Low Fantasy, High Yearning: Alexandra Rowland – A Taste of Gold and Iron (#WyrdAndWonder Review)

Recommendations are a difficult thing to trust because each of us readers finds different things interesting and while “slow burn romance” is generally understood to be a straightforward trope, there’s slow burn and there’s slow burn. I am a fan of the true slow burn, where characters not only wait until they kiss or get physical but fall in insta-love (or insta-lust), but actually get to know and like and love each other slowly. Alexandra Rowland has delivered exactly my kind of slow burn M/M romance with this book. It wasn’t the first of theirs I bought, but it is the first I finally read, and now I can’t wait to check out their back titles.

by Alexandra Rowland

Published: Tordotcom, 2022
Hardback: 512 pages
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: Halfway through his twenty-fifth year, and to his acute relief, Prince Kadou became an uncle.

The Goblin Emperor meets “Magnificent Century” in Alexandra Rowland’s A Taste of Gold and Iron, where a queer central romance unfolds in a fantasy world reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire.

Kadou, the shy prince of Arasht, finds himself at odds with one of the most powerful ambassadors at court—the body-father of the queen’s new child—in an altercation which results in his humiliation.

To prove his loyalty to the queen, his sister, Kadou takes responsibility for the investigation of a break-in at one of their guilds, with the help of his newly appointed bodyguard, the coldly handsome Evemer, who seems to tolerate him at best. In Arasht, where princes can touch-taste precious metals with their fingers and myth runs side by side with history, counterfeiting is heresy, and the conspiracy they discover could cripple the kingdom’s financial standing and bring about its ruin.

Prince Kadou is a shy, worried young man who couldn’t be happier that his place in line to the throne has gone down since the birth of his niece, Eyne. Not only doesn’t he want the responsibility of his princedom, but he most certainly doesn’t want the responsibility of becoming sultan one day. No, no, let his sister Zeliha have that dubious pleasure any day. Kadou has enough on his hands as is, what with a break-in at the shipbuilder’s guild that needs to be investigated, and his relationship to one of his kalyahar. And his niece’s body-father and current lover of his sister, Siranos, isn’t too fond of Kadou either…

Alexandra Rowland has created a very interesting world with just a hint of magic but a lot of intriguing social structures. If you’re looking for an intricate magic system, this is not the right book for you. Some people have the ability to sense the purity of metals, a skill that is mostly used to verify if coins are actually gold or mixed with other, lesser metals. And there are rare people with the ability to tell if someone is lying – highly useful, if you can find one of these satyota.

The book begins somewhat clumsily with a first chapter that feels much too filled with information to grasp it all, but Rowland finds their pace quickly and proceeds beautifully from there. The setup in chapter one does all the heavy lifting you need to understand the characters’ motivations better and leaves us all the more time to get to know them and watch them grow into themselves.
First and foremost, we meet Kadou, this prince who’d really much rather be just a regular guy. He weighs every decision heavily, constantly questions himself, worries that he is nothing but a burden on everyone else, and generally doesn’t enjoy being prince. Meet his newest kahya (close bodyguards/servants) Evemer, star pupil, just promoted into the core-guard of the palace. It is an honor to serve the prince, yet Evemer is not too pleased because it is just that prince who is responsible for the deaths of two kahyalar, and as far as Evemer has heard, it’s because the prince is careless and flighty. Their relationship does not start on the best of terms, to say the least, but this being a fantasy romance, we all know things are bound to change.

What follows may not be everyone’s cup of tea, depending on how you like your pacing. This isn’t just a slow burn romance, but it’s nto a book that is overly filled with action in general. I enjoyed every single chapter – the POV alternates between Kadou and Evemer – and simply discovering who these characters were and how this world worked. I have to say I didn’t expect to fall so hard for some side characters, but they really grow on you. Be it Zeliha, sultan and sister and lover, demonstrating strength and wisdom at every turn, yet remaining utterly human at the same time; or the commander of the kahyalar, Eozena, who is like a mother figure to Kadou and Zeliha, but at the same time serves them. And of course Tadek, Kadou’s former lover and core-guard, now demoted due to the happenings of that first chapter. I thought I had all of them figured out from the start, but each of them offers surprises along the way and shows more personality than expected.

The romance evolves beautifully and believably. It’s one thing to find someone attractive, and Evemer’s initial dislike for the prince keeps him even from admitting how gorgeous he finds him for a while. But it’s another to appreciate someone for who they are. Their relationship builds steadily, with each little adventure they survive together, some social situations that make clearer why they are the way they are, with shared moments and secrets – first they become friends, then they can’t deny that there’s more to it than that. So yes, it was the perfect slow burn romance for me and I could have watched these two dance around each other for another 100 pages, easily.

What makes this book special is that Rowland adresses something very real and important – the power dynamics between royalty and their servant! Kadou being incredibly aware of (and uncomfortable with) his power knows that the men and women sworn to him may feel obliged to do certain things to please him, against their own wishes. So starting a relationship with a subordinate will never feel real to him, because as much as they may tell him it’s their own will, he’ll never be certain. Rowland manages to deal with that problem beautifully.
Kadou also suffers from severe anxiety and panic attacks and I found the representation very well done, although that is of course something everyone will have to judge for themselves. I am no stranger to anxiety and the kind of intrusive thoughts Kadou has to deal with, and I loved how he changes and grows over the course of the novel, but his anxiety doesn’t vanish simply because it would have made for a neat ending. Well done, Alexandra Rowland!

See, when a book has great characters and a well-done romance, there is no need for a lot of plot. I had so much fun reading this (the dialogue is also excellent, by the way) and wouldn’t mind a companion novel set in this world. Until the gods or Alexandra Rowland hear my wishes, I will just pick up their debut, A Conspiracy of Truths.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

ETA: Edited to reflect the author’s chosen pronouns.

Magic portal artwork by Tithi Luadthong

4 thoughts on “Low Fantasy, High Yearning: Alexandra Rowland – A Taste of Gold and Iron (#WyrdAndWonder Review)

  1. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    I also had a good time with this book, and it’s the best of Rowland’s books so far (in my opinion), though I admit that I am particularly fond of slow-burn romances. I’m interested to see what they do next (Rowland uses they/them pronouns jfyi, not she/her).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Celeste | A Literary Escape says:

    Having just left you a comment about THE ATLAS SIX, I had to wander over here to see what you had to say about this book. Haha we’re complete opposites. This was a highly anticipated read of mine and I felt so let down by it. I think this was because the synopsis made it sound like it’d be a book with a well-developed magic system as well as more defined political intrigue…but that’s not what it is at all. I honestly felt like nothing was happening and I was bored to tears, but I pushed through it lol. BUT I’m glad you enjoyed it! And I’m fully aware I’m in the minority opinion here.

    Liked by 1 person

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