Previous fans of Rory Power are in for an adjustment, and the rest are also in for an interesting time. This adult fantasy was a combination of intense setup, rich worldbuilding, uneven pacing, and a unique sense of character. I feel mixed about it...but at the end of the day, positive? I'll do my best to unpack my feelings here.
Sense of place: ★★★
Pacing: ★★ for the first half, higher for the second half
Character arcs: ★★ 1/2
Enjoyment: ★★★ 1/2
Twins Rhea and Lexos have grown up over the course of a century with a unique set of powers. As a part of this world's ruling class of elite families, the twins' father, Baba, owns several of the world's various magical gifts and has bequeathed them to his children as needed. Rhea controls the passing of the seasons with her seasonal consort sacrifices, while Lexos stitches the constellations in the night sky each night and handles the ocean's tides.
In their seat of power, the twins, Baba, and their two younger siblings have ruled their small territory with an iron fist for over a century. The magical gifts of each ruling family pass along to subsequent family members in a patriarchal line of succession—unless someone comes along and murders the whole family and takes the gifts for himself—like Baba did.
This mythic and heavily Greek-inspired fable feels epic in scope from the start, with one sibling painting the colors of the garden to color in the plants of the realm and another building mechanical animals that manifest as real beings elsewhere. And that's just the tip of the iceberg for this world's grasp of magic. High concepts of magic are at their best here.
Rhea and Lexos are the heart of this novel. Their two points of view carry us through this sprawling epic of political intrigue, toxic families, and cultural influences. A serious dose of ancient Greek carries through into the political structure of this novel—and by serious, I mean SERIOUS, as a non-Greek academic I found this element unnecessarily confusing to grasp—while in other aspects of this novel popular book concepts peek out from the shadows in some of the side adventures and softer plot sides.
It's an interesting story set in a very confusing world and tied to a classic twist on a basic plot: how far will you go for family, and when do you choose yourself?
Ultimately, I found In A Garden Burning Gold to be a confusing mesh of too much and too little at the same time.
Too much: Reliance on the reader's knowledge of Greek influence. As mentioned above, if you are not familiar with the political intricacies of ancient Greek systems, the first half of the book is unnecessarily confusing and puts you immediately on the back foot. It also makes the first half of the book an absolute slog, as that half is almost entirely setup and politics. The author does work on explaining it for the average reader, but it was hard and I was aware that I was missing a few tricks right off the top. An unfortunately frustrating element for me.
Too little: Sense of authenticity in the family interactions. This is not a spoiler for significant events, but I will say that for siblings who have coexisted with each other in their family estate for almost 100 years, they do not feel like it. They don't understand each other, there are fundamental divides in their ability to communicate on even the basest of levels. They are also 100% reliant on their relationship with their toxic father to dictate how they interact with each other. It felt like no other family dynamic I've ever seen (positive or negative) and it made the family seem more like distant relatives that happened to be cohabitating as opposed to actual flesh and blood siblings. Siblings know each other, regardless of how the parent tries to manipulate the relationship(s). Even if its a toxic vibe, siblings know each other.
I also struggled with some of the plot reveals and character arcs, if I'm honest. Rhea's naivety bothered me, Lexos' inability to separate his sense of worth from his father and their family status seemed static and only gained dynamism toward the end. This is clearly a story that is going somewhere, and I can feel it's going to be epic, but given our starting point the entry into the world was a harder read to enjoy.
The ending was fantastic though... I think book two is going to rise from the foundations of this one with a lot of improvement given where we finally got our characters to be. Looking forward to continuing.
Thank you to Del Rey for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.