This is kind of like if someone took the world of Pokemon and made it into a romantic fantasy novel. Leena is a "Charmer," which means that she has the power to "tame" beasts. There are different classes of beasts in accordance with their danger and rarity, and with her powers, she has the ability to tame some of the most dangerous of all. But she's also ostracized from her people, so she's turned to the streets to offer ordinary people the chance to buy their own beasts.
Noc is the leader of an assassin's guild and he and his people have been contracted to kill Leena. At first, it seems reasonable, but once she confronts him to demand answers, he finds himself wondering why the contract was put out in the first place since she doesn't seem particularly evil or ambitious. Also, he's attracted to her, so there's that. More thoughts on that attraction, later.
As they fight their illicit attraction, we follow the two of them on a quest to break a curse, find answers, and of course, tame more beasts. But the curse might be deadly, and the answers more so, and the beasts, of course, carry their own costs. Dun, dun, dun.
So props to the author for the whole Pokemon-like element. The blurb uses Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them as a comparison, which is maybe also due to the beastiary in the back of the book, but Leena wears a little book around her neck with her beasts in it (like a Pokedex), and they're stored in somewhere called the beast realm when they're not in play, so it feels more like Pokemon to me (with a dash of Rune Factory 4, maybe). This is the biggest selling point of the book, imo.
The problem is that this is a fantasy romance and the romance element is the worst part of the story. I loved the beginning, and Leena's "take no prisoners" mercenary act was so fun and hardcore. But then as soon as she and Noc meet, the enemies-to-lovers tension I was hoping for just fizzled out and they got over their suspicion of each other so quickly that there was no doubt at all that they would end up together, and it just kind of felt like 300+ pages of what's the point?
The villain is genuinely terrifying but I didn't feel like they were really used as effectively as they could have been. Yes, the ending was awful-- but I would have liked to have seen more foreshadowing leading up to that. The feeling of doom that should have been hanging over our couple's heads just wasn't there. Contrast that with another fantasy romance, which is actually on the suggested tab for this book on Goodreads, called PROMISE OF DARKNESS by Bec McMaster, where even though they are attracted to each other, their relationship progresses in a gradual and natural way as it's tested (and threatened) again and again by immediate dangers.
KINGDOM OF EXILES isn't a bad book, but it didn't quite manage to live up to my expectations. When I first started reading, I was all gung-ho about reading the sequel, but now I'm not so sure I want to bother continuing with the series. Your mileage may vary, though.
2.5 out of 5 stars