Rallis has always lived his life at the mercy of others. As the child of an Adesi mother and a Jevite father, he has never been fully welcomed into Adesi society. His skin color is different, his facial features are different, even his height and build are different than what the Adesi see as Adesi. Accepted reluctantly as a son of his mother’s house, Rallis has served as best he can, but still struggles to find his footing. When the Jevite Legion invades and conqueres Adesi, things only became more difficult as Rallis’ mixed heritage is met with contempt by the Jevites and fear and anger by the Adesi. Still, he serves his house with pride and lifts his chin even beneath the most withering and hateful looks.
As invaders, the Jevites are neither kind nor understanding. Having decimated the ruling houses, they now occupy the city of Kavck, enforcing curfews, throwing citizens into their prisons, and making themselves comfortable at the expense of the Adesi. While everyone finds this unpleasant, some find it unbearable and — as can only be expected from an angry and barely conquered populace — there is talk of a rebellion. For the most part, Rallis ignores it, keeping to house affairs and his own council until his cousin Naravi gets swept up in its fire and fury. Rallis, who has slowly begun making friends with a Jevite Lieutenant over games of khas, has no choice but to turn to the Taarq for help.
Rallis soon finds himself having to plead for his people’s very existence, standing in front of an Empress and the council who began the war that destroyed his home. They invaded for farmland and mines, wanting only more and more with no thought for the people who lived there. The council see Rallis and the Adesi as an annoyance, much as a gardener sees the weeds in the garden: things that must be removed so that Jevite flowers can bloom. Rallis has no choice but to try, and pray.
A Taste of Rebellion is a thoughtful, nuanced story as we see Rallis, a child of mixed blood, watching as his mother’s people are conquered by his father’s. The Adesi aren’t perfect — and Rallis knows that better than anyone. He’s lucky that his aunt took him in as a member of the house proper rather than taking him as a member of the Adesi-ren caste, someone that could be thrown away without a thought, his humanity waved aside and given no protection. Instead, he has a name, rights, an education, and a family. However, as much as he loves his family, as proud as he is to be an Adesi, Rallis has seen enough of its ugly side to wonder if maybe his father’s people might not be better.
Burdened by our own real world history, both from the invader and the invaded, it’s hard for me to read a fantasy work dealing with colonization without being influenced by the ugliness of what happens to a people overtaken and subjugated by a stronger force. I can’t help but come to the book with certain inherent preconceptions about race, about morality, and about who I expect the villains in the book to be. The author is aware, I think, of those preconceptions and never frames the invasion, conquering, and colonization of the Adesi as good or moral or right. It is made clear why the Jevites declared war on the Adesi, why they keep applying pressure, why they are encouraged to be as cruel and capricious as they are towards the conquered populace. They are not framed as good or moral or better. Nor are they all painted with the same brush. The Jevites, like the Adesi, are a complex culture both good and bad.
Due to a lack of empathy and understanding, and the encouragement to keep the conquered people downtrodden and obedient, the Legionnaires take liberties where they should not, harass and assault and imprison members of the population with impunity, for the most part. As with all people, there are good and bad, and as Rallis gets to know Taarq, the Lieutenant who sent for him after discovering, somehow, that he knows how to play the ancient game of khas, he finds himself growing more curious about the Jevites, their way of life, their way of thinking, and starts to see Taarq, at least, as a person. Taarq tries to lead by example, stands up for the Adesi when he can, and has hopes of enacting change within the Legion. He reprimands and calls for punishment the Legionnaires who accost Rallis and his cousin with the air of someone who has done this before, and will do it again.
The relationship between Rallis and Taarq begins as a friendship, one that deepens on Taarq’s side more quickly than for Rallis. However, before the inequity of their original status can be addressed, let alone resolved, Taarq takes Rallis as a political prisoner, However well intentioned it is, as Taarq is trying to save both Rallis and his cousin from being summarily executed for being caught during a revolutionary meeting, it shifts the imbalance of their dynamic even further to the side as they now become captive and captor, and, as it has been all along, the power is firmly and entirely on Taarq’s side. It’s not something he’s comfortable with, not something he wishes to accept … and yet, Rallis must obey him, must trust both his own life and his cousin’s to Taarq’s protection.
It’s the games of khas they play that allow Rallis to trust Taarq more than just their light and friendly conversations. He knows Taarq to be witty, intelligent, thoughtful, and kind; he can see the caution and the watchfulness in the way he moves his pieces on the board. Taarq is a man who won’t make a jump without knowing where he’ll land, and Taarq, watching Rallis play, can see the boldness and tactical brilliance of a man who is always thinking moves ahead, laying traps and feints. It’s these constant games that allow the two of them to lean on one another as Rallis is taken before the Empress. Taarq knows Rallis, knows how he thinks, can guess at the plays he’ll make and knows how and when to back him. Taarq knows the players of the game Rallis is suddenly forced to play, knows who can be moved and who can’t, and Rallis has to lean on Taarq’s connections and cleverness if he has any hope of saving his people.
Rallis knows his situation, knows it perhaps better than Taarq does, as Taarq has his rose colored glasses on so firmly, but it doesn’t stop Rallis from taking a chance for affection. He’s not ready to call it love, not even sure he’s in love at the moment, but he’s lonely and frightened and needs his friend. How the dynamic will shift in future books, how the decisions the Empress makes, how Rallis’ house reacts, and how the Adesi people react are all up in the air. The author makes it clear with the writing and with the storytelling that the power balance as it stands — already on fragile legs at the end of the first book — is shifting.
The layers of storytelling are so well done, giving depth to both cultures. The sheer eroticism of Taarq taking off his glove, of offering naked skin to Rallis, of Rallis delicately moving words like khas pieces through many conversations, it’s all so well done. And the banter, too:
“Every time we played, I thought about having you across the khas board.”
“No wonder you always lost.”
This time, Taarq’s laugh was stronger and more real. “That’s unkind!” […]
“Tell me what you imagined. The victor taking the spoils?”
“They were fantasies, not delusions,” Taarq murmured, pressing his lips to Rallis’s chin and then neck. “I never imagined that I was the victor.”
The plot is tightly focused on Rallis, but there’s so much more moving around the edges that it hints at a much larger world beyond. Naravi, Rallis’ cousin, has his own story in the shadows of Rallis’ adventure. Jevite society, as Taarq takes Rallis to dinners and parties as they try to court members of the Empress’ council, gives glimpses of politics going on beneath the surface, making it clear how even the kindest of the Jevites see the Adesi as lesser. (Because if they see them as human, they’ll have to admit that they have rights, that they can be wronged — which might mean they, the Jevites, are in the wrong). It’s done so smoothly it looks effortless. The writing is good, the characters feel fully realized, and the story moves at a brisk pace, neither lingering in exposition nor leaving it out. This is the first book in the Exalted series, and I can’t wait for book 2.
One small note: if you’re one of those readers who doesn’t care for a lot of fantasy terms in your books — titles, names, food, drink and games — this book has a rich infusion of created words.