Roshani Chokshi is a beloved author and I have always felt bad for not being able to get through three of her previous books. It was especially sad because all of them were based on Indian mythology, but her very lyrical purple prose was very hard for me to understand. After The Gilded Wolves was announced, it remained on my radar only because of its comparisons to SoC and the heist element and I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to read it. But we chose it as our Stars and Sorcery Book Club February BOTM and I’m so happy that this book was much easier to read.
The setting is Paris 1889, on the verge of the opening of Exposition Universelle and I think the author did a good job of bringing the city to life. We experience it in all its sparkly glory, the excitement about the World’s Fair, the exotic cabarets, the glittering parties and beautiful clothes etc. But underneath it all is the ugly truth – the effects of colonialism, racism and anti-Semitism; one of whose horrifying manifestation was the “Negro village” at the fair (which was apparently visited by 28 million people). When the author’s note says “History is a myth shaped by the tongues of conquerors”, I realized how evident it is in the history books we read and how the reality is so different when we read it from the perspective of a marginalized (in this case colonized) person. I liked that the author was able to show us all sides of Paris at the time and not just the glossy version. To this historical world, she adds the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, the Order of Babel which controls the tower fragments and a lot of the power in the world behind the scenes, and the magical ability of Forging. Even though I didn’t completely understand the magic system or it’s rules and limitations, the objects that the characters forged were quite fascinating to read about. I hope it’ll be explained much more in the upcoming books.
I really appreciated that the author decided to let go of some of her metaphorical writing style, otherwise I would have never finished this book. The descriptions of the city, the forged objects, the clothes and the amazing gardens are lush and beautiful. The pacing is a little uneven at times and mostly slow, but I wasn’t bored at all and finished it in just two sittings. While the planning for the heist can be slow and sometimes not explained properly, the heist scenes itself were very action packed and suspenseful and I really enjoyed them. The author also used a lot of Egyptian mythology, various historical puzzles, some mathematical hurdles to overcome and I really commend her ability to integrate all of them seamlessly into the story. I also liked that the author only hinted at possible romances in this one and I’m looking forward to how they will develop in the next book.
There are a lot of themes that are explored in this book which show the importance of highlighting marginalized voices when stories are told. We see that while colonizers revel in their might by putting on display all the wealth, artifacts and people they have stolen from far away lands, the affected people are traumatized by their profound loss of history and culture for generations to come. Their cultures become exotic objects, used for entertainment, without any context of their historical significance. We also get a lot of commentary about the issues that biracial characters face – on one hand, not being accepted in one community because of being white passing and hence losing out on a significant part of their heritage; on the other hand, having to play into the stereotypes of their heritage, so that they can be visible and invisible at the same time among the elite. While the author also discusses sexism and anti-Semitism, I felt very affected by the colonialism discourse and I’m very grateful to the author for showing us the uglier side of history.
The characters are obviously what drew me to this story, and I’m so sad because I felt quite underwhelmed by them. Severin is the French-Algerian aristocrat who badly wants his birthright restored and all his planning is with that goal in mind. He is the defacto leader of the group, smart and cunning and slightly selfish, and while I understood his motives and appreciated him for giving work/home to the other members of the gang, I never felt his connection with most of them. Tristan is the one he is most protective of and I felt that I never got to know him better. Tristan loves his plants and his tarantula Goliath, is very skilled at Forging and seems like a soft hearted boy, but I never got a sense of what he wanted.
Leila is an Indian immigrant and I could relate to her the most for obvious reasons. Her backstory is very painful but she is extremely strong and skilled and knows exactly what she wants. Even though she hates her talent which has such spiritual meaning to her being used as entertainment, she is ready to use all her capabilities to achieve her goals and protect her friends. She is also the defacto mother of the group, always making sure everyone is fed and holding them all together even when circumstances are dire. Zofia is the most adorable character and I loved reading her POV. She is a Jewish girl from Poland and has to face the worst form of antisemitism. However, she is a Forging genius who finds comfort in her lab and in numbers but feels very vulnerable in social situations. I can’t wait to see where the author takes her story next.
Enrique is a Spanish-Filipino historian and another favorite of mine. I have a soft spot for history nerds in general and his fascination with history and languages and puzzles really impressed me. He also wants to do a lot for his country which has been oppressed by the Spaniards but finds it difficult to be a part of the community and contribute because of his white passing looks. I really felt his pain and despair and his will to still find a way to help despite the obstacles. On the other hand, Hypnos is a black french aristocrat who is a loner and just wants to a part of this friend group. To move in the aristocratic circles seamlessly, he also has to behave unconcerned about his Haitian slave heritage and that really pains him. Both Enrique and Hypnos are bi/pan but while Enrique comes across as hesitant about expressing his desires, Hypnos is much more flamboyant and I loved their hilarious conversations and developing dynamic.
To wrap it up, I have to say that if you want to enjoy this book, please go into it with an open mind and leave your love/bias for Six of Crows out of the picture. This book is really impressive in terms of its themes and representation and it will definitely affect any reader. I just couldn’t totally connect with the characters, which meant that the revelations at the end didn’t feel very effective. But I’m also excited to read the next book, which it looks like will take place in Russia. Give this book a chance and I promise, you will find something in it that will totally wow you and leave you with a lot to ponder.