One of the first things that struck me about Gilded, besides its ridiculously cool cover designed by Katrina Damkoehler with Cliff Nielsen doing the artwork, was how fresh the story seemed. If you examine any individual element, it’s been done before: protagonist girl with abilities of which she is unaware and a willingness to go where angels dare not tread, the cool and slightly shy boyfriend who is the object of the gorgeous girl’s desire, the over-worked and slightly overbearing widowed father who hides his true care and concern under a gruff exterior and the insanely powerful, other-worldly bad guy. Then again, I and the best chefs in Paris can use the same ingredients to prepare a meal but you’ll want to eat the end result of their cooking over mine. While there is nothing really new under the sun, Christina Farley melds the characters, worlds, writing style and narrative elements to make something fresh and new. The writing is clear, the dialog crisp and the storyline twisty enough to be fun and keep you guessing while not so winding that you can’t remember your way.
Ms. Farley spent 8 years teaching at an international school in Seoul, Korea. She brings that experience to present to us two wonderful characters in the story: modern-day Korea and its mythic counter-part in the Spirit World. I loved these settings; obviously others have used Seoul as their story setting but this was new for me and done in such a way that it wasn’t just a backdrop. Another aspect I love about Gilded is the sense of community and family it presents. While we have a kick-butt girl, she is not a fearless lone ranger. Jae Hwa Lee feels fear and danger, but feels the stronger call of preserving family doing battle with Haemosu, a demi-god and she does not do so alone. While she recently relocated from L.A. to Seoul, she has family and has generated friendships in Seoul. So while the world is new to her, she has some background and more than a little help. As the spirit world breaks through her already stressed-out, competitive world with all the challenges of being a teen, she is definitely feeling her way through all that’s coming at her fast and furiously. There are mythic creatures, morphing creatures, an epic bow for her archery skills and a brilliant love interest with a plot that keeps you guessing. What’s not to love? This is a fun book to read for teens and adults. The pace is quick, but not over-whelming and isn’t a detriment to full-bodied characters and a well-described world. This is well-written, smart YA literature, which is another way of saying it well-written, smart literature, full stop. I also seriously love that Ms. Farley knows how to end a book, especially a book that’s part of a series. Alas, that’s all too rare these days.
As I often do, I went between the Kindle and Audible versions (using Whispersync for Voice to keep a smooth transition). Greta Jung did a beautiful job narrating, fully allowing you to immerse in Jae’s world. Her pacing was spot on; I particularly liked her smooth-talking Haemosu.
I rarely do this in a review, but I saw a few reviews on Amazon I wanted to address. We all differ in tastes, but I was surprised to see some fairly virulent negative reviews. As I dug into them, they basically came down to suggesting that Jae Haw was an idiot because she wouldn’t do what others, especially adults, told her to do. She would also knowingly go into situations without having everything in control and well thought out plan. I know, right? A teenager that doesn’t always obey her parents or exercise good judgment. Shocking. Now I’m all for teens obeying their parents (I have four teens) and those in authority over them, however, disobedience and sneaking out are not particularly shocking things for a teen to do, Moreover, if her character did not take risks, we would not have a hero. It’s easy to sit back in our chairs reading and think, “No Jae Haw, that’s really a bad guy.” It’s a little easier to spot them when you’re not in the midst of the action. Also, what safe and good choices does she have? All of the good ones seem fraught with risk. Normally when I see those superior-minded reviews that the protagonist (and, hence, the author) doesn’t have a clue, I usually just ignore them and think, get a life. There just seemed enough of them that I thought it worth addressing. As Ben Okri put it: “Where there is perfection [in a character], there is no story to tell.” Jae Hwa is not perfect, but dumb? Not so much.
So, if you like fun action in an exotic setting whilst learning a bit about another culture, this is the book for you. It’s an absolutely fun read. I’ve already pre-ordered Silvern which is out September 23rd. Woohoo! One benefit of starting a series a bit late into the game is less wait time for the next entry.