Kingdom of Exiles is a promising fantasy romance debut with badass main characters, complicated worldbuilding, and a searing romance. And it has some issues.
Once a prince, resurrected Noc is the leader of a crew of assassins, magically bound to fulfill any contract he takes on. He's also been cursed. Anyone he loves (friends, family, or romantically) will die. So he keeps everyone at arm's length... until Leena.
Beast Charmer Leena is Noc's latest job and she's proven more difficult to kill than expected. With her beasts, she defeats one of Noc's men and makes a bargain: she'll tame a beast for each of Noc's inner circle (that's four beasts total) in exchange for them not fulfilling the contract. Noc words it so that none of his men will do the job, leaving him free to do so.
But over the course of their road trip, they fall in love. As you do.
Fantasy romance trilogies seem to follow one of two paths:
1) the romantic arc is complete in the first book - they meet, they grow into love, they commit - and the next two books are them working as a team to save the world and secure their HEA. Example: Amanda Bouchet's Kingmaker Chronicles. (These two series have a lot in common.)
2) the romance develops over all three books, with no HEA until the end. Example: the first Hidden Legacy trilogy by Ilona Andrews.
This book follows the first path. If you don't want to find out how Noc is going to escape eventual death and who put the hit out on Leena, you might be satisfied with just reading the first entry.
I had a few issues with the book, however. First, since it's basically Pokemon for adults (complete with murder and sex), there's a worldbuilding component based on subjugating a class of beasts. Like Pokemon, they get hurt or exhaust themselves and return to the Beast Realm, but they seem to be intelligent and they definitely have emotions. It felt a bit like dog-fighting, and I've never been into Pokemon for the same reason. The reason Leena was exiled is because she found out that her ex-boyfriend was trying to tame humans in the same way as they tame beasts and there's a spoiler I'll put at the end that made me really question how Charming beasts could be right.
There's also a scene in which Noc brings his entire crew of Assassins to fight on Leena's behalf. Several of them die, but they're able to save one of his inner circle. It was a lot of people dying (not just getting hurt) to save one person and I hope that's addressed in the next book because everyone should have been mad at Noc for that.
There's a gay character hopelessly in love with Noc. The book isn't homophobic, but I'm tired of the best friend pining for the hero trope. I think he might get an HEA eventually with a character introduced at the end of the book. He had better.
Overall, this was a strong debut that reminded me a lot of Pokemon and A Promise of Fire. If you like either of those, you'll probably enjoy it.
Content Warnings: torture, enslavement, murder, kidnapping, forced consumption of an abortifacient
Suzanne received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher for review.
SPOILERS: Leena's evil ex captures her at one point and uses a variety of torture methods (stripping her naked and being generally disgusting and evil) on her for multiple days, on page. He succeeds in his goal to charm her, as he would a beast. This made it really difficult to separate the idea of charming beasts from slavery. It was 100% not okay and no one pretends it is... but why is it okay to do it to beasts? Leena promises to never sell another beast after this, but I don't think it's enough.