I’m a big fan of Scott’s first court fantasy trilogy, The Four Arts, and I’m so happy this book starts a spin-off trilogy!
Book: The Exile’s Curse by MJ Scott
Publication date: 16th November 2021
Ownership: E-ARC sent free of charge by author. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Injury (not graphic) and coma.
To save her new life, she needs the man who destroyed her old one…
Chloe de Montesse never thought she’d return from exile. Now she has a chance to reclaim the life she fled after her husband was executed for treason. But coming home again isn’t as simple as it sounds. Her magic is rusty, her family want her to wrap her in cotton wool, and Illvyan society views her as a scandal waiting to happen. Worse, fate keeps throwing her into the path of the man who ruined her life.
Lucien de Roche’s magic bares the truth for all to see. He’s used it to serve the empire, but there’s one secret he’s always kept hidden. The fact that he fell in love with his best friend’s wife. And that he’s never quite fallen out again. Now Chloe is back and it’s no secret at all that she loathes him for his part in her husband’s death. A sensible man would forget her…but he’s tired of being sensible. And determined to keep her safe.
When a mission from the emperor takes them both into the wildest heart of the empire, to a country where power and loyalties collide, and old plots simmer back to life, Chloe finds herself dragged back into the past she wants to leave behind. And her only way out might be Lucien. The man she thinks she can never trust. The man she wants to hate. Or hates to want…
The Exile’s Curse takes place a short while after the end of the Four Arts series, and follows a minor character, Chloe de Montesse, in a new adventure, but I think you could start with this book if you wanted to without missing too much of the context. I only recently reread the first series when I heard this was coming out, so the worldbuilding was fresh in my mind, but you’re supplied with enough detail to get along with about the magic and the politics of this world. Chloe is something of an audience stand-in at first, because she is returning to her homeland, Illvya, after a self-imposed exile of ten years, so there’s plenty for her to catch up on, and it’s a neat way to balance the differing knowledge of a new and returning reader. The fact that the bulk of the story takes place in a country we haven’t seen before really helps this to feel standalone too.
That being said, this book is a slow starter, and I thought that the main plot didn’t really get going until around the 30% mark – it’s a definite change from the previous series, which started with a bang. Scott’s style is somehow languid without being flowery, which I love, but without a major inciting incident up front, this means the book frontloads worldbuilding and emotional work in a way that might not work for everyone. I think it’s hard to pull off that sense of nostalgia and regret when you barely know a character. Even I was I was worried at first that I wasn’t going to fall in love with Chloe the way I did Sophie, the previous heroine. However, once Chloe sets off on her diplomatic mission, things clicked into place and I had an amazing time! While it took me a while to warm up to her, I think that’s part of some very good characterisation: Sophie was young and naive and open, and easy to like because of it, but Chloe is older, more cautious, and has learned to hold a lot back, which makes her tricky but rewarding to get to know. And bonus points as well for a heroine over thirty and still active, respected, and desirable!
If you’re like me and you enjoy your courtly intrigue to come with a lot of etiquette, statecraft, and interesting details of different cultures – not to mention balls and dances and feasts – then The Exile’s Curse is going to delight you. I really loved how rich the details about Andalyssia were, and while some of this is achieved by Chloe attending big diplomatic events, a lot of it derives from the friendships she makes amongst the women of the court, and the little parts of their lives they include her in. The main plot revolves around the wedding of the king to his betrothed, and getting to see all the bridal traditions and their personal impact made this feel so well-realised. I loved both Katiya, the sweet but practical bride, and Irina, her feisty younger sister, and I really enjoyed how Chloe is able to have multiple female friends, all with developed personalities – these books are very concerned with female power, but that doesn’t mean all women are pitted against each other.
I’ve barely even talked about the romance! This isn’t a true capital-R Romance book in itself, as the ending is fairly open (being the first of a series), and though the point of view is shared between Chloe and Lucien, both the page time and the character development feel weighted much more heavily towards her. But there is a strong romantic thread, and I thought it was excellent. There’s a history between the two of them that really feels as though it affects all their interactions, and I’m a sucker for a hero who’s been pining for years in secret. From Chloe’s perspective it’s enemies-to-lovers, but from Lucien’s it’s a second chance to win the woman he’s loved all along and lost, first to his best friend and then to politics, and I loved how their views of things clashed, and made some very fun moments. Plus, all Chloe’s friends totally ship them, which was brilliant. I couldn’t be more happy with how things are progressing and I cannot wait to see them more properly together in book two.
If you love fantasy romance or court fantasy, then MJ Scott is a must read. I’m not sure when book 2 is coming, but I’m going to need it soon after that ending, which sets up so much trouble! Five out of five cats.