I didn’t realise going into Exquisite Captive that it was set in LA; I must have missed the reference to Malek’s “Hollywood lifestyle” on the back cover and got the impression it was historical fantasy. Instead, we get urban fantasy, but with a twist; rather than the protagonist fighting off magical invaders to her mundane city, the protagonist is the mundane invader, albeit against her will. For Nalia is a jinni, enslaved and sold to Malek, a wealthy businessman. She is compelled to obey his every instruction and to grant him three magical wishes. Upon granting the third she will be free, and so he is determined never to make his third wish.
Although the novel is set wholly on Earth, the worldbuilding of Arjinna is richly imagined, and I hope to see more of it later in the series. There are five castes in jinni society, differentiated by their eye colour and the element whose magic they can harness. Four castes each use one element, while the fifth, the all-female Ghan Aisouri, are the most powerful, able to use all four elements. This led to the Ghan Aisouri taking control and ruling over the other jinni for centuries before a bloody coup less than three years before the novel begins. The after-effects of this are still being felt, as the new leaders are really no better than the Ghan Aisouri, and the same rebel groups who aided their rebellion now work against them.
As you can imagine, there’s a lot of backstory. How did Nalia get from being a Ghan Aisouri soldier to a human’s slave? Some of this is handled very well, in flashbacks and dreams that give us glimpses of Nalia’s past. These are tense, emotional scenes, underscoring Nalia’s love for her younger brother, her guilt over the inadvertent role she played in the massacre of the Ghan Aisouri, her uncertainty over her prescribed future as a soldier. They show us what has made Nalia the woman she is today: the last surviving member of the Ghan Aisouri and, therefore, the rightful empress of Arjinna, who is driven to escape her master, not for her own sake, but to save her brother from the work camp he was thrown into after the coup.
The more general backstory, however, sometimes came across as a bit of an infodump. I didn’t really mind it, because I had already been drawn into the story and the world and I wanted to know more about Arjinna and its history, but it is very much told rather than shown and doesn’t pack the same emotional punch as Nalia’s own flashbacks.
It’s a relatively small flaw, however, in what’s otherwise an incredible book. Nalia is a well-written character who, in spite of her guilt, in spite of her slavery, retains her sense of self and a certain degree of snark. When Malek commands her to grant wishes for his clients, one of them comments that Malek has warned him of her “feisty” personality and he shouldn’t take it personally. Her response? “No. You should definitely take it personally.” (p. 10).
At times I wished there were no little brother, that she was trying to escape for her own sake, but I think that’s part of the self-loathing she learns to overcome. As the novel progresses, although she is still bent on saving her brother (who wouldn’t be?), she also begins to see freedom as something she might deserve. She begins to understand that showing compassion to a prisoner is never the wrong choice, and that prisoner’s actions afterwards are not her fault. And she learns what it means to be an empress; not, as she had grown up believing, ruling over others, but putting herself at risk to protect them.
I particularly liked the handling of Malek and Nalia’s relationship. For the first two years of Nalia’s enslavement, Malek was, quite simply, evil. By the start of the novel, however, he has developed feelings for Nalia and starts to treat her with kindness and affection. She first responds in kind purely as an act, to take advantage of his feelings to gain her freedom, but finds herself welcoming his attentions. This is, to put it bluntly, creepy as hell, and at times it made me uncomfortable because I couldn’t see where the book was headed. Eventually, however, Nalia realises that she only appreciated Malek’s new behaviour towards her because she was so starved for affection and connection that she would take anything, and if he really had even one shred of love for her he would have freed her. Even so, Nalia sees Malek’s personality in a more nuanced light by the end of the novel than at the beginning; without giving away any spoilers, it seems that, in other circumstances, he might have been someone who could truly love Nalia. This is, I think, more a testament to her innate compassion and desire to see the good in others than it is to his own personality, though. And that is one of the reasons I so adore Nalia; she has been brought up to believe compassion is a weakness, and has spent the past three years of her life in a living hell, yet ultimately it is her greatest strength. It is, I believe, what will ultimately give her the opportunity to save her people from the cycle of oppression and slavery.
While Nalia’s driving goal is to escape Malek and save her brother, she is helped along the way by Raif, a revolutionary who loathes her and all that she stands for but who sees her potential to help him and is willing to trade with her for her freedom, and stalked by a murderer on the orders of the new rulers in Arjinna, determined to wipe out the very last of the Ghan Aisouri. It comes together as the story of a young woman’s fight for freedom, not only from her master but from the brutal caste warfare destroying her homeland.
Nicola is an English Lit graduate with a passion for YA fantasy and books by and about women, neither of which she got nearly enough of during her degree. Her favourite things are books, cats and tea, preferably all at once. You can follow her on her blog and on Twitter.