REVIEW: The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi
Dear Ms. Chokshi,
A YA fantasy about a heist set in Belle Epoque Paris sounded like exactly my cup of tea, so I happily requested an ARC of The Gilded Wolves after hearing about it.
The novel, set in an alternate universe in 1889, begins with a theft.
In this world, some people have a magical power called Forging, which allows them to invest objects with new technological innovations. The ability to Forge is dependent upon proximity to Babel fragments, one of which is hidden in each of the most advanced parts of the world. The location of the Babel fragments is known only to the leaders of the Houses, powerful families that are part of the organization known as the Order of Babel.
In France, there were once four such Houses, but one House fell and another was said to have died out without heirs. The latter is a lie, as an heir does exist—Severin, the hero of our story, is the heir to House Vanth. Heirs are distinguished by their House’s ring of Babel, which either recognizes them or scars them when first put on their finger. House Vanth’s ring of Babel did not recognize Severin, but he believes the test was rigged.
The Gilded Wolves begins when the matriarch of House Kore (one of the two people who administered, and probably muddied, the test to Severin when he was a child) survives an attack but loses her ring of Babel in the process.
There is then a time gash and we are introduced to Severin and his friend Enrique, who sneak into an auction and steal a valuable artifact that was just purchased by Hypnos, the young patriarch of House Nyx.
Severin, the leader of a team of burglars, is also the owner of a hotel called L’Eden. Besides Enrique, a scholar of history, there are three others on Severin’s team—Zofia, a Forger with an affinity for chemistry, especially anything flammable, Tristan, a Forger with an affinity for botany, and Laila, a baker who doubles as a cabaret dancer, has a strange power and carries a terrible secret.
Each member of Severin’s team has reasons to hope that the stolen artifact will lead them to something big. Enrique is in search of access and information which he can parlay into acceptance by his activist countrymen, Zofia needs money to free her sister Hela from the role of governess, Tristan has been loyal to Severin since childhood and wants Severin to be happy, Laila is in search of a book on which her life depends, and Severin wants to be restored to what he sees as his rightful place.
The object stolen from the auction is a compass which contains clues. When decoded, these reveal to the group that the West’s Babel Fragment can be located by using a Forged Horus Eye from Egypt. Most such Horus Eyes have been destroyed, though. Just as the group members are wondering if they have the courage to attempt to steal one of the few remaining carefully-guarded Horus Eyes and then a Babel Fragment, Severin is contacted by Hypnos, the rightful owner of the compass.
Upon the realization that Hypnos is aware that he is the thief of the compass, Severin visits the heir to House Nyx with Enrique by his side. There is history between Hypnos and Severin—as children, they played together—and Severin has a strong suspicion that it was Hypnos’s father who set up Severin to be disinherited, in order to protect Hypnos’s legacy. Like Severin, Hypnos is dark-skinned (half-black whereas Severin is half-Algerian), and it was felt by some that two such boys could not both be allowed to become House patriarchs.
But Hypnos acknowledges that when he and Severin meet again, and does not immediately turn Severin and his crew over to the authorities for the theft. Instead, he offers Severin a chance at freedom, and not only that, the restoration of Severin’s House, if he and his team steal a Horus Eye on Hypnos’s behalf.
Severin is sworn to protect his team members, and they to protect him. The threat to them forces Severin to swear an oath to Hypnos, guaranteeing the Horus Eye theft in exchange for the team’s freedom. But the heist is sure to be a difficult one—and to pull it off, each member of the group will be put at risk, including Laila, the woman Severin once spent a night with and is still attracted to, no matter how much he tries to ignore it.
The Gilded Wolves is a book with a lot of potential, most of which isn’t fulfilled. There were some things I liked, such as the diverse backgrounds of the characters (Severin is half-Algerian, Enrique half-Filipino and half-Spanish, Laila Indian, Zofia Jewish, Hypnos half-black and likely bisexual), the imaginative universe (the Forged objects are interesting), the occasional vivid imagery and the concept of the heist.
But the things I liked end there, and my interest in the book dissipated quickly. I ended up putting it down close to the halfway point, at p. 140 (of 304 pages). Here are the reasons why:
There is a lot of telling and little showing; for example, Severin is a successful hotelier, but there are few indications as to what accounts for his success at running the hotel, and we never see him doing his job. Similarly, and since I recently finished Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, this really stood out to me, Zofia’s Judaism is not shown; she neither practices her faith nor rebels against it. If she had not been said to be Jewish, I would hardly know that she was.
This is true of the other characters too. They are conceptually interesting and have potential, but other than Laila, they feel underdeveloped. Their emotions don’t really come through; while they are frequently in peril, feelings like dread and desperation aren’t, for the most part, in their makeup, so the emotional stakes of the story feel low.
As a group, there is little sense of what glue holds them together, other than their individual motives. There is neither much cohesiveness and camaraderie between them, nor any conflicts to threaten their friendships, so just as the stakes for them individually feel low, so do the stakes for the group as a whole. And just as we don’t experience their fears in any depth, neither are we shown (rather than told) emotions like loyalty and courage on each other’s behalf.
In short, the internal emotional landscapes are missing with all the characters—they are all thoughts but few emotions.
This extends to the potential romantic relationships, too, and foremost among these is the Severin / Laila pairing. We are told (though not shown) that Severin and Laila once spent a night together but agreed to disregard it. But the reasons for this decision are not articulated well, and given that the attraction persists, their separation feels contrived.
There are other contrivances in the storyline as well, chief of which is Severin’s tendency toward self-defeating behaviors. Since Severin is the book’s central character, his tendency to ignore common sense or keep things to himself that his friends need to know quickly becomes annoying.
Laila is the book’s single engaging character because she is competent, clever, caring, and has an interesting backstory. But I would much rather read an entire book about her than have her share the pages with five other underdeveloped characters.
The fin de siècle setting was a big part of what drew me to the book, but there, too, I was disappointed. Other than the use of carriages and a few mentions of the new Eiffel Tower and the Exposition Universelle, there are almost no markers of the timeframe.
Then there is the prose. One of the things the book does well is set a mood, but the writing alternates between serviceable passages and overwrought sentences. Here’s are a few examples of the latter:
The Palais’s stone façade was Forged with an illusion of dusk-touched clouds, purple-bellied and dream-swollen as they skimmed across balconies.
Champagne chandeliers ghosted over the crowd, glittering like constellations crushed underfoot by feverish dancers.
She knew all the carefully cobbled pieces of him. He was deception steeped in elegance, from his sharp smile to his unsettling eyes. Severin’s eyes were the precise color of sleep—sable velvet with a violet sheen, promising either nightmare or dream.
The reference to the color of sleep threw me in the above passage, as did this description: “He could smell it. The mineral tang of snow.” Snow is not, as far as I know, a mineral, nor have I ever noticed a smell to it.
One woman’s chocolate is another’s poison, so I don’t doubt there are readers who will view some of these quotes as lyrical. But to me, they read as distracting, confusing, and in some cases, cluttered with an excess of imagery.
For all of the above reasons, I found it difficult to keep going, but given the popularity of the author’s previous novels, I encourage readers to check the book out and decide what they think for themselves.