Psychologically unsettling, darkly magical, and patriarchy-smashing, A Golden Fury was a great debut novel. It’s a highly enjoyable, fast-paced read, with an intoxicating blend of darkness, madness, alchemy, history, betrayal, and loyalty–definitely a good way to get in the mood for fall.
There was so much to enjoy about this book! A lot of it, though, comes down to the central element of defying norms.
At the center of this book is a young woman who, by all measures, is far from normal. In the 1700s, she grew up as an illegitimate child who did not know her father, traveled around Europe with her often-unkind mother, only really had one friend, and excelled at alchemy–which, being science-adjacent, was a heavily male-dominated field, and beyond that, was regarded as a less-than-legitimate course of study by most of society. Her struggles throughout the story were compounded by this outsider status she experienced, and Cohoe did a great job of weaving this “outsider” status through Theosebia’s narrative. Always striving to prove herself, to step out from under her mother’s shadow and cement her own place in the world, drives Thea to make some…interesting choices. In a good way. It also impacts her willingness to trust others, and the depth of trust she is willing to allow them.
On a larger scale, there was plenty of commentary in the book subtly (or not-so-subtly) criticizing norms such as Eurocentrism and patriarchy. For example, Thea remarks more than once that part of why she has an advantage over other alchemists is that she can read Arabic, which allows her to study texts outside of the traditional Western canon and exposes her to more specific (and helpful) directions to create the Philosopher’s Stone. Meanwhile, Thea also finds herself struggling to chart her own path, to deal with expectations that women should marry and act a certain way, to untangle her own complicated feelings toward an old friend, and to thrive in a space where there are few other women. (No, seriously, there are only really two other female characters in the book, three if you count one who is mentioned but never on-page. And one of those two/three is her mother.)
But this book also did a nice job breaking some tropes within the YA fantasy genre that, frankly, I was getting tired of anyway. Without spoiling anything, it takes an approach to romance that is not conventional but is entirely fitting for the story. It also was–thank god–a standalone! Yes, that’s right–the ending feels conclusive, and you don’t have to worry about a sequel or a cliffhanger! It ties things up nicely and leaves just a smidgen of room to imagine where Thea’s story will go next, without creating the need for a follow-up story to tell us about that.
There were a few elements of this book that I wasn’t quite as crazy about. While I loved that it was a quick read, there were some parts where the pacing felt off–things that I assumed would take a long time got resolved unnaturally fast. And this led to my other big concern, which was that the story itself sometimes got a little unclear. Characters took actions that didn’t always feel intuitive, or certain “explanations” didn’t quite answer all the questions they claimed to answer. But as a whole, these issues didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment.
In no particular order, a few other things I liked:
- Plenty of twists and betrayals, but nothing that felt so out of left field that it didn’t make sense
- Amazing psychological complexity! The nature of the madness is captured so well in the writing style. Hallucinations, loss of agency, delusions, the whole nine yards. Good stuff.
- General historical atmosphere, including less-than-savory topics like consumption (the illness, not consumerism…)
- Occasional interweaving of philosophy, emphasizing how the Philosopher’s Stone had major implications from a socioeconomic standpoint, in addition to the obvious personal-fame-and-wealth perspective
As a whole, this was a really solid debut, and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of fantasy, girl power, and vaguely unsettling moments of insanity.
Trigger/content warnings: suicide, self-harm, insanity, dissociation, torture (off-page), threat of rape