→The Gilded Wolves (#1) by Roshani Chokshi
| ★★★★★ | released earlier 2019 |
Everywhere he looked, he was surrounded by gilded wolves. And for whatever reason it made him feel perfectly at home. Wolves were everywhere. In politics, in thrones, in beds. They cut their teeth on history and grew fat on war. Not that Séverin was complaining. It was just that, like other wolves, he wanted his share.
I have a story. I guess. In mid-2016, I started a book called Six Of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. I had just started a Goodreads account at this point and wrote brief reviews only; I was reading a couple hours a week, maybe. But that book… I immediately fell in love. I still vividly remember the details of my reading experience. On a more visceral level, it made me fall in love all over again with reading; after I finished it, I went from reading one book a week to reading an average of four books a week overnight (I’m not kidding about this). I still consider it my favorite book.
In the three years since I first read that book, I have experienced that sensation of falling in love with reading all over again very, very rarely — I think I can name approximately ten books that have made me feel that way. None have ever touched Six of Crows. This book is the closest I’ve come to replicating that feeling, in three years.
So, why was I so obsessed with this?
First of all, The Gilded Wolves a heist fantasy about a group of criminals in 1890s Paris, which is just a concept I was put on this planet to enjoy. This heist involves a lot of puzzles, including a golden ratio puzzle. I am a nerd and I found this really delightful. The plot is intriguing, drawing you along carefully, and though there aren’t any twists that blew my mind, there were quite a few that surprised me (which is hard! at this point! I’ve read so many heist books!) This genre is so wonderful because it is so very satisfying seeing puzzle pieces come together to a twist or reveal or even just a solution.
I’m a really big fan of the fact that the main plot of this book is a metaphor for colonialism’s erasure of culture, but the characters are also dealing with the real-life effects of colonialism (because it’s still 1889 Paris?) The Order of Babel, formerly four houses, has been taken over by two, who have erased the legacies of the old. I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out the metaphor here and hence Chokshi doesn’t try to make it any more obvious. It’s just there! Being the main plot of the book! I liked this.
The dynamics between the group are so good, and so entertaining but full of so much genuine love and care. There’s a moment where Severin asks for Laila’s report and Hypnos answers him, in detail, and then Severin just replies “are you Laila?” I loved that.
These characters are really compelling, as well. Severin is deeply ambitious but also concerned for those around him, a combination I really like and think deserves more pagetime in literature. Laila could kick my ass any day and also should do so (I’m available every Thursday afternoon, hit me up). Anxiety legend. Deserves the world. Enrique is a very entertaining character and also a future historian. I loved him. Hypnos is a character I loved seeing grow: he’s a sometimes manipulative but sometimes genuinely loving character, and I’m really excited to see more of him in book two, he’s such a villain-turned-hero trope and I am such a sucker for that trope. Tristan is a gardening nerd and deserves to be protected (but also was the character I found myself the least personally invested in).
Zofia, though, was by far my favorite character in this book. Yes, I’m picking favorites, and yes, she is the best character in this book, do not @ me. Zofia is a magic forger who has autism and thus, her brain works in slightly different ways. She has been kicked out of a school, an event that was almost certainly influenced by antisemitism. She is also not totally on the understanding-that-people-are-flirting-with-her kick. She loves numbers and also people not messing with her area (a mood). I like that she’s written with clear differences in how she interacts with the world, but is never put in situations where she’s villainized for it, or where other characters act as if she’s being manipulative. Her sense of humor is so dry. Did I mention that I’d absolutely die for her.
(Something I kind of love about these characters is that all of them have somewhat dark backstories, but none of them have lost their love and kindness. We’re all just in this world with dark pasts attempting to find tenderness and that is how it is.)
I should also mention that of these main characters:
→One is biracial (Algerian and French). Colonialism is discussed.
→One is Indian and has anxiety.
→One is Jewish and autistic. Bigotry is discussed.
→One is black and biracial and queer. Slavery is discussed. Also, the gender of it all.
→One is both biracial (Filipino and Spanish) and queer.
It was honestly so hilarious seeing a review pretty low down on the page lambasting the fact that these characters are almost all people of color, because forced diversity or something. It’s a novel about colonialism in the 1890s. You realize that’s the point, right?
There are multiple romances-maybe going on in this book and I support them all. One of them is a slow-burn occurring between two characters who may or may not have history, which is a weirdly rare trope considering how instantly compelling it is. The other is… oh god, I guess this is a spoiler but I didn’t specify characters if you want to highlight it — a very subtle love triangle that I’m like 80% sure is going to end in polyamory. (Chaima and I are hardcore rooting for this outcome and that is just how it is.)
I absolutely loved the setting of this. I am not typically a worldbuilding hoe but I am such a fan of fantastical cities with gorgeous exteriors hiding very dark interiors. The intrigue of it all! There’s something Chokshi said in the author’s note that really resonated with me:
➽I couldn’t reconcile the horrors of that era with the glamour of it, which, up until then, was what had stood out in my imagination of the 19th century: courtesans and the Moulin Rouge, glittering parties and champagne… History is a myth shaped by the tongues of conquerors. I wanted to write this trilogy not to instruct or condemn, but to question. […] Question what is gold and what glitters.
This book is truly a love letter to remembering both the good and the bad of your past, and recognizing that even in the midst of beauty and innovation, there is horror and depravity. I’m really interested to see where the politics of colonialism go in the sequels, especially.
The only reason I haven’t been yelling more about this is that I have to say: this wasn’t perfect. My main actual issues with this book come primarily from areas in which I felt editing could have been improved. There’s somewhat of an overuse of ellipses that should have been edited out; for the most part the setting descriptions are incredible but there are like two places where they’re sort of confusing; the running flashbacks to Severin’s parents are just honestly kind of overdramatic and don’t really add that much; the time jumps towards the end feel just a little fast and should’ve been maneuvered into better pacing. But none of these issues ever, on a personal level, took me particularly far out of the story. I am always in critic brain mode, but it didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the story at all.
I also have a question: “Diversity is not a substitute for personality” is certainly a take, but why can’t we just… say we found the characters flat, or not compelling? I personally didn’t find these characters flat, but finding them flat is a perfectly reasonable view; different strokes for different folks, you’re all valid. It’s just… why is it, exactly, that we’ve connected “the characters are diverse” with “the characters have no personality?”
Because personally, the trend I’m seeing is that YA fantasy books have been dealing in flat characters for years (I love young adult literature as a genre but let us be very honest about a good 75% of the dystopian fiction trend), and it is only now that the YA market has like, anyone other than straight white people in it that reviewers are somehow connecting flat characters with diversity.
I don’t know. I just think it’s funny.
Anyway. The point is, I really really loved this book, and I think you will also like it if you enjoy a) heist fantasy with puzzles, b) rooting for an entire cast of characters, c) romances with historyTM and/or fantasy polyamoryM, d) cities with dark underbellies, and e) discussing the historical weight that colonialism has left on us all. I can’t wait for book two.