I was provided with an e-ARC copy of "Island of Exiles" by Entangled Teen in exchange for a free and honest review. The book seemed like a perfect read for me as it was advertised as a YA Fantasy novel with LGBTQ+ characters.
Since I will be discussing world building and some of the relationships in the book, please, be aware that there might be minor spoilers ahead.
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.
I started reading "Island of Exiles" at the end of November but due to some personal reasons, unrelated to the book, had to stop. I picked it up again in January and realized that I needed to start from the very beginning. I did just that, and I am very glad I did because I wanted to give this book justice and I felt that I wouldn’t have been able otherwise.
The strongest point of the book is the worldbuilding. But, sadly, it is, in a way, its weak point as well. The author created a fascinated world: the events of the novel take place on an island with very harsh, desert-like landscape and raging storms. The hierarchy of the clan is very strict; the obedience is not questioned; the rations are scarce. You train, fight, and die young. Erica Cameron developed the magic system and the society's structure in which your magical ability defies your position in the world. Every type of skill and status has its own name. The language of this world is quite extensive, which makes the process of submerging into the narrative extremely slow.
Plainly speaking, it will take you some time to get used to all the words and definitions. It is not a bad thing, and many of high fantasy adult novels have complex worldbuilding, including their races, cultures, and languages, but in the case of a YA novel, it slows down the pace of the narrative.
When I started "Island of Exiles" for the second time, I already knew what to expect and made sure to pay attention to the world of Itagami. It made it easier to get into the story again for sure. I do admit, that the narrative does not develop as quickly as I would have prefered in the beginning and once you hit one third into the book - this is when fun stuff happens.
By the end of the book, I was comfortable enough with terms and definitions that I didn’t feel like I was walking in the dark anymore (by the way, there is a glossary at the end of the book - I wish I had known!). I flew through the remaining pages, very keen to find out what happens next.
Let me tell you - the plot went into a completely different direction from what I expected!
My favourite part "Island of Exiles" was the gender and sexuality diversity of this world. People are born of either of three genders: male, female or ebet (which is explained in the glossary as the sex designation for those neither male nor female; while reading the book I kept thinking about intersex, although I can not claim if it is what the author intended it to be). There are specific pronouns for ebets too. Relationships between people can be khai (a relationship chosen specifically to produce children) or sumai (a deep bond/partnership/love, which does not necessarily have to be sexual and can be created between siblings, for example). Or relationships can be simply casual. The sexuality is never discussed or mentioned as something “normal” or not. Anyone can be attracted to any gender or or be ushimo, i.e. asexual or fall on asexual spectrum.
I loved this aspect of the world so much! I wish Erica Cameron would write a pure romance within this world as it would have so many possibilities!
I had some problems with the main character, Khya, as I had trouble understanding some of her actions. She kept referring to Tessen stealing her promotions - something which I only vaguely grasped. She seemed to be hell-bent on distrusting Tessen, while he was only ever amicable and pleasant to her and others. It felt as if the author was trying so hard to make it “enemies to lovers” type of relationship that it felt a bit unnatural. The same thing about Khya’s obsession with her brother, Yorri, that was borderline possessive and manipulative.
I feel as if Yorri’s character was not developed in full either, but hopefully, it is going to be remedied in the sequel.
My favourite characters were Tessen, Sanii and Etaro. I also suspect something is going on between Etaro and Rai - or maybe it is my wishful thinking, but I hope for the happy ending for all characters.
Since I am lucky to have already received the second book in The Ryogan Chronicles, Sea of Strangers, I jumped into it right after finishing “Island of Exiles”. Can not wait to see what happens next.
Highly recommend "Island of Exiles" to those who would not be intimidated by a complex glossary of the world and to the fans of diverse reads.
Rating: 3.5 stars