I got this book for free from Netgalley for the purpose of giving an honest review.
If I were to judge this book in a vacuum, it is very well written, and potentially the best book I’ve read this year. But I cannot view this book in a vacuum, because we all carry biases into everything we read. As I examine this book, try to understand that this review is coming from a place of constructive critique.
I feel a bit bad for my negative review, so I’m inserting a link here to a positive review so you can get a well-rounded opinion on this book.
A word of caution: While I do read and review a lot of books, I rarely review romance stories and never review m/m romances. This is my first m/m romance. I am unfamiliar with genre expectations for this subgenre, so my critique will doubtless be misinformed and ignorant. I’ll do my best, and critique in good faith.
Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned.
WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE? WHAT GENRES? WHAT MAJOR TROPES?
- Gay male romance
- Light mystery story
- Light politics story
- Minimal magic system
- Ottoman Turkish setting
IF YOU ARE IN THE TARGET AUDIENCE, OR THE GENRES/TROPES SOUND INTERESTING TO YOU, SHOULD YOU READ THIS?
MY EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/FUN FACTOR
I honestly have difficulty with reviews like this one. I, as a reader, am simply not this book’s target audience. This book is well written prose style-wise, with an innovative character who is dealing with crippling generalized anxiety. I liked these aspects of this book.
It contains a m/m romance which romance readers will probably like reading. However, I am not the sort of person who reads romance books.
Further, the setting. I know a fair deal about the Ottoman Empire. One of the main reasons I picked this book up was because of the setting. Unfortunately, I personally found that setting underutilized. Someone who is not as familiar with that setting as I am will probably have a better time.
As a result of my pre-existing biases, I didn’t love this book.
If you like m/m romances, you’ll probably like this. If you’re like me and don’t like romances, it will be okay to skip this one. If I’m being objective and ignore the fact that I don’t like romances, this is an average/above average book.
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
This book’s concept is: “A gay prince with a generalized anxiety disorder is under suspicion of trying to undermine the rule of his sister, the sultan. To reassure her of his loyalty, he volunteers to use his metal magic to sleuth out the villains behind a counterfeiting crisis. Helping him is his stoic bodyguard. Gay tension ensues.”
For execution, you need to go in with proper expectations.
- If you want to read a book about a counterfeiting crisis, this isn’t really that.
- If you want to read about two gay dudes smoldering at one another for 500 pages, you will not be disappointed.
The book’s heart is the relationship between the two leads, while everything else (the monetary crisis, the sultan’s suspicion), is built to support the relationship. On a page-by-page level, this book was a pleasant reading experience. I can remember no single storybeat which I felt was poorly handled. This book was an overall pleasant experience. I don’t like it when I take a step back and look at it from the big picture.
CHARACTERS, CHARACTERIZATION AND DIALOG
Here’s the good and the bad.
The good is Kadou. He had the interesting trait of possessing some form of generalized anxiety disorder. I’ve never read a book starring someone with this trait; it was a great read. I liked how Kadou shut down after moments of crisis. It was unique for the genre, and I like reading distinct characters.
Now for some stuff I didn’t like as much.
Kadou’s anxiety disorder had a Hurt/Comfort vibe to it at times (at least in my opinion). There is nothing innately problematic about using this trope. Indeed, as a functional tool for a writer, I’ve seen it used elsewhere to great effect. However, I don’t like this trope on general principle. I find that it can be emotionally manipulative. Personal preference doesn’t mean you have to agree with me.
I wanted more from Kadou and Evemer. What are their hobbies? Where are their home towns? What are their favorite foods? What were they doing before the events of the story? What are their allergies? I wanted to know more details than we got. I wanted a more complete picture of them.
I felt Evemer in particular was a smidge 2D. Evemer was a bit of a stoic blank slate, being the strong supporting character to the soft and sweet Kadou. Kadou was better in this regard, having both moments of badassery conflicted against moments of helplessness. Evemer needed a bit more emotional range.
Finally, I feel this book relied too heavily on the romantic fretting trope. The two protagonists would get close together, their relationship would develop in a tender direction, then there’d be a misunderstanding between the two of them, culminating in the two of them falling apart again. Like the Hurt/Comfort thing, using this trope only once is fine; using it multiple times felt frustrating.
PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION
Like I said above, this book isn’t about the plot. It’s all about the relationship.
When the characters would go off on a storybeat to investigate some evidence in the mystery story, inevitably the story beat would resolve in furthering the relationship. As an example, early on when the characters were waylaid by brigands while searching for a battering ram. They fought the brigands off, resulting in an emotional crisis by the lead characters, causing them to become closer together emotionally.
This sort of thing is really good storytelling. A good author builds a relationship slowly over the course of the plot, braiding together the non-romance storyline in with the romance storyline in a holistic sort of way, strengthening both in the process. My complements to the author for successfully using this interlinking story structure. A lot of authors neglect this sort of thing, so I appreciate it when I see it. I think this might be the strongest aspect of the book’s storytelling.
Stakes and tension wise, I feel like the story was a bit of a tease. The narrative kept the ‘will they/won’t they’ vibe going on for too long. After a certain point I was going “FFS, just bang already, this is getting trite. Get back to the counterfeiting plot.” I wound up skimming towards the middle when I got frustrated. On the bright side, the end was a lot faster paced and I enjoyed reading it.
I was personally more interested in the counterfeiting story than the romance story. But, again, I don’t read romance, so it’s no wonder I wasn’t really a fan of this.
AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)
I found this book’s prose style to be more embellished than your average adventure fantasy/high fantasy/grimdark fantasy. I think this is a good thing; I like reading pretty words. At least once or twice a chapter, I was left taken aback with beautiful wordpictures the author created. Again, my complements to the author.
This book was Romantic in tone, focusing on the beauty of different features of the world… usually the people, but also the environment. The two protagonists were so obviously in love from the start, they were practically tripping over one another, and you could tell that was the case just based off the adjectives they gave one another.
SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY
Let’s take a moment to talk about this book’s subgenre.
In the case of the m/m romance subgenre, there comes a bit of baggage along with it. Now, again, I don’t know jack squat about the romance genre or the gay genre, so I’m not an authority on explaining it to you. Instead, here’s a link to another reddit thread where it’s explained. I suggest you read it; the thread covers everything from fanfiction to Japanese yaoi culture to queer identity and a lot more. The comments are a truly fascinating read. I’m using that thread’s information in the next paragraph
‘A Taste of Gold and Iron’ is a m/m romance. I personally feel that this book doesn’t punch down at the queer community. That’s great! Based on the heteronormative relationship between the two protagonists (effeminate Kadou coupled with masculine Evemer), I think this book was written primarily for the straight female audience. Nonetheless, I think a queer audience would enjoy it as well. But I might be wrong, as stated I’m ignorant. I’m willing to give this book the benefit of the doubt on this one, it seemed fine.
This setting was based off of an Ottoman Turkish setting, and I love reading alternate history style fantasy stories based upon history. I got hyped for this setting because I’m a nerd who reads history books about Ottoman history. That’s why I picked this up. Now having read the book, I feel that the setting was underutilized.
Now, credit where it’s due, the story did have some Ottoman-ish details. Here are the ones I noticed:
- The clothing
- praying stances
- a sultanate
- a not-super-deep take on the Janissary system
- And, of course, the Turkish names and words
Using these tropes is a valid way to portray a setting. After reading this I was left wanting more, because I personally thought these tropes were very surface-level. Thinking of Ottoman fantasy, I have expectations of what hallmark tropes will be used. They are:
- Sufi mystics.
- The twilight of Rome’s glory.
- High-seas piracy a la the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies.
- Harem politics between warring factions of concubines struggling to put their son on the Khalif’s throne and to kill their rival concubines’ sons before they become Khalif.
- Proto-firearms and proto-cannons, of the original Gunpowder Empires.
- The Janissary system being an institutionalized slaving system.
- A highly religiously diverse yet tolerant empire compared to others at the time. (The Spanish Inquisition was contemporaneous, as an example.)
This book felt like it had a surface level Turkish setting, as opposed to getting down into the ugly but beautiful details of what that civilization was actually like. I will admit my hallmark tropes listed above are obscure details to a Western audience, however what’s the point of writing a historically based novel if you’re not going to dip into the obscura?
As an author, I want to improve my own writing/editing skills. To that end, I like to learn lessons from every story I read. Here’s what I learned from this story:
- This book was marketed as being an Ottoman fantasy, but it lacks pretty much all the hallmark tropes I’d expect for an Ottoman fantasy story. If you write a story in an unusual setting, be sure to make use of the setting.
- When you’re writing a book about queer characters, don’t punch down. Success! This book did a very good job of telling an emotionally honest story about two gay dudes, without using negative stereotypes or tropes.
Not all books are for all people. I didn’t like this, but I’m not this book’s target. If you are a fan of the m/m romance subgenre, chances are you’ll like this.
If I’m being purely objective and discount the fact that I don’t generally like romances and I ignore the whole Ottoman thing, this is an average/above average book
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