accepted that women are subservient to men, and anyone – or anything – that goes against that is against the natural order. At fifteen, girls go through a bloodletting ceremony to prove their purity. Girls who bleed red are now considered women, free to find husbands and have families, while those who bleed gold are executed as alaki, demons. These alaki are near immortals descended from the Gilded Ones, four female demons who were subjugated by Oyomo, the rightful (male) god. During an attack by deathshrieks – horrible creatures whose screams cause impairment and even death – Deka is cut and bleeds gold, so she is imprisoned and repeatedly tortured to near-death, until a mysterious woman offers her a choice: stay there and hopefully eventually die, or join a new army of alaki, where faithful service will leave Deka cleansed of her impurities. Thrust into an unforgiving training regimen with other young girls, Deka must learn to survive. But when it becomes clear that Deka is a monster even among monsters, can even the other alaki accept her?
“The truth is, girls have to wear smiling masks, contort themselves into all kind of knots to please others, and then, when deathshrieks come, girls die. They die.” I glance from one blood sister to the other. “The way I see it, we all have a choice right now. Are we girls, or are we demons? Are we going to die, or are we going to survive?”
Deka starts the book as very young and innocent, completely buying in to the religious precepts she’s been taught – even if it means believing that she’s a monster and unworthy of salvation. The only thing that keeps her going is the hope that if she can survive twenty years of service, she’ll be judged pure. But once she meets the other alaki – once she realizes exactly how strong she is – she finally understands that she and every other woman in Otera have been caged and forced to be lesser for their entire lives. Even at the beginning of the book, though, when she’s terrified and hurting, she’s brave and unwilling to give up, and those are the qualities that really endeared her to me.
I loved the found family that Deka finds within the ranks of the alaki, especially her friendship with Britta. All of her bloodsisters have individual stories and motivations, but Britta and Belcalis were the two most fleshed-out and the two closest to Deka. They’re also opposites: Britta’s warm and trusting from the beginning, while Belcalis is prickly and defiant. White Hands, Deka’s initial savior and then sometimes-mentor, was another very interesting character, though more because of how manipulative and secretive she was. I also adored Ixa, Deka’s, uh, “kitten.” The male counterparts, the recruits, were less fleshed out, except for Deka’s love interest. Strangely enough, considering I usually read 90% romance, I didn’t care for the romance here. It felt unnecessary and a bit distracting from the rest of Deka’s journey.
“The physical body—it heals. The scars fade. But the memories are forever. Even when you forget, they remain inside, taunting you, resurfacing when you least expect.”
There’s a lot of tragedy in the book, most stemming from the ways women are subjugated by men and the ways they’re taught to subjugate themselves. And even beyond the blatant misogyny and racism, there’s also violent depictions of training and battles. I didn’t find any of it gratuitous, however, as the events have shaped each character and they each work through their trauma in their own way. The plotting was fast paced, though there’s quite a few time skips during the training, but it definitely kept me turning the pages. There were some aspects of the twist at the end that had me raising my eyebrows, but compared to the rest of the book, it was very minor.
Overall, I absolutely adored this book and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the series. I highly recommend this to any fan of YA fantasy!
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.