GOLDENFIRE [Amazon | Kobo] is the sequel to DARKHAVEN, a debut I enjoyed but had some issues with. I try to give any promising series at least two volumes, though, so when A.F.E. Smith reached out to see if I’d like a review copy of GOLDENFIRE, I jumped right on it.
Or as "on it" as I could, given my current mercurial reading mood. It took me almost two months to start the book, but once I did I crammed it into my eyeballs as fast my reading speed would allow.
GOLDENFIRE opens about three years after the events of DARKHAVEN. Ayla Nightshade has consolidated her rule while her partner, Tomas Caraway, takes care of her security arrangements, in large part via his new training program for fighters who want to become part of Ayla’s elite guard, the Helm. But when Caraway receives word that an assassin has targeted Ayla with the one weapon that may harm a Changer like her--a pistol--the latest crop of prospective Helm members becomes the weakest place in his line of defense.
And books like this one are why I stick to my two-volumes-or-bust policy. GOLDENFIRE is so. Frickin’. Good.
Really. Smith has taken everything I liked about DARKHAVEN and ramped it up the max, even as she challenges established (and overdone) fantasy tropes. GOLDENFIRE takes a decidedly modern view of the genre, but reading it gave me the same thrill I experienced as a youngster encountering adult-marketed fantasy for the first time.
This would pave a clear path to my heart in any book at all, but it’s especially wonderful to see here because my two big problems with DARKHAVEN (the villain’s motivation--rape--and the instalove many of the characters experienced) were such staid old tropes. In her first novel, Smith ran with genre staples; in her second, she blasts things wide open without sacrificing any of the wonder at the genre’s heart.
I continue to delight in her worldbuilding, too. Smith doesn’t bog the reader down with extraneous detail, but I’m sure she knows pretty well everything about Mirrorvale and its surrounding countries and could provide further information on demand. It shows on every page of this non-medievalesque series.
The Industrial Revolution is well underway in Smith's world. Arkannen, Mirrorvale’s capital, has trams for intracity transport and airships for long-distance travel. Ayla has tentatively begun to plan a cross-country railway based on what the engineers in her mines use. And, most importantly for this particular story, single-shot handguns have begun to gain prominence. They still aren’t widely understood outside their countries of manufacture, but Arkannen's residents can access them through illegal channels--and many do, sans the sort of training that could allow them to handle the weapons safely. Circumstances in the city force Caraway to acknowledge pistols will only become more common from this point forward, and should perhaps feature in his guard programs so the trainees will know what they're up against.
Smith gives us a much better look at magic this time around, too; or alchemy, rather, as this world’s inhabitants treat their magic as natural science. Y’all know I’m always up for jaw about How Stuff Works, especially when it’s framed by further talk about the changing face of technology and the ways magic and tech can intersect. Swoon.
Mirrorvale’s social structures are also pretty durned interesting. While there’s still a large amount of sexism in this society, the local culture is also designed to let women assume positions of power in religious life, the government, and the army. Female soldiers and city guards aren’t rare, though Ree and Saydi, two of the trainees, are the first women to apply for the Helm.
Smith uses Ree and Saydi’s position to examine several varieties of gender discrimination, from dire misogyny to social conditioning to internalized sexism. It’s very well done.
And my impression throughout DARKHAVEN--that queer relationships are nothing particularly noteworthy in this society--proves correct. Of the seven POVs herein, two are queer characters, each of whom is a) openly queer with no social repercussions and b) friends and/or lovers with non-POV queer characters. Hurray!
Plot-wise, GOLDENFIRE delivers a slightly different sort of mystery than its predecessor; a who’ll-do-it, rather than a whodunnit. Smith throws a number of suspicious new characters into the mix and invites us to guess which of them might be the assassin. Everyone’s got something to hide, and their secrets all intersect with the assassin’s aims to varying degrees. The larger number of POV characters allows us to view each suspect from multiple angles, too, as we untangle everyone’s game and decide who the culprit is. (I guessed right, as per usual, though I’m ashamed to say I missed one rather obvious clue until I flipped back to the start to confirm something.) It’s immersive and compulsively readable. I was ever reluctant to put it down.
All in all, this is a fabulous sequel that builds something special off the foundations Smith laid in DARKHAVEN; and while I think it’s probably most enjoyable if you’ve already met the returning characters, there are enough new threads that you could probably leap right in here if you so desire.
Me, I dearly hope there’ll be a third book.