CBR Bingo 15 square Africa, because author Namina Forna was born and raised in Sierra Leone, on the west coast, a former British colony. It was first called Serra Lyoa, or Lion Mountain, because it was first “discovered” by Pedro de Sintra, a Portuguese explorer in the 15th century, who feared lions in the rolling of thunder in the hills around the harbour. I know this because I learned it in school, because when I was little I went to school in said hills, and heard the thunder, and saw airy wisps of cloud drifting in through the classroom windows.
I did pick this up because of the Sierra Leone connection. This is a fantasy YA novel, part of a trilogy set in the imagined land of Otera, and it’s a melange of cultures and ideas and landscapes. But as Forna comments on Instagram, “I just wanted to point out that these books are products of a Sierra Leonean mind. We’re out here telling stories, writing fantasies, exporting our culture to the world.” I don’t see a lot that I recognise now in the text, (though Sierra Leone has been through a bloody civil war, and this book is very violent at times–but then again plenty of fantasy novels are violent without their authors having lived through brutal conflicts). But some things seem to have been embedded in me decades ago were shaken a little loose by Forna’s novel; I had friends called Umu and Jeneba and Braima, and some of my girl friends went away at 11 or 12 and didn’t come back quite the same. Years later I understood about FGM and the patriarchy and misogyny that continue to enforce it. Forna’s novel is scathing and damning of patriarchal systems, and misogynistic regulations of women’s “purity”:
“An impure girl is despised by Oyomo, her very existence an offence to Him. Her murder is sanctioned by the Infinite Wisdoms, and who can argue with the Holy Books? Who would dare even try? All the families can see from then on is the demon that somehow invaded their bloodline. The sheer wickedness of it stings.” (p. 55)
Indeed, while this is a splendid and complex fantasy and epic in scope, it is bloody and brutal for YA; there’s a content note at the beginning saying “The Gilded Ones includes scenes of violence, including some graphic violence, which some readers may find distressing.”
It’s also deep, and fierce, and its heroine Deka is burns bright with determination and loyalty and a blazing desire for truth. Deka is the narrator, and we open as she waits for the customary “purity test”, a ritual check to see whether she bleeds red like a human, or something else. If she is human she can adopt the customary mask and enter the customary marriage, and live the customary sheltered and confined life of a woman; if she is something else, a fairly horrific fate awaits both her body and soul. But the ritual is interrupted by deathshrieks, monstrous creatures that devour and destroy humans–and who somehow respond to Deka’s voice as she screams at them in fear and rage.
Deka’s community, including her own father, immediately decide that she’s a demon, confirmed when she bleeds gold (this is very early in the text, and the “are we girls or are we demons” question is in the back blurb, so this isn’t a spoiler), but a mysterious figure, an emissary of the Emperor whom she comes to call White Hands, offers Deka exile and a way of potentially atoning for her tainted blood.
“By the time we reach the streets bordering the administrative buildings, dread has coiled like a hooded snake in my stomach. I barely notice how orderly the streets are here, barely notice the lush gardens clinging to grand, towering buildings almost as old as Otera itself. All I can think about is my impending change in circumstances. What will Hemaira hold for me? Will it be as White Hands promised? Will any of her promises hold true? There’s still that lingering doubt, that prickle of unease I get when I’m in her presence.
Please let them be true, I pray silently as we make our way down the street.” (p. 81)
To say much more would be to spoil the story, but I will say that Deka’s journey to understanding the cosmology and power structures of her world is gripping, as is her coming to terms with the meaning of her inheritance from her mother rather than the father who chose not to protect her, and the world-building itself is intricate and at times awe-inspiring. Even amid the bloodshed–or goldshed–there is a hope for peace, and a consideration of what it means to be human and to be connected to the world in different ways. I hugely enjoyed this–I read it in two days–and I will definitely be picking up the sequels.
Title quote from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1892)
Unless I’ve got timezones and squares mixed up, I believe this completes a bingo for me: