Sunday, September 25, 2022

REVIEW: A Taste of Gold and Iron (book) by Alexandra Rowland

A Taste of Gold and Iron is essentially a m/m fantasy romance, although the marketing probably made it look more like fantasy with romantic aspects. I bought my copy brand new.

This review includes slight spoilers.


This takes place in the Ottoman Empire-inspired fantasy country of Araşt. It's a matriarchal society ruled by the House Mahisti. The current sultan is Zeliha, Kadou's sister, who has just had a baby, a little girl named Eyne. Kadou loves his sister and niece deeply. He's also reassured that their existence means it's slightly less likely that he might ever have to take the throne himself. Kadou is prone to anxiety and panic attacks (concepts that don't exist in this world, so he views it all as "cowardice"), and the thing that terrifies him the most is the degree to which other people's lives depend upon his behavior. He knows that would only grow worse if he gained more power.

Unfortunately, Siranos, Eyne's body-father, can't comprehend someone in Kadou's position having so little ambition, so he's constantly suspicious that Kadou might try to overthrow Zeliha. Luckily, Zeliha knows her brother well and brushes off Siranos' concerns. However, things go very badly during a hunt and a couple of Kadou's kahyalar (basically bodyguards, but potentially with more political power?) end up dead or injured. Kadou blames himself - his anxiety about Siranos put them on edge, and as a result they misread the situation and treated Siranos as an enemy when they should not have. 

Zeliha spares the life of Tadek, Kadou's favorite kahyalar and occasional lover, but demotes him. She also temporarily bans Kadou from court, telling him to look into incidents involving counterfeit money in order to occupy his time and eventually give her an excuse to publicly forgive him. She also assigns him a new bodyguard, Evemer, who seems to dislike Kadou on sight.

I pre-ordered this the instant I heard about it, because of a comparison to Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor. I became a bit concerned when I kept seeing initial reviews from people who'd been as excited about the book as I was but were then disappointed when they read it. However, I decided it'd maybe be fine as long as I approached it from more of a Winter's Orbit perspective - more emphasis on the m/m bodyguard romance, lower expectations for the fantasy politics. Basically, I figured I just needed to view it as a fantasy romance rather than a fantasy with romantic aspects.

That worked reasonably well for a while, although the story still felt like it took longer than it should, even though I was settled in and prepared for a very slow-burn romance. Evemer's initial dislike of Kadou was rooted more in disappointment than anything - without realizing it, he'd put Kadou on a pedestal after a brief encounter some time prior, and the Kadou he was assigned to wasn't the glittering prince he'd expected. Kadou, meanwhile, was in something of an anxiety crisis and compensating for it by drinking a lot and otherwise self-sabotaging himself, which didn't exactly help with Evemer's perception of him.

As the story progressed, the author leaned more heavily on the romance aspects. There was a tender hair-washing scene (which could have been timed better, considering how much of the court's loyalty was in doubt at that time), and Kadou had to pretend he and Evermer were lovers making out in a dark corner in order to throw off some enemies. Evermer had lots of moments when he couldn't help but notice how beautiful Kadou was, a feeling that his other duties allowed him to occasionally wallow in, since he and Tadek frequently got to choose Kadou's clothing and dress him.

Speaking of Tadek, my decision to approach this book as a fantasy romance meant that his presence threw me a bit. Kadou and Tadek were lovers at the start of the book and had sex once, near the start of Evemer's assignment to Kadou. I wasn't sure how the author was planning to handle him, and I'm still not sure how I feel about how things turned out. Tadek basically had to force a "look, I went into this expecting it to be temporary and based primarily on sex, but I still need communication on where we stand" conversation. Kadou's anxiety didn't inherently make him a coward, but he did have a tendency to avoid doing hard things, like actually talking to his lover/employee/dependent about shifts in their relationship. 

So no, this didn't turn out to be a stealth poly romance. Once Kadou and Evemer started falling for each other, their focus stayed on each other (even if it took Kadou ages to finally talk to Tadek about any of it). The author leaned hard on the "fealty/loyalty is hot" aspect of Kadou and Evemer's relationship to the point where the story occasionally contradicted itself. For example, in one scene, Evemer proved his loyalty to Kadou and House Mahisti by agreeing to cut his own arm off just because Kadou asked it of him (Kadou stopped him before he went through with it, though). Later on, however, the author went to great pains to try to reassure readers and Kadou that Evemer really could say "no" to Kadou anytime he wanted, and that anything he agreed to do was something he genuinely wanted to do. While I agree that this reassurance was necessary considering the power imbalance in Kadou and Evemer's relationship, the "proof of loyalty" scene made it pretty much impossible to establish Evemer as someone with healthy boundaries where Kadou was concerned.

While I do think that approaching this more as a fantasy romance rather than a fantasy with romantic aspects is overall the best way to go about it, it did leave me very annoyed with the ending, which set up the framework for a romance HEA but stopped before showing readers how any of it worked out. As far as I know, this book is supposed to be a standalone, but its ending would only work (barely) with a "to be continued."

I suppose I should write something about the fantasy politics aspect before wrapping this up. Counterfeit currency is nearly unthinkable in Araşt, primarily because the country has lots of people (such as Kadou) who can "taste" the purity of metals via touch, and so counterfeiting would never get very far. It's also one of the country's strengths - since other countries don't have people who can "taste" a metal's purity, Araşt is the only country guaranteed to have trustworthy currency. Or something like that (why don't other countries hire touch-tasters from Araşt to regularly test their currency? No idea).

Anyway, against all odds, someone is producing counterfeit currency in Araşt. Kadou and Evemer eventually figure out who, and the only reason they weren't discovered earlier was because they somehow got lots of highly placed people in Araşt to help them. I would have thought all of this (undermining the currency, putting the loyalty of what should have been the most trustworthy people in the country in doubt) would have taken up a good deal more of the ending, but it faded out pretty quickly once the villains were identified beyond a shadow of anyone's ability to doubt.

I wish this had been written more firmly as a fantasy romance (follow through with that ending!) and tightened up a lot. It didn't need to be 500 pages.

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