The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi
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 am going to be completely transparent here and way that I absolutely picked this up because it reminded me of Six of Crows (but let’s be honest: every ensemble cast reminds me of Six of Crows now). What I got was a completely different story that was full of history, snark, and an incredibly smart critique of nineteenth-century imperialism.
We have a cast of six diverse main characters, four of whom receive their own POVs and all of whom are, honestly, such fun and vivid characters it’s hard not to fall in love with them. Séverin Montagnet-Alarie, the half-Algerian fallen heir to House Vanth; Laila, an Indian baker and a dancer; Enrique, a half-Filipino, bisexual historian; Zofia, a Polish, Jewish, and autistic scientist; Hypnos, the young head of House Nyx, and Tristan, a botanist.
All of them are great in their own way, but my favourites were Zofia and Hypnos. I always love seeing autistic characters in fantasy, and Zofia was fairly well-written, if a bit stereotypical–I could relate to her a lot, even though I despise math and numbers. Hypnos was hilarious: very over-the-top, yet considerate when he needs to be, craving the centre of attention at all times. Tristan was so soft and lovely — I just want to protect him. Séverin is so driven and ambitious, but he actually has a sense of humour, which is good to see from the leader of a crew, especially after Kaz “The only thing I do for fun is count my money” Brekker. Laila is so cute, and her and Zofia’s friendship was wonderful. And I really loved Enrique as well, who’s pensive but also likes his fun.
The best thing about a cast of characters this big is the relationships between all of them. By that, I don’t mean romantic relationships, though there certainly are a few romantic subplots. All of them work so well together, and can I just say — the banter between them is so good. Even Zofia, who doesn’t understand sarcasm, gets some snarky jabs in as well without realizing it (though as an autistic who loves sarcasm, that may just be me reading into it). All of them are so well-written and fun to read about. I’d say they’re not quite as developed as I would have liked, but it’s difficult to fully develop six whole characters in one book, and we did get a fair chunk of backstory for all six of them. I’m definitely looking forwards to finding out more about them in the next book.
How the characters function inside the setting, however, is probably my favourite part of the book, because not only is it fun letting them loose inside Paris, it also makes you really think. The Gilded Wolves takes place in la Belle Époque, the era of French history in the fin de siécle, roughly the 1800s onwards–specifically, 1889, the year of the Exposition Universelle in Paris and when the Eiffel Tower was built.
Now, I love eighteenth century history, and the Belle Époque gets romanticized a lot in Western literature, from scholarly publications to fiction, as a time of technological innovation, a gilded age. And maybe it was–for white people. For people of colour, there was the N*gro Village at the Exposition Universelle; there was the Scramble for Africa, the British Raj in India, residential “schools” in Canada, the United States, and Australia … I could go on. The point is: for anyone who wasn’t white, the Belle Époque was ugly.
The cast of characters in The Gilded Wolves exemplifies this: all but one are marginalized because of their ethnicity in some way, and their experience colors every part of their life in 1889 Paris. Hypnos, enormously wealthy but dark-skinned, dresses flamboyantly because he already stands out; on the other hand, both Séverin and Enrique, who can pass for white Europeans, instead feel torn from their cultural heritage due to their appearance. Laila is constantly exoticized and her culture and body fetishized for the entertainment of white Europeans. And the antisemitism that Zofia faced in her schools and in her native Poland was what brought her to Séverin’s gang in the first place.
It’s a very conscious narrative choice to move the story away from white Europeans in an era dominated by European exceptionalism and shine the light on people of colour, those whose histories have been marked time and time again by European colonial violence, and this is really what makes The Gilded Wolves shine. Though books like Six of Crows include people of colour, the critique of colonialism and awareness of colonial violence in The Gilded Wolves is an integral part of the narrative, given so much more weight because The Gilded Wolves is a story that takes place in the real world, using real history.
And that history is very well-researched and weaved into the story, from ancient to modern. I did find that a lot of the speech patterns and vocabulary of the characters felt a bit more modern than I’d have liked to see from historical fiction, but this is obviously a hefty book to research and write, containing tidbits of history from all four corners of the Earth across all eras, in addition to religious texts and mythology. It takes work to integrate all of the history into a book set in nineteenth century Paris so seamlessly, and Chokshi did it so well. (And included criticisms that yes, Europe and its museums stole so. damn. many of their artifacts, just look at the British museum, half that building is stolen.) It was so, so excellent.
If you like Six of Crows, The Gilded Wolves is a must-read if you’re feeling that withdrawal for an excellent cast of characters, snark, and illegal activities. The secret societies, history, and deft criticism of neo-imperialism is just a huge bonus on top of that.
content warnings | period-typical racism, abuse mentions
representation | people of colour (filipino, indian, algerian), autistic jewish girl, gay & bi people of color
have you read the gilded wolves?? what are your favourite books with ~secret societies~??