Goldenfire by A.F.E. Smith

Series note: Goldenfire picks up a few years after the end of Darkhaven; as such, both the book and this review contain plot spoilers for Darkhaven, but this is a self-contained story.
Goldenfire

“So you understand now,” the dark-velvet voice said. “You understand what you have to do.”

“Yes.” Kai resisted the urge to peer through the shadows cast by the single oil lamp. The Brotherhood kept their identities a closely guarded secret. Seeing one of their faces – accidentally or otherwise – would be a swift route to a slow death.

“Repeat your instructions.”

Kai swallowed a nervous catch that threatened to become a cough. It wasn’t the job; that would be the fulfilment of a long-held desire. It was the faceless man who was so unsettling – specifically, the note of implacability in his voice.

“I am to go to Mirrorvale. To Arkannen. I am to find a way into Darkhaven. And once there –” A pause to give proper recognition to the significance of the task. “I am to kill Ayla Nightshade, the last living Changer.”

Ayla Nightshade has ruled Darkhaven for three years when she receives news of a plot to kill her. Although Ayla’s shapeshifting powers make her almost invincible, there’s one new kind of weapon that can harm even a Nightshade in creature form. The fortress immediately goes into lockdown, in the hope that keeping out strangers and weapons will be protection enough to keep Ayla safe while they work to unmask the assassin.

Although it’s the threat to her life that drives the story forward, Ayla herself plays a comparatively small part in this book. What we do see is the impact on her personally, particularly the strain placed on her relationship with Tomas, who has to balance dual roles as her life partner and the head of her personal guard. If there’s one thing Ayla values above all, it’s her hard-won freedom, and even a death threat isn’t enough to counterbalance the feelings she experiences when anyone tries to place restrictions on her. At the same time, we see that she is struggling to bond with her adopted son, orphaned by her brother’s death, who unwittingly provides a constant reminder of her grief.

Tomas, along with trying to protect Ayla, has to fight the spectres of alcoholism and depression, struggling to believe himself worthy of the duties placed upon him. Meanwhile Art, Tomas’s old mentor, is training the Helm’s newest would-be recruits, while his partner Miles tries to understand the alchemy of Ayla’s transformation and uncover the formulation of an alchemical defence.

Other characters from Darkhaven are back with equally important roles. The assassin Naeve Sorrow, one of my favourite characters from book one, is living beyond the borders of Mirrorvale with her lover Elisse and their daughter. Naeve is the first to discover the threat to Ayla’s life, and although she isn’t exactly a fan of the Nightshade family, she still takes great personal risks to try and learn more, putting herself and her family in danger. Although we don’t get to see much of Elisse, she’s always one of my favourites, her down-to-earth style contrasting with Naeve’s occasional tendency toward melodrama.

A group of new characters are introduced in this book, in the form of new student-recruits looking to train for the Helm. There’s suave and charming Zander, and angry, desperate Penn. But far and away my favourite was Ree, a young woman who submits herself to the training program in hope of becoming the first female member of the Helm… except she isn’t the only woman to sign up. Saydi is Ree’s opposite in many ways: pretty and flirtatious while Ree is more one of the boys, her attitude casual in contrast to Ree’s single-minded determination. The way Ree responds is carefully depicted, with devastating attention to detail on both the factual and emotional fronts. It’s easy to feel her pain, to see how she feels all her efforts being undermined any time Saydi makes a mistake, and to sympathise as she lashes out. As a woman who’s worked in a male-dominated field for ten years, I found several of these scenes hit painfully close to home.

Goldenfire explores a number of important social issues, but never in a heavy-handed way: there are happy gay couples, and people struggling with their mental health, and women trying to stand equally alongside men, but they’re all there because the story demands it, not as representation tokens or for “issue” plotlines. And it’s all wrapped up in a great adventure story that kept me turning the pages late into the night, and had me in tears by the end. Definitely recommended.

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