Maya C. James Reviews The Merciless Ones by Namina Forna

The Merciless Ones, Namina Forna (Delacorte 978-1-9848-4872-7, 464pp, $17.99, hc) May 2022.

Former outcasts turned warriors and liberators, Deka and her friends are back on the battlefield in The Merciless Ones, sequel to The Gilded Ones (reviewed here May 2021), this time to free the rest of the goddesses and women in Otera. As the Nuru, or only full-blooded daughter of the goddesses, Deka is the strongest of her friends and has been chosen by the Mothers to lead her bloodsisters and male-equivalent jatu into battle. More confident and fully realized after events in The Gilded Ones, Deka leads her army against a kingdom that ruthlessly slays anyone sympathetic to her cause.

With the formerly ruined temple of the Gilded Ones as their home base, the girls venture out on missions while the Mothers gather their strength. But even with her growing powers and the support of the Mothers behind her, Deka has a new com­plication: deathshrieks (violent creatures who are actually alaki-turned monster) that she can’t speak with, and a symbol on the armor of her enemies that repels her powers. Not only that, but a false god named Idugu is gaining power across Otera, threatening her mission to free the kingdom.

The Merciless Ones picks up half a year after Deka and her friends freed the Mothers from their prisons. While Deka knows that she can be whoever she wants to be, the scars of her battles stay with her – she’s still fearful of making the wrong decisions, especially when leading her friends and army behind enemy lines. This leads to terse moments where it seems that one mis­take may uproot all that she and her bloodsisters have fought for. Her unresolved trauma follows her, too, which leads to some touching scenes between her romantic interest, Keita, and her friend Britta in particular. The support of her friends is something that Forna delicately crafts in moments of calm between bloody battles, and is where the characters shine. These moments of reflection are where the readers see that the girls, particularly Deka, Belcalis, and Britta, have been forced to grow up quickly, and are now coming to terms with the fact that the older women and mentors in their lives have not. There is one particular scene between Deka and a seemingly minor character from the last book that spoke clearly to these themes: Deka learns the hard lesson that not all women want liberation, and are happy to be tools of empire to secure their safety. Some of them are more aware of this dynamic than others. Forna does an excellent job showing how an oppressive system maintains itself, even if some of the villains are cardboard-esque. Their dialogue still serves to explore Deka’s learned values and offer a strong feminist approach to subjects of liberation and freedom to readers.

The cast is comprised primarily of the first novel’s characters, including mentors from the first book joining them in battle and handling other conflicts across the kingdom. The jatu, including Keita and the rest of the boys from the previous novel, are now wanted by the Oteran Empire for helping the gilded ones escape. There is some individual char­acter development throughout the novel, but, with the exception of Deka, this is so fleeting it becomes difficult to grasp how these traumatic experiences have impacted them.

With the exception of the main villains we encoun­ter later in the book, most of the enemies in the book are also underdeveloped on an individual level. The evil priests and false gods remain at the periphery of the novel until they are needed for fight scenes. Even when the primary antagonists gain increasingly complex roles, the henchmen are never fully realized in a way that makes them satisfying opponents. For how often they appear, we never learn how boys are initiated into the priesthood, or if any of them attempt to leave. Some additional development earlier on in the book may have mustered a bit more curiosity from me about their fates, or how the battles would pan out.

While the initial villains of the novel are not fully developed, the book’s themes are quite mature despite its young adult rating. Forna discusses abil­ity, chosen family, sexuality, gendered violence, and other themes in a manner that is appropriately nuanced for the audience. In one scene, the issue of wearing a mask, or where women cover part of their faces to show purity, blurred the line between the protagonist’s voice and Forna’s voice. Similar to the mask discussion, there were other moments of exposition that interrupted the flow of the book, but these were far and few between. Most of the time, Forna’s voice is balanced nicely with Deka’s, and shone most clearly when the actions of the characters were allowed to speak for themselves.

Forna’s imaginative settings are surreal as well – gorgeous descriptions of abandoned ruins and red cobblestones were both atmospheric and immersive. Melanis, one of the goddesses Deka frees early in the book, is another complex character described in evocative detail, down to her complex emotions and bitter dialogue following years of torture. I enjoyed her interactions with Deka the most, as they tackled the themes of the book in a clever and natural way.

The Merciless Ones is fast paced, and I found myself looking forward to Deka’s conversations more than any fight scenes. Those still held peril, did have the same intensity that her dialogues with her enemies did.

The ending of The Merciless Ones is where Forna’s keen ability to write action scenes and character is most evident: it was a complete shock to me, and threaded in so deftly throughout the book that it seemed as if it should have been obvious. The Merciless Ones plays to all of Forna’s strengths from The Gilded Ones: precise, clean prose, an immersive world, realistic dialogue, and formidable girls ready to take on the empire and gods that nearly destroyed them.

Maya C. James is a graduate of the Lannan Fellows Program at Georgetown University, and full-time student at Harvard Divinity School. Her work has appeared in Star*Line, Strange Horizons, FIYAH, Soar: For Harriet, and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center Blog, among others. She was recently long listed for the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize (2019), and featured on a feminist speculative poetry panel at the 2019 CD Wright Women Writer’s Conference. Her work focuses primarily on Afrofuturism, and imagining sustainable futures for at-risk communities. You can find more of her work here, and follow her on Twitter: @mayawritesgood.

This review and more like it in the July 2022 issue of Locus.

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