Beauty in the Desert: A Review of Island of Exiles

Island of Exiles (2017)
Written by: Erica Cameron
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Pages: 400 (Trade Paperback)
Series: Book One of The Ryogan Chronicles
Publisher: Entangled Teen

Why I Chose It: I heard this one described as the kind of young adult fantasy we really need in the market, with things like a strong female protagonist and great magic. Granted it was the editor describing it this way, but since we’d been talking about the evolution of YA fantasy and this is the genre I write, I decided to give it a try.

The Premise:

In Khya’s world, every breath is a battle.

On the isolated desert island of Shiara, dying young is inevitable. The clan comes before self, and protecting her home means Khya is a warrior above all else.

But when following the clan and obeying their leaders could cost her brother his life, Khya’s home becomes a deadly trap. The only person who can help is Tessen, her lifelong rival and the boy who challenges her at every turn. The council she hoped to join has betrayed her, and their secrets, hundreds of years deep, reach around a world she’s never seen.

To save her brother’s life and her island home, her only choice is to trust Tessen, turn against her clan, and go on the run — a betrayal and a death sentence.

Spoiler Free!

Discussion: Island of Exiles had a bit of a slow start. Cameron takes her time to really get to the meat of the story, but the world was fascinating enough to keep me reading until the intrigue kicked in. I’m not usually interested in “the government is out to get us” trope, but in this case, there was enough magic and mystery to make it work for me. I was caught almost instantly by the idea of a harsh land that was trying to kill its people, and there was an austere beauty to the desert and the storms that raged across it.

One of the hurdles to the beginning was the deluge of names, ranks, and words in a foreign language. I read tons of fantasy; I’m used to making my way through made-up words and phrases, and yet I got bogged down in making sense of all the titles and castes, so much so that I decided to give up and wait until I had more of the story under my belt before trying to fit them together. I found myself referring to the glossary over and over to define some new term. A glossary should be a helpful reminder. It should not be the soul means of figuring out a new word without any kind of context. If that’s the only way I can learn what sort of mage does what, there’s something wrong with your worldbuilding.

We’re dumped directly into Khya’s thoughts, and since Khya is already familiar with this world, we get no outside source of explanation. We’re given bits and pieces that are only defined after we need them, some never at all. Like the third gender. Given Khya’s complete lack of reaction to them, I assume they are normal in this world, but since there was no discussion, explanation, or history given for them, they just became a part of the backdrop. Like a piece of boring furniture. I’ve seen plenty of speculative fiction where this is done well, like the hermaphrodites in The Vorkosigan Saga, and this just felt too cursory. I was interested enough in the idea to want a brief explanation at least, and we never even got that.

But that ended up being the only real problem with the worldbuilding. It could have been far smoother and more extensive, but the world that eventually takes shape around the bits you do get is fascinating. The caste system alone deserves a close look, but there’s also the way the society has grown around the harsh environment they call home. And the magic system — once I got the hang of it — was really quite interesting. I loved the idea of there being different types of magic for different types of people, even if I had to refer to the glossary to keep them straight.

This was all enough to keep me reading despite the fact I had a hard time relating to the protagonist. I understood Khya, I got her. But I just didn’t like her. She’s not really the kind of person I would be friends with. She falls in the trend of hard, unlikable characters I’ve been seeing in young adult speculative fiction recently. Luckily the other characters made up for her distance. Especially Tessen. I loved Tessen. He made the whole book worthwhile for me.

This is Entangled Publishing. They’re known for their romance, and rightly so. The relationship between Khya and Tessen was where this book really shone. I could understand and relate to Khya’s confusion over Tessen’s attention at the beginning, and the slow build of trust and respect throughout the story was well done and rewarding. Their growth together felt natural, full of misunderstandings and some fear, but mutual danger had them relying on each other until their trust and physical connection felt inevitable.

It always helps to have a male lead who is as attractive to the reader as he is to the protagonist. I wanted Khya to trust Tessen. And he’s just so cute when all his humor and innuendo abandon him when Khya finally gives in and kisses him.

That being said, I’m a little disturbed by how sex has been portrayed in young adult fiction recently, and this one is a good example. Sex seemed to be treated very casually between these teenagers with absolutely no discussion about the responsibilities and the consequences (both physical and emotional). This could be another example of the piecemeal worldbuilding. Maybe sex is a way for this strict society to let down its hair; maybe birth control is inborn and they need some sort of potion to reproduce. I wouldn’t know seeing as the only thing Khya seemed to be worried about was being attracted to a boy she “hated.” I really don’t mind sex in young adult fiction as long as it’s treated with the respect all sex deserves. Tamora Pierce does this really well, allowing her teenage characters to make confident, informed decisions about their bodies.

Plus, Khya and Tessen’s whole “we’re just pretending to sneak off and have sex to cover up what we’re really doing” scheme was funny at first but got old very quickly. I know Cameron was using it to ramp up the sexual tension, but I could have used a lot more imagination on her part for that and to cover for all her characters’ clandestine activities.

While the sneaking around got tiresome, I was really interested in the whole mystery of it. There were so many lovely questions I wanted answers to, and I was willing to wait for them. And the reveals at the end cascaded into a tidy little pool of revelations while leaving plenty to answer in any sequels that come after.

In Conclusion: So, while I didn’t think this was a spectacular read, I did feel like it was a pretty solid addition to the genre. There was some excellent magic and intrigue, and I’m interested to see what Cameron does with the world she’s created in the second book. Who knows, maybe now that I’m more familiar with the society and its language, I won’t have to tie myself to the glossary.

2 Comments

  • Weasel of Doom July 13, 2017 at 6:35 pm

    Sounds like a good candidate for checking out from the library!

    Reply
  • Shara White July 13, 2017 at 9:40 pm

    This is quite the lovely cover!

    Reply

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