Once upon a time there was a coffin, an evil stepmother, and a girl destined for greatness.
Serena Smith is unusual. Growing up as an outcast in her backwoods village, her life is grim and hard and lonely. Then, on her eighteenth birthday, she is given a magical heirloom and suffers a heart-breaking loss. Still reeling, she is forced into exile, snatched by fae and condemned to a lifetime in chains.
Dragged to Aldar, a fae kingdom ruled by a tyrant witch, Serena soon discovers the embers of a forbidden love, and meets fellow exiles, each with their own secrets. As the lives of warriors, rebels, and witches clash, they discover a shared destiny. For only together, and with Serena’s newfound gifts, can she and her companions escape a cruel master and survive a realm of monsters and spies, while building the flames of a revolution.
I thoroughly enjoyed A Kingdom of Exiles. A subtle mix of fairy tale and fantasy, it kept me on my toes all the way to the end. It’s the kind of book you race home to finish.
A Kingdom of Exiles is set up as a feminist fairy tale. This is stamped on the reader’s consciousness right from the start by the Nikita Gill poem:
They won’t tell you fairy tales
of how girls can be dangerous and still win.
They will only tell you stories
where girls are sweet and kind
and reject all sin.
I guess to them
it’s a terrifying thought,
a red riding hood
who knew exactly
what she was doing
when she invited the wild in.
I like this upfront statement of intentions. Here is an author who is entering the debate around fairy tales and gender identity, and attempting to redefine the terms on which the two co-exist. This is the kind of story you can safely give to little girls, without worrying it will influence them to wear pink or emulate Beyonce. Feminist motifs in fantasy are not new, and this book is not breaking any ground, but I do think there’s something outstandingly brave in putting forward a bald statement of intentions right up front. And the book sticks to the manifesto. We have a strong female lead, who grows into herself, and challenges the status quo.
The first part is a riff on the Cinderella motif: orphaned girl at the mercy of a wicked stepmother. Difficult themes, like rape and death, were handled sensitively and smartly, and the emotional resonance helps the reader develop a strong attachment to the character. You’re rooting for Selena right from the start. From there, the book seamlessly segues into fantasy worldbuilding. Devious fae characters are very much in vogue at the moment (I think I must have read three fae books in the last six months), and I don’t think this is a new take on the theme. Having said that, the characters were interestingly complex, and developed intelligently through a series of trials and exposes. There was a rich imagination behind them.
YA is undoubtedly becoming more mature: more violence and graphic sex, and the inclusion of more adult themes. I thought Kingdom of Exiles walked a fine line between the more adult YA we see currently and babying the reader. There was sex and violence, and some of the themes and challenges faced by the characters were adult; but they were handled delicately. It never become overly graphic, and an adult would probably see things in the book that a YA would miss. I found that refreshing.
This is not the best written book you’re ever going to read. However, while at times the language is clumsy and immature, there are some beautiful descriptive passages which help to develop a finely wrought and believable fantasy world. The book has great tension and intrigue, and the writer has left themselves a lot of threads to pull at. It’s a book I’ll remember, and I’m excited about the next instalment.
I read S.B. Nova’s first effort, Draken, with interest and while the story was promising, I didn’t feel the writing did it justice. This is a writer who is developing her craft, and A Kingdom of Exiles is everything Draken should have been and wasn’t.