Title: The Gilded Wolves (2019)
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Read: 19th – 23rd January 2019
Genre: fantasy; young-adult; historical fiction;
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“It’s 1889. The city is on the cusp of industry and power, and the Exposition Universelle has breathed new life into the streets and dredged up ancient secrets. Here, no one keeps tabs on dark truths better than treasure-hunter and wealthy hotelier Séverin Montagnet-Alarie. When the elite, ever-powerful Order of Babel coerces him to help them on a mission, Séverin is offered a treasure that he never imagined: his true inheritance. To hunt down the ancient artifact the Order seeks, Séverin calls upon a band of unlikely experts: An engineer with a debt to pay. A historian banished from his home. A dancer with a sinister past. And a brother in arms if not blood. Together, they will join Séverin as he explores the dark, glittering heart of Paris. What they find might change the course of history–but only if they can stay alive.” (Synopsis from publisher)
The Gilded Wolves was a book that had (somehow) slipped past my radar until, a week or so before its release, I saw Booktubers whose opinion and taste I trust suddenly repping this book in a big way. All it took was one glance at the synopsis and I was hooked: a gang of found family hunting down treasure in a decadent 19th century Paris? Where do I sign up for that? Roshani Chokshi’s book ended up surprising me, in the best kind of way, as it dealt with so much more than the luxurious side of France: it dealt with a shady underbelly hidden within the orders and houses that rule the elite society of the world Chokshi weaves.
“Nothing but a symbol? People die for symbols. People have hope because of symbols. They’re not just lines. They’re histories, cultures, traditions, given shape.“
I’ll admit, this book is a little confusing in its setup and I did find myself stopping in confusion at quite a few points of this novel. That could say something about me or my concentration level, or it could suggest approaching this novel knowing that you may very well be confused for the first third or so. The pacing can sometimes feel a little off, and some of the exposition errs on the side of info-dump but, in the end, I decided to let it go and trust that, in Chokshi’s hands, it would all come out in the wash. I was right to trust her as it did end up being so, even if initially I had found it hard to wrap my head around the various different Houses of France which form part of the secretive organisation the Order of Babel, a group whose job it is to protect Forged artefacts and treasures whilst protecting the location of the Babel Fragments which hold the key to Forging affinities (the magic system in this book). I think I could still do with a few re-reads to make sure I ended up understanding all the pieces as the author intended, but I’d be glad to do that!
“When you are who they expect you to be, they never look too closely.
If you’re furious, let it be fuel.”
However, most of all the novel feels sumptuous, especially in the scenes which take place in L’Eden, the luxury hotel that Severin owns and in which the characters meet. It has all the luxury of Belle Époque Paris but, with the smatterings of everything to do with the Order, the darker and dangerous side of Paris is constantly lurking in even the brightly-lit ballrooms and gardens of such establishments. The (sometimes petty) social and political dramas are never far away and this is contrasted with the very real (and very high stakes) surrounding Severin’s penchant for the “acquisition” (read: theft) of Order artefacts which leads to the gang becoming embroiled in what turns out to be a treasure hunt, full of riddles and ciphers, for a particularly elusive artefact.
“Her mother’s voice rang in her ears: ‘Don’t capture their hearts. Steal their imagination. It’s far more useful.’ “
The characters are a delight and I think I ended up liking all of them, which is a testament to how well Chokshi is able to craft their backstories and personalities so that they were all distinct and complex entities. I don’t think, even in the beginning when getting to know them, that any of them merged into one; from the outset each one was unique. Some people say they found the characters too derivative, or archetypes of well-worn characters, but I’d defy anyone to try to write a gang heist story that doesn’t necessarily have the expected roles of leader, engineer, fence etc. We have Severin, successful hotelier and organiser of “acquisitions” (but also the rightful but disinherited head of a powerful House), to Tristan, his brother in arms (if not blood), an artisan of sorts with a Forging affinity to manipulate plant matter and create stunning gardens – and owner of a beloved pet tarantula. We have Enrique, clever historian struggling to find his place as a mixed race individual, trapped between two different cultures and not accepted to either fully, to Laila, an Indian baker who leads a double life as L’Engime, the glamorous courtesan always embroiled in a spat or lover’s tiff but who also has a secret Forging affinity to touch objects and “see” their memories. We have Zofia, a Jewish Polish girl who is an autistic scientist/engineer, creator of the more “explosive” things needed to help pull off the gang’s heists, to Hypnos, patriarch of House Nyx and a character I didn’t even realise would become part of Severin’s gang until I’d already fell in love with his black, queer, outrageously charming self. Suffice it to say also that the diversity in the novel is fantastically done.
” ‘What would friendship entail?’
‘Well, on Wednesdays, we sacrifice a cat to Satan.’ “
In fact, what pleasantly surprised me most about this otherwise extremely serviceable historical fantasy novel was how unflinchingly it dealt with very real topics of the time period whose ill-effects still play a part in today’s society, specifically the legacy of European imperialism, colonialism, and cultural appropriation. The diversity apparent in Severin’s gang makes for some brutal and honest truths about the way that Europe has treated other nations and the overwhelming sense of righteousness and privilege with which the Order of Babel treats the acquiring of artefacts from places such as Egypt and India. I didn’t expect that level of commentary to be so well crafted and woven into the novel’s characters to successfully underpin such a fun (but heartbreaking) YA fantasy treasure hunt set in glittering Paris, but the story is all the more enriched for the presence of this darker reality. I cannot wait to see where else Roshani Chokshi takes the solid foundation she’s build up in this first novel.
“Wolves were everywhere. In politics, on thrones, in beds. They cut their teeth on history and grew fat on war.”