A Compelling Romance and an Unsatisfying Mystery: A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland

In the sultanate of Araşt, Prince Kadou is overwhelmed by his anxiety. After a miscommunication with his kahya (kind of like a bodyguard/valet), Tadek, ends in several deaths and a whole lot of embarrassment, Kadou is put on a short leash. Holding the end of it is newly promoted kahya and known stick-in-the-mud Evemer Hoşkadem. To put himself back in his sister’s good graces and keep himself away from Siranos, the sulky father of her child, Kadou and Evemer set out to investigate the case of the counterfeit coins. Kadou’s magical ability to “taste” different metals makes him the ideal man for the job. But the closer he gets to uncovering the truth, the harder his enemies hit back. Underneath all the stress and chaos, true love blooms between the two men. Now they just have to survive long enough to do something about it.

Tone and style-wise, Alexandra Rowland’s new novel feels like a cross between The Goblin Emperor and Winter’s Orbit. It has a charming relationship that builds gradually and naturally. In fact, the romance between Prince Kadou and bodyguard Evemer is one of only a few things I genuinely enjoyed. The time we spent with them, watching them learn to understand each other and set aside their first impression judgments, is what kept me going even during the dullest patches.

In the beginning, Kadou thinks Evemer is stiff and uptight while Evemer thinks Kadou is “careless-flighty-negligent.” But as they grow closer Kadou comes to see Evemer as the protective and honorable man he truly is, while Evemer realizes Kadou’s mercurial behavior is largely due to his undiagnosed anxiety disorder. They don’t use that term of course, but it’s obvious that’s what it is. Which leads me to the second thing I loved: the anxiety rep. I also deal with anxiety, and I appreciated the way Rowland walked the reader through an anxiety attack. They don’t wallow in it or smooth off the edges. They show what it’s like both to be in it and to observe it. Kadou calls it his “cowardice” because he thinks he’s weak-willed and overly sensitive. However, Evemer realizes his “spells” have nothing to do with that at all. The prince is highly trained in martial arts and swordplay. He stands up to attackers, killers, and kidnappers with nary a hesitation. There is nothing cowardly about him. Calling it “cowardice” shows how little Kadou thinks of himself due to his anxiety, not his behavior. The slow realization of this on both their parts adds an extra layer of depth to their romance.

As for the rest of the cast, Sultan Zeliha and head guard Eozena are excellent and my only complaint is that they didn’t have enough to do. Except for Melek, who I glomed onto because çe was nonbinary and acespec, the rest of the kahyalar are forgettable. Siranos and his sister Sylvia have paper thin personalities that cannot support the amount of plot they’re expected to carry. Tadek was a character I found pleasant enough in the beginning but by the end I was literally groaning out loud every time he showed back up. He devolves from a believable human to a walking, talking sassy gay best friend stereotype. His character could have easily been cut with no detriment to the plot.

Speaking of the plot, look, this book is 500 pages and it takes nearly 200 of them for the central mystery (and I use that word very loosely) to gain any traction. The action is moderately entertaining, what with the repeated attempted murdering and kidnapping, however, the actual mystery itself is unsatisfying. The villains might as well be walking around with neon signs over their heads saying “Big Bad!”, they’re that easy to spot. When the resolution comes, it’s brushed over in a page and a half so Rowland can get back to Evemer and Kadou being cute together (not that I’m complaining; they are very adorable).

Rowland’s main interest here is not the mystery or even the fantasy but the romance between Evemer and Kadou. That is a story that could have been told just as well in a much shorter book. With as many pages as this has, I expected a rich fantasy world. While there are a lot of details, the worldbuilding overall is lacking. For example, Rowland mentions how the coloring and decoration on a certain storefront sign were dictated by royal decree. Okay! I’m intrigued! Tell me more! But we don’t get more. It’s a surface-level tidbit that is never explained and has nothing to do with anything. The book is full of moments like that. The magic system is just as shallow. I barely understand what the rules are or what people think and feel about magic. Not that the magic makes much of an appearance anyway. There’s little description of the world, the culture, the religion, or the characters (other than the two love interests). The Turkish, Greek/Mediterranean, and French influences are obvious and welcome, but, again, it felt like window dressing instead of worldbuilding. A novel like this should engage all of the reader’s senses. I want to feel like I’m right there with the characters, staring over their shoulders. Fun facts are, well, fun, but they aren’t enough.

Sometimes you pick up a book that you think will hit all your marks but doesn’t. It has everything you love—romance, second world fantasy, queer relationships and friendships, powerful women, fight scenes, fanfic tropes, political conspiracies, good and diverse rep—but the pieces never come together in a way that works for you. I’m sure a lot of people will love A Taste of Gold and Iron, but I did not. Did I hate it? Definitely not. It’s not poorly or offensively written, it just… is. There are moments of brilliance and moments of direness, but overall it’s fine. Some people are going to be obsessed with it and others, like me, will find it difficult to keep their minds from wandering off the page. This is very much one of those “your mileage may vary” novels. Hands down the absolute best thing about it is the stunningly gorgeous cover. I hope Martina Fačková is booked and busy.

A Taste of Gold and Iron is available from Tordotcom Publishing.
Read an excerpt here.

Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).

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