One common trope in science-fiction is the existence of technology so advanced it is indistinguishable from magic. However, the reverse can also be found in fiction whenever a writer wants to create a fantasy world, but still include a technological element that would not otherwise be possible. Enter magical technology, or magic indistinguishable from technology aside from being fueled by magic instead of electricity or another power source. Maybe an author wants to include an airship in their high fantasy setting, but does not want technology to be too advanced. Or they want a medieval-like setting to have access to something like a computer or search engine. Whatever the apparatus, this allows authors to get inventive with the magic in their book, imagining how it can fuel a society. However, this trend can run up against the rick of breaking immersion whenever readers start to wonder why the characters just do not use the actual technology instead of magic.
The subject of today’s review is This Golden Flame, by Emily Victoria. Set in a fantasy world in the island nation of Eratia, the novel follows main characters Karis and Alix as they try to escape the clutches of an autocratic institution and rescue Karis’ brother, meeting various outlaws and rebels during their adventure. In this world, magic is prevalent in the form of Script, a type of runic magic where power is connected to words and physically writing or engraving them onto surfaces. For example, writing the lock rune on a door magically seals the door. Two hundred years prior to the start of the novel, Eratia used this Script to power an army of automatons in wars against their neighbors. However, a rogue scriptmaster, this world’s equivalent to a magician or wizard, sabotaged these magic machines, freezing them all in place. At the start of the book, researchers have not yet figured out exactly what happened or how to wake up the automatons. Victoria does a very good job of creating an interesting setting, where the automatons just stopped in place and literally litter the countryside, becoming statues. The effect is eerie, especially when any reader knows that the plot will inevitably have them wake up for a nefarious purpose.
This Golden Flame is told from the alternating first-person point-of-view of two characters, the first of which is Karis. Karis is a young woman and apprentice scriptmaster working in one of the main research facilities in the archipelago. However, this profession is not by choice. Karis, and others, are orphans forced to work in government-run institutions are a form of cheap labor. Some orphans embrace the job, as it provides them with a stability they may not have experienced otherwise, but not Karis. When we meet her, all she can think about is escaping and finding her brother, who was sent to a different facility years ago. Karis is determined, a little headstrong, and definitely prickly when we first meet her. She seems isolated and disliked by her peers, something she freely admits is her fault as she never took the time to make friends, always trying to find ways to get out. The one person who still cares about her is Dane, another orphan and star soldier. Over the course of her story, we see Karis learn to care about people other than herself, and see the world outside of her own personal goal.
However, the novel is not just about Karis. Equally important is our other main character, Alix. Unlike Karis, or any other character in This Golden Flame, Alix is an automaton himself, accidentally discovered in a sort of stasis at the start of the book by Karis. Like other automatons, he is controlled by a network of runes engraved on his person, while a separate magic tome allows others to write down runes and control his action. However, that is where the similarities end, for Alix is more than just a machine. He is a thinking, feeling, speaking being in his own right. Beginning the novel very naïve due to a sheltered upbringing by his father and creator, Alix steadily comes to learn more about the world and his place in it. His story deals with some fascinating themes of identity and self, as Alix has to grapple with the conflicting thoughts that he is a created machine and also a thinking person. His friendship with Karis proves to be a bedrock of the story, and their relationship is the highlight of the novel, eclipsing the main plot itself. Alix also brings an element of mystery to the story, as he is connected to the man who sabotaged the automatons all those years ago. However, his presence can sometimes serve as a bit of a deus ex machina due to his unique role in the story.
At the start of this review, I wrote about magically fueled technology in fiction and how that can create some unique circumstances and unique difficulties for authors. Unfortunately, This Golden Flame does run into some problems on this front. The use of magical script runes is never fully explained and a little difficult to understand. Karis makes it sound like this magic is difficult to use, but we never actually see where the difficulty lies. If the power just comes from drawing a rune, then drawing it correctly should be enough. But if the power comes from the person, then only certain people should be able to use runes. But that does not seem to be the case either. There are schools and research facilities dedicated to this power, meaning that anyone should theoretically be able to use it. Unfortunately, the exact mechanics are also unclear. This Golden Flame is also the rare fantasy book to include guns, however, the firearms in this world are said to be very rare as they rely on script magic. Yet we know that gunpowder exists as cannons are used several times. It is not enough to dislike the novel, but it can take readers out of the moment when they start to think about the why’s and how’s of using technology in this book.
No review or discussion of This Golden Flame is complete, however, without mentioning how well the book portrays asexuality, among other queer identities. Karis, unlike the vast majority of fantasy protagonists, is asexual, meaning she does not experience the desire to become intimate with anyone else. It is also hinted that she may be aromantic as well, as she does not seem to be looking for romantic entanglements either, even if they are non-sexual. There are instances where she reflects on this and wonders what it would be like to be like everyone else, but her identity is her identity. It is not treated as a flaw or problem to be fixed. It is simply a normal part of who she is and she is not treated differently for it. Asexuality is still a difficult concept for non-queer people to understand, but acceptance and understanding is certainly spreading. This Golden Flame also includes at least one gay and another non-binary character, effortlessly including them in the narrative without issue. Although the scene in which the non-binary character explains they use they/them pronouns is very funny and very satisfying to read. This Golden Flame is an example of how to do inclusivity correctly. Treat the multitude of queer identities as they should be treated, an absolutely normal and natural part of the world. No bigotry or discrimination required.
The heart of This Golden Flame remains with the relationship between Karis and Alix throughout each page, with the unfortunate side effect the main plot quickly becomes the least interesting aspect of the novel. However, there are some very engaging moments when the tension centers on these two characters and their connection to each other. One benefit of keeping the novel in the first-person perspective is that Victoria never loses sight of Alix or Karis, always keeping the two-center stage in every scene. While the main plot does include the requisite world-altering stakes, our two heroes always have a personal stake in the events occurring as well. This, plus the novel’s effortless inclusion of asexual and other queer identities, makes it worth the read.
This Golden Flame can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 14 days
Next on the List: Black Water Sister, by Zen Cho