Kingdom of Exiles
Good, original fantasy worldbuilding is so much harder than it seems. Kingdom of Exiles is set in an interesting and unique world that I was excited to read and look forward to spending more time in.
Leena is a Charmer, which means she has the ability to forge a magical connection with supernatural creatures and then summon them to help and perform tasks for her. Unfortunately, a betrayal by a former lover has gotten her exiled from the Charmer’s country, and to make things worse, now someone has ordered her assassination. The hit has been given to the assassins of Cruor, led by Noc, who is himself under a curse: anyone he loves will sicken and die. If Noc can get Leena to give him a wish-granting beast, he might be able to rid himself of that curse – but he still has a magical obligation to kill Leena. This is definitely not a good time for the two of them to fall in love.
The beast concept is original and interesting. I liked the animals themselves, and the concept of Leena taming them to add them to her beast inventory reminded me (in a good way) of a video game. The relationship between charmers and beasts is also nicely nuanced. Giving Leena the powers of her beasts helped make her a formidable heroine who also wasn’t a Mary Sue (there is a physical cost to Leena of summoning a beast, which helps us understand why she doesn’t just walk around draped in powerful beasts all the time). There are still some aspects of her homeland and its isolationism that haven’t been revealed yet, which I’m looking forward to learning in a later book. Noc’s and Cruor’s powers are similarly interesting – their usage of shadows, and the blood oath that bonds them, and its parallels to beast charming. I did think it was odd to make them an assassin’s guild but never have the characters do any assassinating (maybe they should have been a mafia with interests in addition to hits?). Plus, the author doesn’t get into the ethics of being killers for hire, besides having the characters resolutely refuse to think about it.
The book is bi-friendly, with Noc having had both male and female relationships in the past. Part of me wished this book was m/m though, because the weighty history he has with a member of his guild made that relationship more interesting to me than the one with Leena.
I was very frustrated in the last fifth of the book (I’ll try to be nebulous and avoid spoilers) when an experience gives a character memory issues. Unfortunately, the experience is narrated clearly to the reader, so since I knew what the character forgot, I just wanted to shake the book and yell “IT WAS X!” The author should have tried something more experimental with the prose here, perhaps writing in broken flashes of narration that captured, for us, the character’s disjointed experience, making us as puzzled as the character as to what happened. There are also a couple of weak moments around the classic fantasy ‘how to interpret the mystical language’ trope, where the characters presume an interpretation and the reader facepalms.
This is a début novel, and as such, it’s an exceptional performance. I have every hope that the next books in this series will be DIKs for me. Welcome to fantasy romance, Ms. Martineau!