Rory Power is hardly the only successful YA author launching an adult title this year—see also: Rebecca Ross, Tara Sim, Kiersten White, and what feels like a dozen more—but hers is perhaps the effort that feels least like her previous work. Since she is probably best known for her (excellent) dystopian pandemic-themed thriller Wilder Girls, you might be surprised to discover that Power’s first adult novel is a sprawling, intricately detailed magical fantasy about intergenerational abuse among a family of tragic, broken quasi-immortals.
In a Garden Burning Gold is set in a rich and wondrous fantasy world, in which a vaguely Byzantine-esque federation of neighboring kingdoms is ruled over by a council known as the Stratagiozi, near-immortal humans whose power comes with certain duties necessary to keep the world turning as it should. (These include the movement of tides, the placement of stars in the night skies, the changing seasons, and even death itself.) The Argyros family controls Thyzakos, where patriarch Vasilis—who seized his seat in a bloody coup—wields power with an iron fist, over both his kingdom and his family alike.
Much of the story of In a Garden Burning Gold revolves around the deeply abusive and largely traumatic relationship between Vasilis and his four children: eldest twins Rhea and Alexandros (“Lexos”), nerdy loner Nitsos and kind, quiet Chrysanti. The Argyrosi children are simultaneously terrified of and deeply loyal to their father, and almost pathological in their desire to please him. (Or, at the very least, avoid the more physical manifestations of his anger and disappointment.)
Lexos reluctantly serves as his father’s second in command, while Rhea does her best to be a dutiful daughter, depsite the mental and emotional toll being asked to commit murder four times a year takes on her spirit. (Rhea’s magic requires her to kill a sacrificial consort each quarter to ensure that the seasons change at appropriate times.) The twins are devoted to one another, doing their best to protect each other from the wrath of a father they’ve never managed to please despite their best efforts. Their younger siblings essentially feel like afterthoughts in the family and even their magical powers are less clearly defined than Rhea or Lexos’s are.
The book’s main plot kicks into gear when Lexos learns of growing unrest in a northern Thyzakos territory and urges his sister to choose her next consort from the area, believing that the death of the movement’s figurehead will hamper the uprising. While Rhea is in the North, Lexos travels the realm to shore up support amongst the other Stratagiozi. Their separate missions eventually dovetail back together, as each begins to question their loyalties and question whether the idea of family above all is a life that either of them actually wants.
Full of lush writing and deeply detailed worldbuilding, In a Garden Burning Gold shines brightest when it’s digging into the political setup and specifics of its world: From the Stratagiozi family whose younger members are constantly murdering one another at public events for the chance to sit as their leader’s second, to the annual immortals’ conference that forces all its attendees to eat first to lower the odds of killing one another while hangry, there’s so much that’s fascinating and original about the setting these characters inhabit.
There’s also something deeply intriguing about the way Power weaves the specter of intergenerational trauma into her rich fantasy landscape and an almost Shakespearean feel to the tragedy that unfolds around the Argyros family, from its aloof larger-than-life central figure to its occasionally frustrating sense of inevitability. Because while Rhea and Lexos’s fear of their Baba is both obvious and potentially warranted from the few interactions we see between them, In a Garden Burning Gold, unfortunately, spends an awful lot more time telling us about how toxic the heart of this family is rather than showing us.
Though we hear plenty about Vasilis’s cruelty, his history of violence toward everything from the kingdom he conquered to the woman, and his general unpleasant demeanor, we see much less of his relationship (such as it is) with his elder children. Why are they so blindly loyal to him, despite him giving them virtually no reason to be? How did this toxic soup of duty, isolation, manipulation, neglect, and punishment take shape between them? Often, the events of this story often come across as the first time either of his elder children has even considered truly disobeying him—let alone fully betraying him—but why now?
This is part of the reason that Rhea’s sudden change of heart midway through the novel feels so jarring. Your mileage may vary on whether or not you believe in the love story that suddenly springs up between Rhea and her latest consort, but I’d argue that it’s certainly not a strong enough connection to hang the betrayal that drives the back half of the novel on, particularly given that the Argyros family and the relationships within it for hundreds of years. For a relationship to be that degree of world-shattering, it should offer us more than some mildly entertaining banter, which is almost all we see happen between Rhea and Michali.
There’s a deep sense that many things happen in this novel, not because they’re actions or choices that make sense for these characters, but because they’re necessary to move the piece into place for its shocking final quarter, where the story suddenly becomes much bloodier, more propulsive and even genuinely surprising at times. Where any of these characters are headed in Power’s sequel is anyone’s guess, but the bones are certainly there for a second installment in this series that will likely far surpass its first.
In a Garden Burning Gold
is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.