Three years ago, Naravi joined his older brother, Hesse, in an act of rebellion against the Jevite empire that invaded their lands. It cost Hesse his life at the hands of a Legionnaire, the same Legionnaire that saved Naravi’s life last year when the great city fell from the sky. In the past year, the Jevite occupation has … gentled, and — in theory — the Jevites should be leaving the city. Not that they’re making all that much of an effort to get gone. Things should be getting better and getting back to normal. But they’re not.
Naravi is still recovering from being taken prisoner, locked into the dungeons, and beaten. His pride, his sense of self, and his confidence in his own ability have taken a hit and he, in turn, is taking it out on everyone else. He’s short-tempered and sharp-tongued with his personal servant, the Adesi-Ren Iayan, temperamental and whiny to his cousin, Rallis, and maliciously cruel in word and deed to Nasir. Nasir, his savior. Nasir, the man who killed his brother and the man Naravi can’t seem to ignore or leave alone.
Politics, bandits, plots, and conspiracies have been going back and forth between Adesi and the Jevite empire; houses are struggling to stay in power or gain more; religious zealots are prophesying the return of the Exalted, but the only thing Naravi is concerned with is the fact that Miana, the House Mother of Yy, Navari’s House Mother and sister, wants him to get married. For politics. Navari still doesn’t know if he even wants to be kissed, let alone married, and Miana, in her gentle way, keeps adding pressure.
It’s easier to deal with people trying to kill him than it is to decide who he should be married to, so Naravi — after having, in his own way, foiled a smuggling attempt — is taken back to the floating cities to give his eye-witness account. And who should be his escort and his guardian, but Nasir?
The first book in the Exalted series, A Taste of Rebellion, dealt more with the delicate and difficult issues of a people forcibly conquered and colonized. Told from the POV of Rallis, Navari’s cousin, it’s the story of someone who belongs to neither the invaders nor the invaded and is forced to act as a bridge between the two. This book, however, is told from Naravi’s point of view, and Naravi is as introspective and politically astute as a pigeon. To be fair, he was raised to be ornamental, to be a symbol of his house’s wealth and breeding, and his life would have remained largely uncomplicated until he became the Hand of his house, where he is now expected to know things, and worst of all, do things.
Naravi is a very young 19-year old who doesn’t want to work. He doesn’t want to be responsible for things, or for people. He wants to be loved and admired and respected without having to earn it. The plight of the lower castes, the suffering of other people isn’t something he’s interested in, and when there’s a moment where he is given a choice to save his Iayan or to let his servant take the blame for a crime neither of them committed and save himself… Naravi makes the choice he would make. It’s not the choice he should have made, but for a frightened 19-year-old in a foreign place, constantly on edge, suffering from attempted assault, from being thrown into prison and nearly killed, being brutally yelled at and intimated by people older, taller, stronger and angrier, it was absolutely in character.
Naravi is many things. He’s intelligent, cunning, and clever. But he’s not an altruist and he’s certainly not brave. He was terrified when he was locked in the prison, less than a year ago, helpless to defend himself or escape. When the floating city fell from the sky, Naravi was inside of it, helpless and terrified, at the mercy of guards who treated him with as much respect as he treats his own Adesi-ren servant, if that much. Naravi, when he’s afraid, will — like most people — do anything he can to save himself, using any tool or weapon at hand.
However, he’s not stupid, and watching him learn and grow over the course of the book — without ever losing himself in the process — was a fun and absorbing read. Never once did Naravi stand up and become a leader among men, an eloquent speaker or a brilliant strategist. He simply learned as children learn, from those around him. From Rallis’ selflessness, from his sister’s quiet understanding, and from Nasir’s firm and unwavering support.
Nasir is older, kinder, more aware of the world and Naravi himself isn’t always aware of how often he turns to Nasir for advice and guidance. And when he’s lost and alone and scared, it’s Nasir he wants there to protect him. Naravi is beautiful and he knows it, and he’s afraid that, like so many others, Nasir only wants him because of his beauty. Which is one reason he keeps picking at the other man, wanting to ruffle his feathers, to get beneath his skin. That, and let’s be honest, because it’s fun. But he has trouble reading Nasir — when he troubles himself to read anyone’s heart but his own. It’s Nasir’s mother who opens Naravi’s eyes to the truth:
“When Nasir is angry, he grows cold. He burns around you, Hand Yy.”
There is no great introspection from Naravi. No great character growth or heaven sent epiphany. Instead, it’s a slow, gradual growing of a seed planted by his cousin, tended to and watered by his family, and given endless support by Nasir. Even at the end when the slight cliffhanger promises greater events yet to come, Navari is just as likely to ignore it or toss it aside because he only wants to see what he wants to see and do what he wants to do. Even so, it’s a very well-written book, and I honestly cannot wait for the next book in the series.