It’s 1889, La Belle Époque: The Beautiful Era, in Paris, France.
What if you had the power to create? To manipulate, alter, design, and potentially remake the structures that is our physical world. Some may call this power magic, or conjuring, or alchemy, but in Roshani Chokshi’s Gilded Wolves, it is a sanctified affinity called Forging.
“To Forge is not only to enhance a creation, but to reshape it.” (Chokshi, 6) Forging is a gift. A power, if kept unchecked, could lead to devastations and atrocities that could destroy the world.
Welcome to the Gilded Wolves
Where once there were four Houses of France within the Order of Babel reign. These Houses, living in opulence and prestige, ruled together over France, keeping the affinities of Forging in check, while protecting the Order of Babel and the Babel Fragments, “the source of all Forging Power.” (Chokshi)
But like all Houses, they are susceptible to the elements.
One House had fallen.
And another died with no living heir.
With only two Houses standing, all that’s left between the Order of Babel’s secrets is a treasure hunter and his team of specialists: an engineer, a historian, a dancer, and a brother in all but blood.
Along with the ruling Houses, a symbol of wealth and power, Chokshi skillfully illustrates a vivid and vibrant Paris in the 19th century. The Belle Époque is a place in time that depicts a city that never sleeps where the champagne flows like the river Seine and the glamour and sparkle of a city that is the epicenter of high fashion, art, and literature shines like gold.
Coupled with it being a monumental time in history, where Paris would host the Exposition Universelle, a world fair that took place in France’s capital commemorating the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, and unveil one of France’s most famous monuments, the Eifel tower. All eyes were on Paris and its many attractions, exhibitions, and inventions.
Though we may visually think of Paris during the 19th century as Baz Luhrmann’s film, Moulin Rouge, depicting Paris as an uninterrupted glittery party, courtesans dressed to entice and delight, dripping with decadence and endless champagne, there is a darker undertone that could easily be overlooked.
Notably in Chokshi’s Author’s Note, she writes that one of the featured exhibits in the Exposition Universelle was La Village Négre, at the time called Negro Village or the “human zoo.” It was one of the largest exhibits at the fair, where it included over four hundred indigenous peoples (actual real life people) of various French colonies on display. “I wanted to understand how an era called La Belle Époque, literally The Beautiful Era, could possess that name with that stain. I wanted to explore beauty and horror through the eyes of the people on the sidelines.” (386)
Although Chokshi does not specifically use La Village Négre, one of France’s darker moments in its history, she indirectly includes colonization and its horrifying effects on an indigenous people through dehumanization and culturalization of how two of the main characters are raised. Séverin Montagnet-Alarie, heir to the House Vanth and Hypnos, heir to the House Nyx. Both Séverin and Hypnos were illegitimate children by mothers who had darker skin and were slaves to the Patriarchs of Vanth and Nyx.
To emphasize the exploration of the beauty and horrors through the eyes of the people on the sidelines, Chokshi subtly infuses the dark with the seven fathers who help raise the main character, Séverin Montagnet-Alarie. As the heir to one of the houses, he had seven fathers. “An assembly line of foster fathers and guardians, all of whom had made Séverin who he was, for better or worse.” (Chokshi, 57) Each father was named after the vices taught in Christianity, the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, and Sloth. For every father taught a lesson in the vice for which he was named. And some of those lessons could be as brutal and never-ending as the excruciating heat of the desert or the depthless thirst of days with nothing more than a prayer and a skiff in the middle of the ocean.
What is most interesting about these fathers, besides the names Séverin so cleverly gave them, is the lasting impression they had on the orphaned children they raised. When Séverin finally receives his inheritance he uses it to build himself into legend, by creating a façade that embodies the very elements of the city his hotel rests upon: gold, glitter and excess. It is almost as if he was rebuilding the House that was taken from him and by creating L’Eden, Eden, or Paradise, he was building a beautiful middle-finger to the rest of the Houses, the Seven Fathers, and quite possibly the world.
But even though the hotelier derives his roots, his upbringing from the seven vices, in building L’Eden he constructs a haven rather than a hell from which he was raised. L’Eden’s gardens on the other hand, were fashioned as a reminder of the vices of men. The Seven Deadly sins are aesthetically used in the garden setting, creating a stunning yet unsettling labyrinth in comparison to the seven men responsible for who Séverin and Tristan became.
Although Paris sparkles, even in the pre-morning hours, as though the night’s revelries left a trail of gold dust as a reminder of the splendor of the city that never sleeps, it is not the only beauty our eyes devour, we also feast our eyes on the characters Chokshi depicts who are as lovely and dark as the landscape, the city they encompass.
Meet the collection of characters from L’Eden:
Séverin – The Hotelier, Majnun, Madman, Emperor, Heir to the House Vanth.
Laila – The Dancer, Magical, The Performer, Motherly, The Mystery, L’Éngime.
Zofia – The Engineer, Genius, Phoenix, Socially Inept, OCD, Forger.
Tristan – The Horticulturist, Fragile, the Artist, Arachnid and Insect Enthusiast, Childish, Forger.
Enrique – The Historian, Handsome, Witty, Dashing, Ostentatious.
Chokshi fashions each character with a unique voice and past that is mapped out over the course of the novel, pin-pointing their vulnerabilities, their desires, and how they wish to change their world for the better. One paragraph in particular that stands out and encompasses both the female character and her surroundings so vividly:
“When she stepped into the kitchen, she felt like a deity surveying the slivers of a universe not yet made. She breathed easier in the kitchen. Sugar and flour and salt had no memory. Here, her touch was just that. A touch. A distance closed, an action brought to an end. ” (Chokshi, 19)
In just a few perfect sentences Chokshi hones into her character with an artisan’s skill. In this moment we understand her wants, her desire to be in a place that has no other expectation, no pressures, no demons of rejection, somewhere that is safe and wholly hers. Chokshi does this with all her characters throughout the novel and it makes this story even more rewarding.
The Gilded Wolves is an edge of your seat, nail biting, and breathtaking adventure where we traverse across the treasure map that is this novel, finding the stakes are stacked higher and higher with every turn of the page. But as we run at a neck-breaking pace from one puzzle piece to the next, we find ourselves drawn to the friendships created between each character. How they complement each other, even with their differences, weaknesses and shortcomings. They all band together and begin to carve a place for themselves in a city that would rather erase them from memory. The dialogue is witty and clever, where the characters have a natural dynamic that is in pace with the storytelling. And as we draw to the end it’s not quite clear if anyone is going to make it out alive.
In short, Gilded Wolves is like Stephen Spielberg’s Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. Chokshi blends the wild adventure, evolving romance, treasure hunting, and truth seeking with the collection of characters who are not only experts in their individual craft, but are ruthless, and have a no-nonsense attitude in obtaining what they want at any cost. The novel is full of beauty that floods your senses with dazzling landscape, delicious food that has your belly speaking and your mouth watering, and by the end of the novel you are only craving for more.
Happy Reading ̴ Cece
RATING: – Satisfyingly Inked
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication Date: May, 2019
Audience: Young Adult; ages 12-18
Jacket Photo-Illustration: James Iacobelli
Jacket Design: Kerri Resnick
Learn more about the The Village Négre at the following website:
The First of its Kind: A Cultural History of the Village Nègre
Written by Lauren Cross, Lauren Seitz, and Shannon Walter, Ball State University