A Critique of ‘In a Garden Burning Gold’ by Rory Power

Goodreads

I got this book for free early for the purpose of review.

This is my first Rory Power novel. I’ll start this off by saying that this is a good book; the prose is good, the characters are well motivated, and the plot has a nice crunch to it. I found this to be an overall very satisfying read.

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing and editing skills.

Here’s a link to a 6min youtube vid review I made for this book. My apologies, but it’s a bit loud.


WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?

  • Political Fantasy
  • Family Emotional Abuse, but not Grimdark
  • Adult, but I think anyone 15+ can read it.
  • Women, but as a man I enjoyed it too.
  • Greek myth vibes
  • Minor, but important, romance
  • Minimal violence, no combat

BIASES STATED

To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.

I am a fan of High Fantasy with lots of magic and Political Fantasy. This is a dyed in the wool Political Fantasy- I enjoyed that aspect of it a good deal. However this didn’t have enough ‘fantastic’ about it for my taste. More on this to come. Overall, I am decently in the target audience for this novel. As a result, I enjoyed it a good deal.


READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR

I enjoyed this. However I didn’t love it. As I said above, I like my Fantasy books to be very fantastic. When I read this book’s description- a story promising powerful and mysterious demigods, with a vast swath of strange powers- I was immediately intrigued. However, the author’s writing style didn’t focus on the fantastic aspect. The magic/fantasy of this story was strangely understated, for such a unique and promising concept.

I enjoyed the author’s prose. It was quite lovely, felt very smooth to read, and at times was quite beautiful.

Here’s the thing: I enjoyed the second half a good deal more than the first half. I’d give the first half 3/5 stars. I’d give the second half 4/5 stars.

Net total, I enjoyed this book an above average amount.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (3.5/5 Stars)

(I default to giving good books 3 stars. What’s the point of having a 5 star grading system, if you don’t regularly give out 1, 2, 3, and 4 stars?)


SIMILAR BOOKS


CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

This book’s concept is about a semi-immortal, demigod family which rules a kingdom in the midst of a brewing civil war. The immortals must use their long life and magical power to hold onto political power. The cost of losing that power is grave: if they are killed, they’ll be replaced. One of the protagonists is loyal to her family- but as she grows closer to the enemy she begins to have second thoughts about the ethics of her family’s oppressive rule. And the other protagonist stays true to his family and doubles down on the oppression.

I thought this concept was well executed upon, barring one or two things I’ll talk about later. I especially enjoyed the author’s prose, and the Greek Orthodox-ish setting.


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

Many of the characters in this book are nigh-Immortal. The twin protagonists are both supposedly in their eighties, however they look to be in their twenties. This isn’t a problem; having young looking immortals is a trope in the genre.

What I didn’t like about this is the fact that they behaved like 20 year olds. In particular, the protagonist Rhea was inordinately trusting of her enemies for someone supposedly in her eighties, and fell head-over-heels in love for apparently the first time in her entire life.

This is the part of the story which felt most YA- the characters felt like young adults even though by all rights they weren’t. The characters felt emotionally stunted in a way which just felt weird, given how old they’re supposed to be. As one author critiquing another, I think this could have been easily solved just by changing it so they really were 20 year olds.


PACING AND STRUCTURE

This book felt slowly paced in the first act, and fast paced in the second act. Simply put, I personally think this book needed some faster pacing in the first half of this book to put some pep in it’s step. Nothing really interesting happened until the maternal reveal in the church.

I think this book used the 4 act format. This is a breakdown of Rhea’s plot arc.

  • Act 1:
    • Rhea and her family are introduced, as is her powers.
    • We learn about the stories stakes, and then the main plot begins with a marriage party.
    • Rhea, loyal to her father for her entire life, CHOOSES to disobey her father and marry a rebel instead of her father’s handpicked husband. She intends to kill the rebel when the time is right.
  • Act 2:
    • Rhea travels to her rebel husband’s homelands
    • Rhea discovers a church of a faith outlawed by her god-king father. Inside she discovers that her mother is actually the immortal saint of that faith.
    • Rhea learns her rebel husband is a secret worshipper of the outlawed faith. They fall in love(?) over their new connection.
    • Rhea CHOOSES to take her mother’s place, and revive the outlawed religion.
  • Act 3:
    • Rhea schemes with her new husband to overthrow her family, and in the process save her family’s lives.
    • On the eve of her plans to overthrow her family going off… her twin brother assassinates her husband.
    • The act ends with Rhea CHOOSING to betray her family.
  • Act 4
    • She returns home and opens the tidal ways, letting an enemy army come overthrow her family, despite losing the motivation of ‘love’ behind it. She’s now a true believer in the cause of the rebellion.

I emphasized the word ‘choosing’ because an easy way to tell when story act breaks occur is when the protagonist makes a choice which cannot be taken back. Rhea’s repeated choices to betray her father and be loyal to her mother determine act breaks.


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

This is an example of Political Fantasy- a subgenre which involves intrigue, backstabbing and manipulation. Court Politics is a forte of the genre. This is exactly where this story excelled. There were twists and turns, some of which I was able to anticipate, while others caught me by surprise. I really liked this aspect. One thing I thought the narrative did very well was have the two twin sibling protagonists being set on opposite sides of the brewing civil war. I think I’ll read book 2 because this aspect of the plot was very well done.

I had trouble with the stakes. I’ll get more into this later, but this book had a ‘show, don’t tell’ problem. The narrative said again and again that a civil war was coming and the god-king family (whom the protagonists are a part of) were going to be assassinated. I never felt that this threat was legitimate. The assassination plot was never unearthed, the civil war partisans never had their army revealed. The motivation for the plot felt underrealized.

This story had very good tension. The narrative mechanism of having a ‘loyal brother’ versus ‘betrayer sister’ worked very well for increasing tension. You like both because both have good intensions, so the fact that the two are at odds makes the story’s tension feel taught. And when that tension finally *snapped* at the climax, it felt very earned and satisfying.


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

The prose is quite lovely, at moments. While I can’t say this is as gorgeous as some of the top tier Fantasy prose, like Guy Gavriel Kay or Patricia McKillip, it is nonetheless very good. I can see this author becoming an author to watch in the years to come if she continues to improve. The author’s prose is pretty in such a way as to add a semi-mystical feel to this story. That, on it’s own, does a lot to add a ‘fantastic’ tone to the story.

This book had themes of emotional, and to a lesser extent physical, familial abuse. I felt it was well executed upon, integrated into every aspect of the story.

This book is also light on violence and and (I think, if my memory serves) completely absent in combat. I enjoyed the fact that this was so combat and violence lite. I liked this stylistic choice. Even though it lacked combat, it was still a very serious novel, and at moments quite grim. What violence it did have, was made all the more impactful for it’s rarity.


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

There is a general rule in storytelling that you should ‘show, don’t tell’ your plotpoints. This means that instead of using the narrative voice to flat out ‘say’ a plotpoint, an author writes out an example of it happening. ‘Showing’ is better than ‘telling’ because ‘showing’ is more emotionally evocative.

When I read this book’s description, I was entranced. This is a book where demigods are able to control the seasons, tides and stars- further, these demigods used their powers to control and oppress the people of a nation. One of the demigods even had the power of death itself. I’ve read a lot of books where the ‘fantasy magic’ defaults to throwing fireballs and magic missiles- that’s gotten boring to me. This story’s more ‘arcane’ type of magic sounded very interesting.

This is where I was let down. I wanted to see how the magical oppression happened- I wanted to see the seasons being used to cause famines in a rebellious province, or the tides being used to punish rebellious fishermen.

That didn’t really happen. Instead, the author ‘told, not shown’ what happened.

  • We were told that a character had the ability to control the seasons through ritual murder, and that this was vital to running the country’s economy. We were not shown the changing of the seasons, and the effect they had on agriculture.
  • We were told that a character had the ability to say a prayer and thereby kill someone; we were not shown the dead bodies. This one in particular became a problem.
    • First the author established that this magical ability cannot be used to commit murder.
    • Then at the end of the book, a character attempted to use this magic for murder.
    • When the magic failed to commit murder, the narrative seemed to expect us to be surprised that it failed to commit murder… so I had no idea what I should be expecting. This plotpoint felt like it needed a continuity editor’s TLC.

On a similar note, the book never fully explained why the story was happening. The father character nicknamed ‘Baba’ is the god-king of a country. His political power is fading and he’s losing control of his nation. Why is his political power fading? Did the industrial revolution begin, making kings less important? Did I miss something when I read the book? ‘Show don’t tell,’ ‘show don’t tell.’

The rebel antagonists were not sufficiently built up as threats. We were only ‘told’ they were threats; we were never shown their armies or weapons. We were not shown how the rebels were dangerous to the Baba and his children. Perhaps the narrative could show that these rebels have successfully overthrown other god-kings before, and we go see the fallen kingdoms of those other god-kings.

I wanted to be ‘shown’ the demigods using their magic to oppress the people. I wanted to be ‘shown’ why Baba is weak all of the sudden. I wanted to be ‘shown’ the rebels successfully turning their ire on other god-kings before so I knew they were a real threat to Rhea’s family. That’s what I wanted to really get invested.

All those negatives said, I did enjoy the Grecian vibes this story had. It did improve my feel of the story.


LESSONS LEARNED

As an author, I like to learn lessons from the books I read. Here’s what I learned from this.

  • Show your magic. Show your plot. Show the stakes. Show the tension. Don’t just tell it.
  • Use pretty prose to add a mystical edge to your magic system.
  • This book was combat and violence light. This lack of violence served it well; when the book finally did get violent, it hit all the harder due to how rare it is.
  • Siblings on opposite sides of a conflict works very well for stakes.

SUMMARY

This is a good book, and at moments great book. I enjoyed virtually every moment reading it. It had a few flaws, but they are easy to overlook. My complements to the author for a book well-written.


Goodreads


Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

The Rest of My In Depth Reviews

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