by Roshani Chokshi
Series: The Gilded Wolves #1
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication Date: January 15, 2019
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
No one believes in them. But soon no one will forget them.
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.
I’m pretty much ride or die for found families, so it’s no surprise that I’m a fan of the recent crop of young adult heist books. This book is reminiscent of Six of Crows, in that it’s a young adult fantasy heist story, but there’s a lot more going on below the surface. It’s a story about revenge and perseverance, about colonialism and colorism, about being biracial and never quite fitting in.
Denied his birthright as the heir of House Vanth, Séverin has assembled both a fortune as the owner of the glamorous L’Eden hotel and a crew of hotshots for his “acquisitions” – all in service of getting revenge and his rightful place in the Order of Babel. Then a House Patriarch – and childhood friend – approaches him with a deal he can’t refuse: if he retrieves an item for him, he’ll make sure his house is resurrected. But the mission is more dangerous than Séverin and his team thought and they’re soon grappling with forces beyond their imagining. Will Séverin be forced to sacrifice more than he’d thought in order to reclaim his house?
The magic system is fascinating and unique. Fragments of the biblical tower of Babel are buried around the world, and they allow people gifted with special powers, called Forgers, to imbue objects with magic. The Order of Babel, represented by Houses in each country, is charged with protecting the secret locations of those pieces. While there were originally four houses in France, only two remain.
“When you are who they expect you to be, they never look too closely. If you’re furious, let it be fuel,” Séverin said, looking each of them in the eye. “Just don’t forget that enough power and influence makes anyone impossible to look away from. And then they can’t help but see you.”
Séverin, the leader of our cast of characters, is the heir to one of the defunct houses, and his main goal in life is reviving his house and getting revenge on those who cast him out. The son of a French man and an Algerian woman, he’s also committed to protecting his crew, especially Tristan, a Forger with a talent for gardening and giant spiders, his brother in all but blood. Laila, a Hindu Indian, has her own reasons for being in Paris, but for the moment they align with Séverin’s. The crew is rounded out by Enrique, a Spanish-Filipino historian, and Zofia, a neurodivergent Polish Jewish mathmatician. As with any group, each character connects with the others in different ways. Laila is the group mom, the caretaker who makes sure each one gets what they need, even if it’s just a specially baked cookie. I especially loved the bickering between Zofia, who struggles to understand jokes and conversations in general, and Enrique, who is basically snark personified. There’s a few romantic entanglements, the most noticeable the being the attraction between Séverin and Laila. They’ve got history together, and both are desperately trying to ignore the red hot chemistry between them, leading to a lot of delicious angst.
“Do I look like a wolf to you, Laila?”
“That depends on the lighting.”
Séverin’s crew is a very diverse group of characters, and that’s also reflected in the mythology that’s explored in the book. It’s a very nerdy heist as solving the various puzzles requires a knowledge of mathematics and history. While the main Tower of Babel story is biblical, there’s a mix of Christian, Jewish Kabbalah, Chinese I Ching, and Hindu mythology as well. From my perspective as a white woman, I felt like each was handled respectfully. I had some minor quibbles with Zofia’s portrayal, as at times I think it leaned too heavily on “othering” her for her neurodiversity, but that’s also outside my wheelhouse.
Set in an alternate history La Belle Époque Paris, much of the setting is done in broad swathes, but combined with the costuming it works well. One of the things the book doesn’t shy away on is the history of colonialism in this period. Laila’s in Paris hunting down a relic that was looted from India by one of the French houses, and it’s made clear that the power and prestige of each House comes from the amount and quality of Forged items they’ve “liberated” from their various colonies. Most of the characters don’t meet the standard definition of “French” of the time, either through religion, skin color, or homeland, and how they fit in – or don’t – is a reoccurring theme throughout the book.
Overall, while I thought the book’s pacing dragged at times, I thought it was a great start to a new series, and I’d give it 3.5 stars, rounded up.