Alexandra Rowland’s A Taste of Gold and Iron required a joyful writing process. They started over six times, across six years. But Rowland never got discouraged; this book was something that they knew was going to take time to get right because they were working on something that embodied many of the tropes, excitement, romance, and fantasy that they loved best in all the world. “It takes a long kind of journey to gain that kind of self-knowledge,” they said in an interview with io9 earlier this year. “Finding that core, that burning heart of what I love.”
When Rowland describes this process, the start-over-from-page-one drafting, over and over and over, they’re intense and direct, but excited. They have thought about this book for years, and developed it over time, over and over again. They know exactly what they did, and how they did it. With A Taste of Gold and Iron, they eventually wrote a book that became a culmination of all of their favorite parts of fiction… and fandom.
This book is centered around their favorite trope of all time—what Rowland described as the “king of all tropes”–the romance between a benevolent Lord and his loyal vassal. This kind of plot can be traced back to a lot of French folktales of courtly love and chivalry; the trope is, essentially, the idea of loyalty as romance. Red, White, and Royal Blue took full advantage of this trope. Anyone alive who reads fandom with any degree of regularity can probably pull at least a dozen fics with this kind of loyalty at its core; it’s what keeps Supernatural’s Dean/Castiel fic writers alive, even now. The intensity of Simon and Alisha from Misfits, loving each other across timelines. Any number of Merlin fics. You get it.
So what is A Taste of Gold and Iron? Set in a second-world fantasy country named Arasht, the drama takes place in a capital port city that teeters on the brink of an economic crisis. Prince Kadou has accidentally fallen out of favor with his sister, the queen, and in an attempt to regain her trust and help his nation, he undertakes an investigation into a report of counterfeit gold. Evemer, the prince’s bodyguard, goes along with it if only to make sure that Kadou doesn’t try anything too foolish on his own. It has an Ottoman aesthetic, a Venetian shipyard, and was inspired by French romance, Arthurian fealty, and the historical folk heroes of the Japanese Heike. “You can recognize some of the individual pieces if you know what you’re looking for,” Rowland explained. In between political intrigue and investigating criminal activity, A Taste of Gold and Iron interweaves the Romance genre structure with epic fantasy storytelling.
In between the steamy romance, Rowland developed an incredibly poignant story of mental health throughout A Taste of Gold and Iron. “Kadou’s anxiety is modeled on my own experience with anxiety,” Rowland explained. “His anxiety is dialed up for the book, he doesn’t have the coping mechanisms I do, but the patterns and frequency and the way his brain cycles around itself, eating itself alive, that was very much my experience.” Kadou’s anxiety is constant. It’s not on every single page, it doesn’t affect him every single moment of the day, but it is there. It does affect him. He does consider it. It is part of who he is, but it is not all of who he is.
There was one draft (the second draft) where Kadou was going to be a prophet, receiving messages from a goddess. He was going to experience dizziness, vertigo, and physical effects from this magical intervention. “But I realized that wasn’t what made me happy. This isn’t the story I want to tell.” Rowland kept those moments of physical debilitation, but realized “this is anxiety.”
Rowland also described that there is a barrier with language for anxiety. In the book, Kadou uses words like cowardice to explain how he feels, and even this ties back to duty, fealty, and the idea that he is not measuring up to an ideal. Rowland’s created an incredibly deep character that on every level feels very deeply, about who he is and his place in the world. It’s framed as a fear-creature, prowling, waiting, and ever-present. “It was important to me that at the end of the book his anxiety isn’t healed,” Rowland said, apologizing for the spoiler, but mentioning that this is maybe important to know about their book. “He has better skills to deal with it, but it’s still something he has, that he will have to continue to work through. I didn’t want him to get better, I wanted him to get better at treating himself.”
As a romance between a Prince and a bodyguard, there’s an intricate conversation about power, control, and consent that has to happen in order for the relationship to feel romantic and not simply coercive. It’s basically an employer/employee relationship. “I made sure that the characters, as well as the reader, were aware of who had power in any situation,” Rowland said. “And I wrote out explicit conversations about the ways in which you have to be careful about power differentials in this kind of relationship.”
The characters do sometimes act on impulse, in the heat of the moment, but in the back of their minds, much like real life, there’s always a struggle with who is really in control. The writing in this book demonstrates an incredible balancing act that Rowland pulls off in a way that’s sexy, fun, and still deeply investigates what power means in a relationship. The dynamics of power, and how to ethically handle power is a massive part of A Taste of Gold and Iron. Beyond just Kadou and Evermer, there is a constant balancing act between royalty, subjects, their country, and the greater world beyond Arasht.
“I think it’s interesting to look more deeply at those potential power problems and face them directly,” Rowland said. “Power dynamics aren’t sexy unless there is mutual awareness of care. We need to be careful of treating each other well.” Ultimately, Rowland had to investigate why they loved this trope so much. What is it about the Lord and Vassal romance that draws them in? Why does that power differential feel so appealing?
An answer, Rowland said, may relate back to their experience with fandom. The romance, these characters, were always the scaffolding for Rowland’s six drafts. They had versions where Kadou ran away, where he was exiled, where he was at university. But throughout all these different editions of A Taste of Gold and Iron, Kadou and Evemer remained the true north of their writing. This is remarkably similar to fanfiction, where authors continually reinvent the plot of their favorite stories in order to uplift the romance, to focus on the pairing that brings them joy, to explore all facets of this intimate affection that they drew out of a story. “I have a long history with fandom,” Rowland explained, “which very much informed this book and how I wrote it. So yeah, a lot of this was like writing AU’s [Alternate Universes] for these characters.” They also mention that there will be a dedication in this book to the fan writers who, Rowland said, taught them everything they know about writing.
Rowland also told me that they wrote a fanfic for A Taste of Gold and Iron. An official unofficial story. It won’t be canon, they said, it’ll just be for fun. A personal gift that they can give back to fandom. They’re planning to release it on the Archive of our Own after publication, and it will have a disclaimer at the top that reads “A/N: I do own these characters.” Fandom will get it.
A Taste of Gold and Iron goes on sale August 30th. Preorder here. And if you want to read more, Rowland is more than happy to share some recommendations: “These are some of my favorite fics, but I’ve also chosen ones that share themes of one sort or another with A Taste of Gold and Iron!”
Demonology and the Tri-Phasic Model of Trauma: An Integrative Approach - Nnm - Good Omens. Explorations of mental health, DEEP character work, unreliable narrators, the healing power of therapy — possibly the best fic I’ve ever read, hands down, and one of those fics that could ONLY be fanfic, due to how much it relies on the audience’s knowledge of canon.
Dangerous If Unbound - astolat - Person of Interest. Sexy, sexy fealty. Sort of. Definitely sexy, sort-of fealty. Nobody understands sexy fealty like Astolat does. She GETS IT.
Undiscovered Country - shysweetthing - Yuri!!! on Ice. A fantastic fic about anxiety, navigating a new romance, and doing the hard work on yourself so that you can be open and vulnerable to another person. Y’know, The Mortifying Ordeal Of Being Known and so on.
The World That You Need - Dira Sudis (dsudis) - Vorkosigan Saga. Absolutely splendid depiction of the negotiations around power differentials, and the difference between a private relationship versus a secret one. Also, please picture me slamming into Dira’s DMs several years ago like, “Holy shit, you made the same joke about a character’s name that I did in this book I’m writing, let’s be friends.” So of course this one holds a special place in my heart.
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