It’s practically impossible for me to resist a deep desert setting, not since Frank Herbert’s Dune became one of my favorite books, so when I read the first reviews for Island of Exiles I knew it would not be long before I saw for myself what this story had to offer.
Life on the island of Shiara is hard and unforgiving: set in the middle of a turbulent ocean, the island’s climate alternates between periods of intense, searing heat and seasonal storms that can annihilate everything in their path. The city in which the novel is set is an enclave of relative comfort in such a harsh environment, but requires total dedication from its citizens, whose main goal must be the survival of the tribe, even before that of the individual.
The city’s society is divided into three layers: the nyshin – or warriors/hunters, who provide security and forage for whatever other foodstuffs the island can provide, besides what can be cultivated on the plateau; the ahdo, who are a sort of teachers and administrators; and the yonin, the lowest possible rank: these are people who were unable to manifest any magic ability during the rite of passage into adulthood, and are therefore kept inside the city walls and set on any kind of menial work – there is no overt contempt displayed toward the yonin in this society, but the writing on the wall is quite clear about their station. At the top of the power pyramid, however, stand the Miriseh, a group of long-lived (or maybe immortal) people who act as protectors to the city’s population, and are regarded as the ultimate source of reverence.
Khya is a nyshin warrior, brave, highly respected and dedicated: she wants to get to the very top and become one day part of the council of advisors to the Miriseh, just as her blood-parents did, and it’s her most fervent hope that her younger brother Yorri might share that honor with her, but so far Yorri has shown no magical ability, and she’s afraid he might end up among the yonin, as happened to his lover Sanii. Training him in secret, she finds the way to unlock Yorri’s magic – a very powerful, very rare kind of magic – and everything seems to move according to her plans when tragedy strikes, and on its aftermath Khya starts making unpleasant discoveries that will turn her world and beliefs upside down, and lead her toward an unexpected path.
The world described by Erica Cameron is a fascinating one: enclosed in a relatively small space, hemmed in by cruel nature, the people of Shiara have managed to create a flourishing society, one that displays many interesting facets, and a few shadows as well. For example, if on one side we can observe the existence of three sexes (male, female and a neuter called ebet) and a total freedom about the choice of partners, with no distinction between genders, on the other we have a rigid caste system that puts at its lower tier the yonin: the outward reason for keeping them in the city is that they need the protection of the walls, since they have no magic that could shield them from the elements or any enemy they might face. The truth, however, is that the yonin are pariahs, people to whom little value is attached (as witnessed by the lack of mourning when accidents take their life), people who are not deemed worthy of a liaison with the upper strata of society, and are best kept out of the collective sight: they serve in silence, their work required but not acknowledged. To me, this was the first sign that not everything was as it looked on Shiara, so that once the revelation about long-kept secrets and lies surfaced, I was not overly surprised.
The downside of such a fascinating premise, however, is that there is too much of it: as a reader I felt virtually assaulted by a huge amount of new terms, most of them without explanation, that required my utmost concentration on these details, concentration that was stolen from the story itself. I’ve often said that I like to work through what I read, that I don’t like to be spoon-fed by excessively enthusiastic authors, but to me Island of Exiles went completely the other way, burdening the narrative with a plethora of terms that proved more distracting than informative, more on the side of telling the readers about the differences in this society, rather than showing them. In a similar way, the moment in which the truth behind the careful façade is revealed is less of an enlightenment and more of a full stop in the forward momentum: again too much information is given in a rather pedantic way and it takes the wind from the novel’s sails, where a slow accumulation of clues might have worked far better.
Fortunately, the characters’ journey more than compensates for this problem, even though it’s hard at first to connect with the central figure of Khya: she’s so driven, so focused on her goals, that she often dangerously comes close to be an overbearing zealot – her desire to see Yorri excel and join her in the advisors’ inner circle carries her like a bulldozer over her younger brother’s eventual aspirations, never once taking into account that he might want something different. She loves him deeply, and yet she does not know him, not fully: indeed the discovery of Yorri’s desire to bond with Sanii – thwarted by Sanii’s failure in the rite of passage – comes as a huge surprise, as if Khya considered Yorri’s life an appendage of her own, without needs or drives she has not contemplated. Only loss will force Khya to look inside herself as she tries to unravel the island’s mysteries, and those observations will lead her to understand the error of her ways, to really grow both as a person and a fictional character: it’s not something you find often in YA-oriented novels, and it finally gives meaning to the coming-of-age journey that tends to be at the center of this kind of story. In a similar manner, the romantic thread of the narrative is developed in a believable, organic way (and there’s no love triangle, which is always a plus with me…): fellow warrior Tessen could not be farthest from Khya’s interest – they have known each other since childhood, but she resents him because she believes he stole from her the opportunity of advancement in the nyshin ranks. Khya’s wariness gives slowly way to growing trust when Tessen proves time and again his reliability and steadfastness, creating a slow-burn romantic entanglement that does not take over the story proper, but instead offers a nice counterpoint that is never overdone.
Despite a few objections, I rather enjoyed Island of Exiles, and it’s my hope that the “wrinkles” I encountered might be straightened out in the next installments: the story, and its future developments, are indeed worth keeping the faith.