A review by Nalini Haynes
Prince Kadou is terrified. All the time. But especially right now. His sister, Zeliha the Sultan (NOT Sultana!) has just given birth to her first child. The princess’s body-father doesn’t have claim to the child but Zeliha likes her lover so she may bestow that privilege upon him. Meanwhile, the body-father seems determined to discredit or even injure Kadou. And someone is counterfeiting coin. Kadou has a magic ability: by touch he can sense metal content, hence the title A Taste of Gold and Iron.
Although loyal to his sister and terrified of inheriting the throne, Kadou falls under suspicion. And the body-father is abusive, violent to the point of bruising him and possibly making an attempt on Kadou’s life.
While Kadou investigates the counterfeiting ring he fends off a former lover who is one of his Kahya, an elite guardsman who is also a prestigious official-in-training.
And then there’s the new guard, a man who developed a crush on Kadou before he became one of the royals’ personal guard. Now, after the deaths of two such guards, this new guard despises Kadou. He thinks.
A Taste of Gold and Iron is billed as a fantasy story set within the Ottoman Empire. There are hints of this empire and culture within the story, but marketing has done a disservice to this novel and the author. Although Rowland has drawn on Middle Eastern influences and history, her fantastical setting – a palace raised above a city on a magically-created plateau – is far from appropriated. The pitch for this novel and the references to clothing, the title of Sultan and so forth, hint at an Ottoman (but NOT an Islamic!) Empire but there is nowhere near the depth of research as in, for example, Aileen Crawley’s The Bride of Suleiman, which evokes the architecture, customs, harem culture and more.
A Taste of Gold and Iron is more of a nod to the culture alongside a magical focus and a whole new world constructed by the author. I admit to some degree of disappointment because I feel that appropriating part of a culture imposes an obligation to research more and present a more realistic version. But, in contrast, I love that the Sultan is a woman, she is SULTAN and NOT Sultana, and she has lovers. And does not marry for risk of sharing or losing her sole claim on her child heir. The culture as a whole is accepting of gender diversity and fluidity with varied pronouns. So I adore Rowland’s subversion of the culture too.
Rowland’s book does not in any way encroach upon the Muslim faith. Her characters have a pantheon of gods seated in various shrines. She respectfully veered away from any possible misinterpretation of an existing faith.
Backstory is a shaky backdrop
What I really struggled with is the story behind Zeliha’s rise to the throne. It seemed too scrappy, disjointed and unrealistic. Apparently Kadou’s and Zeliha’s parents died in a boating accident when Kahou was 10. It’s unclear if one of them was Sultan. Also there’s no mention of who reigned prior to Zeliha. Then, two years ago Zeliha ascended to the throne – and that ascension was not caused by the death of their grandparents who, in this novel, are still alive and kicking. This perplexed me. I felt more structure, more backstory was necessary even if Rowland didn’t spoon-feed us the whole shebang. It’s the iceberg principle again: where a story should show only 10% of research and world-building, but the whole 100% is essential. To be honest, I felt like A Taste of Gold and Iron was kinda missing the damned iceberg.
Kadou is gay. For sure. I don’t think he’s at all attracted to girls. Others in this novel are on a shifting spectrum: they’re bi, they’re asexual, they’re whatever and called by various pronouns.
Rowland knocked it OUT OF THE PARK with the pronouns. Cishet people appeared to have their appropriate pronouns.
(Can we just have gender-neutral pronouns that apply to EVERYONE and be done with it? PLEASE?)
BUT other people – asexual, bisexual, I-have-zero-clue-why people had OTHER pronouns. I think it was a set of gender-neutral pronouns. And they are PRETTY.
These pronouns use the c with the accent as in garçon.
Having studied high school French and having forgotten most of it, I still remember the sweet “s” sound of garçon, it’s almost like a c and an s sound rolled together. So it’s çe (kind of like “see” but sweeter) and çem and çir. Quite poetic. And NO ONE had any issues with it. NO ONE blinked at its use or those to whom the pronouns were applied.
The problem with Kadou’s sex life is NOT that he is gay, it is that, as a prince, there is a power imbalance in relationships. Like a professor screwing a student. Kudos.
I enjoy a well-written romance regardless of the “plumbing” of the people involved. Apart from my concerns regarding research and appropriation, A Taste of Gold and Iron is an EXCELLENT romance. Nuance, character backstory, intrigue… this novel has it all. I think I’ve said enough already that to say any more would be to divulge spoilers.
Tor’s UK website advertises a hardcover version. I’m all for hardcovers, they’re PRETTY. But the UK and US covers feature actual faces, which limit imagination. And, if the book is made for screen, those faces will cause conflict within the fan community.
I much prefer the Australian cover, pictured below. Its gold embossing, the simple faceless line drawings of a guard and prince, and the elaborate patterns surrounding each side of the cover hint at the setting. The background of the front cover also has very subtle almost tone-on-tone embossing with the embossed image – stylized leaves and flowers I think – is metallic. Very pretty. The only way to improve this would be to make this cover the dust jacket for the hardcover version.
I thoroughly enjoyed A Taste of Gold and Iron although I couldn’t help but compare it to Aileen Crawley’s trilogy (I’m pretty sure I have the right author and books). Her historical fiction version of one of history’s greatest romances set a very high standard. Rowland built a magical world with diverse nations and a unique religion, created a diverse and accepting (not merely tolerant) society, then set a detective adventure and a romance therein. Kudos. Highly recommend.
If you enjoy A Taste of Gold and Iron, you’ll probably have the good taste to also love Her Majesty’s Royal Coven.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
US version: ISBN 9781250800381
UK version: ISBN: 9781250800381, ISBN10: 1250800382
Australian version: ISBN 9781529099669
Imprint: Tor (Pan Macmillan)
Format: paperback, 480 in Australia, 512 pages elsewhere (also hardcover and audiobook)
Category: fantasy, romance, Queer, social issues, detective