Javi has not forgotten the soldier he accidentally killed when soldiers of Patran invaded the shanty town inhabited by him and his fellow Ixellans, all under the guise of “relocating” the exiles. But, for several months, that sad event has been on his back burner while he and his new friend and reluctant heir to the Sabellan throne, Arien, fight for survival. When Arien’s rivals attempt to use Javi’s unfortunate past as leverage against them, Arien is forced into exploring a political marriage that would provide them with the money and military power to defend their claim to the throne. Lady Eral of the house of Glassel and Lord Finn of the house of Kavett are the most likely options; the former has great wealth and resources, while the latter has the best fighting ships on Sabel. As Arien gets closer to these two, however, they realize the two suitors are not equally matched. Eral, at least, is witty and progressive. Finn, however, reveals some deeply held beliefs about Arien and agender people that Arien finds deplorable. But just when push comes to shove in terms of fleshing out a potential marriage proposal—naturally contingent on Arien surviving to actually ascend to the throne—their General returns with a surprise.
General Queza returned to Patran with only a loose goal: rescue Javi. But as Javi’s trial on Patran for the murder of a Patran soldier gets underway, it’s clear that the Patran jury will only find him guilty. In the aftermath of the trial, however, Queza hatches a plan that will not only bring Javi home, but all three generations of refugees with her. Even better? Her scheme to turn that rag tag group of refugees into a military force. Not only does the training give the refugees purpose on their months’ long journey back to Sabel, but it solidifies their shared sense of identity and, crucially, creates a fighting force loyal to no one but Arien. But the timing feels suspect to Javi. He knows Arien is extremely reluctant to enter a political marriage, because they have long been in love with their guard, Tapuh. The more Javi trains, the more he begins to suspect Arien never saw Javi as a friend, but as an expedient means to regain the throne.
The Way Back is the second book in Becky Black’s To Feed on Dreams series. Like the first one (Exiles), the action is well divided between two main characters, Arien and Javi. In this installment, Arien and Javi not only represent figuratively separate facets of the larger story, but they are literally starring in two intertwined narratives. Javi starts this book on Patran for his trial, then he goes through the growing pains of becoming a bona fide soldier. Arien is meticulously balancing Sabellan interests against their own meager resources and trying to figure out how best to jockey their own person into a political marriage that won’t leave them dead on account of being agender and not being biologically able to contribute to producing another heir. Suffice to say, there is a lot of action (Javi) and intrigue (Arien) in the book.
I think this book is an excellent continuation of the first story. I enjoyed the sense of time passing without feeling like I was missing out on anything. This was especially appreciated with Javi’s side of the story, given that he’s essentially doing basic training; while he himself may have had a lot of repetition in the day-to-day, as a reader, I felt like I got exactly enough information about both his daily grind and the extra activities he got up to. Alas, those extracurriculars rarely involved his boyfriend, Razz, who feels a lot more like a supporting character this time around. Rather, Javi starts off feeling like he’s only joining General Queza’s boot camp to keep an eye on her. He’s wary of what she actually has planned. By the end of the journey back to Sabel, however, Javi’s turned into prime military man material. It was both fun and bittersweet to watch this character grow up. I loved that Javi himself reflects on where he was at the start of the trip back and where he ended up, and how, later, Arien notices the difference in him as well.
Meanwhile, Arien is trying to figure out how to court two nobles without actually having to commit to either one and while still being offered access to the two nobles’ considerable resources. It’s a very tough row to hoe, but it’s pretty clear how well Arien and Eral get along. The narration was so painfully bittersweet between these two because both Arien and Eral know theirs would be a marriage of convenience; there may be true affection, but no love. The case for marrying Eral gets a huge bump when her family reveals a possible way for Arien to help create an heir with Eral—again, more bittersweet because it seems like the perfect solution if Arien weren’t already in love with Tapuh. Still, as delightful as Eral may be and whatever solutions she may have, there is no guarantee that this would be accepted by Sabellans en masse. The other alternative is Lord Finn who, in this book, rather tips his hand too far and reveals deep held bigotry…among other flaws.
In addition to their individual stories, Queza represented some interesting tension in the story. Javi almost flip flops in his estimation of Queza’s true purposes. And the general herself acts like she’s inscrutable. The way the narration portrays Javi’s growing sense that Arien’s just been using him and that Queza’s almost conniving made me ache for Javi and Arien to just get a moment alone together to talk and reconnect as friends. Of course, there was always something to prevent them from meeting and I thought that provided an extra layer of interest in the story and in the dynamic between Javi and Arien.
Overall, I thought our two main stories were well balanced. Javi’s accidentally-on-purpose journey to become a soldier and Arien’s impossible choice complemented each other so well. By the end of the book, these two arguably end up not only positioned to be the happiest they’ve ever been, but also with far less of a class divide between them. Fans of the first book will likely appreciate how all the main and supporting characters continue to carry the action in the second book. Readers who enjoy a little cloak and dagger stuff will be tickled with Javi’s newfound and profound skepticism (that basically tinges everything he thinks and does for a big chunk of the book), but there’s also more traditional palace intrigue elements too. If you’re looking for a space opera that’s heavy on complex interpersonal relationships, light on spice, and chock full of interesting characters, I think you’ll really like The Way Back.