Several generations ago, the Ixellans on the planet Sabel waged an interplanetary military campaign to further solidify their power, but the effort failed. As a result, the ruling family was ousted and some of their forces got stranded on the planet of Patran. Today, Sabel is governed by the house of Lakhami. The king and queen are eager to bring home the Sabellan refugees who have been stuck for decades on Patran. It is an unpopular movement, but one the king believes in fiercely. He has set his youngest child, Arien Lakhami, to observe as Patran rehomes the Sabellan refugees from the only home they’ve known on that planet to a newer, apparently better facility. Arien is horrified to learn the Patran are treating the relocation like a military removal. What’s worse, when they attempt to get answers, their bodyguard ends up dead and Arien steals into the night, heading for the space port and hopefully a ride off Patran under one of their assumed identities, Aron Roberts.
The shanty town of Sabelville on Patran is the only home Javid “Javi” Barasa has ever known. Maybe the government’s forced relocation might take him and the other refugees to a better place, but he’s not convinced. The fact that the Patran military shows up armed to the teeth absolutely does not instill Javi with the sense that this move is actually for the refugees’ well being. As the Patran soldiers lob smoke bombs and physically engage with refugees to round them up, Javi tries to fight back. In the name of saving his former school teacher from an armed soldier’s attack, Javi grabs and wields a piece of wooden debris and whacks a Patran soldier. Far too late he realizes his makeshift weapon is actually deadly thanks to the wicked nail sticking out the end. Javi saves his teacher, but at the cost of the soldier’s life, and Javi’s teacher barks at him to flee. Knowing nothing good will come of his actions, however accidental, Javi makes a run for the space port.
The Harriet Tubman is a respectable trading ship, but it has a constantly shifting crew. Currently docked at Patran for a trade pick-up, Captain Tamzin Stanten and second-in-command Sergeant Rasmus “Razz” Jensen are looking for a kitchen assistant and a clerk. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the two best applicants, a young refugee named Javi and the well-spoken Aron, are mostly looking for a ride off Patran. Still, Javi doesn’t haggle the low wage and Aron seems to have the perfect skillset to make interplanetary trading a breeze for as long as he is on the ship. In fact, the first leg of her latest route goes so well, she keeps both Javi and Aron on for the next leg, along with a passenger named Tapuh. The second leg of Captain Stanten’s journey, however, gets off to an inauspicious start when the luxury cruiser set to take off before them suffers a bombing. The Harriet eventually departs, but soon after, the truth about Aron’s—or rather, Arien’s—origins come out and Stanten must figure out how to proceed with the last living heir to the Sabel throne on her ship.
Exiles is a futuristic, science fantasy story and the first in Becky Black’s To Feed on Dreams series. It features two queer main characters, Javi, who is gay, and Arien, who is agender. Interestingly, Javi and Arien are not love interests for one another, rather they form a close friendship. Their sexual orientations do cause a bit of strife at first, though it’s mostly from lack of communication. Specifically, Arien is worried that being actually agender, but traveling under the male-presenting identity of Aron Roberts, will freak Javi out. Conversely, Javi thinks the degree to which Aron tries to avoid being in close quarters with him means Aron is a homophobe. They eventually come out to each other and, then, they truly start to bond.
As far as romance goes, Javi quickly falls for Razz, but Razz has a policy of never sleeping with crew on the ship. There is a brief window where it seems like Javi may not continue on with the Harriet and that opens the door…only for it to be closed again firmly when Javi decides to stay on. I enjoyed watching Javi get a taste of what he wanted, only to have it yanked away. He did not fall into histrionics or melodramatics, but it still clearly sucked for him and he got to commiserate with Arien. Eventually, Arien opens up about their own agenderness and their love life. Even with clear attractions going on with the two couples, there is very little on-page time devoted to overt romantic gestures. While I love me some big, schmoopy scenes where characters confess their undying love and devotion, there is something to be said for getting the chance to read between the lines when it comes to soft feelings between characters.
The overall tone of the story is rather sedate. I found this first installment rather cozy reading up until the last couple of chapters when the hook (i.e. Javi’s past comes back to “bite him in the ass”) hits. The pacing felt unhurried, yet Black does a good job of dropping clues about how much time has passed. I picked up on a pattern of the narrative explaining the journey would take X amount of time, then the next chapter would pick up just before or after X amount of time had passed. Rather than feeling like anything had been glossed over, it seems like a natural transition. Maybe because the first two thirds or so of the book is character and world building. Either way, I thought the story had a nice slice-of-space-life flow to it while we learned who Arien and Javi are, what makes them tick, and what they’re afraid of.
The last couple of chapters were spectacular. Until this point, almost everything in the book is (mostly) just carefree escapism. A couple of strangers meet and become friends and even confidants as they start a new life as “spacers,” perhaps permanently. Arien does come clean about who they are a little before this, but even once Stanten, Razz, and Javi know they’re royalty, life on the Harriet continues pretty much as per usual…albeit with a major change in destination to help Arien out. But even that feels like a far off reality. It’s over the last couple of chapters that Arien reunites with the people who are loyal to them and against the family that staged the coup against the Sabellan royalty. It’s also where the reason Javi left Patran comes to light, harsh words get exchanged on many fronts, and there a some further twist. For me, this turned a cozy little read into a spectacular opening volley and left me desperate to know what happens in the next book.
If you are a fan of science fiction, space opera stories, or are looking for something with multiple main characters without a romantic connection, I think you’ll really enjoy this book. I loved the way Arien and Javi discuss what Arien being agender heir to the Sabel throne means. I enjoyed how the events at the beginning of the book tie firmly into the climax at the end. There’s a whiff of romance that has both slow-burn and will-they-won’t-they vibes for one character, while another character has been thrown into a sort of unrequited love situation. All in all, this was a fun read that puttered along before kicking it into turbo for an exciting (if somewhat cliff-hanger-y) ending.