Everything that made the Winter Gladiator Bella Kanto who she was has been stripped from her. She’s exiled from Tabat, the city she represented and loved, sent off to a distant outpost, guarded by a woman who hates her. Her only trustworthy companion is the dog who ran away from Duke Alberic at the quay and leaped aboard her ship at the last second. Bella doesn’t know who the dog is, but we do.
Bella not only faces the loss of all the trappings of her former exalted position. Hours of torture in the Duke’s dungeons have left her vulnerable, questioning everything she was. There’s a little more to those doubts that just the aftermath of torture; Bella’s recollection of what happened in the dungeons is distinctly different, in one respect, from what readers of Beasts of Tabat remember.
She is not the only person torn away from the city. Adelina’s former apprentice, Lucy, who is also named Obedience, has been kidnapped by pirates along with Maz, a friend from the College of Mages. The pirates think Lucy is the son of a powerful rogue mage in disguise, and plan to use her to harvest ancient, forbidden magic from a place called the Coral Tower. Once again Lucy, whose life is little more than a series of grievances, is being unfairly treated, with no easy way of escape.
While the journeys of these two characters will converge, this book is mostly Bella’s. Bella’s introspection, as she struggles to come to grips with her fall from grace, is insightful and interesting, and there is enough external danger from Ruhua, the Duck’s huntswoman and Bella’s jailor, to keep Exiles of Tabat from slowing down. Soon, Bella realizes that the things happening around her are not all about her. There is a concerted attack against Tabat, and she is only one part of it. From there, she must connect with old allies — even ones she’s betrayed — and make new ones, if she is to save the city she still loves.
With every review I write of these books, I mention Cat Rambo’s world-building, and I’m going to do the same here. Our view of the world Tabat inhabits expands in this book as we follow both Bella and Lucy. We see the vast raft city of the mer-people and its even more elaborate structures below the water’s surface. We learn about an ancient cataclysm that changed the nature of the world, and the magic that might have caused it. We meet more magical beings, the mer-people and dragons in particular, and Bella, at least, is forced to confront what she’s always known — that Beasts are people.
Meanwhile, Adelina, Bella’s friend in Tabat, sends her letters. She doesn’t know if Bella will ever receive them, but she tries to keep her exiled friend informed. What is happening in Tabat has grown beyond oppression and corruption into state-sponsored terrorism and violent rebellion. (And if you think that was a bit weird to read in January 2021, you’re right.)
I usually call out things in a book that jar me or distract me from the immersive experience. I’m going to do that here, but in a good way. In the middle of a scary and dramatic section, I stopped and went back to re-read Rambo’s description of a dragon, just for the sheer beauty of it. Yes, it did push me out of the story for a moment, but I didn’t care.
Exiles of Tabat is Bella’s dark night of the soul, and I’m not sure she is healed or recovered enough, as the book ends, to do whatever she will need to do. That’s not a failing. Rambo has built up the suspense, with a powerful adversary who has neither self-control nor compassion, and a group of allies who may not be as strong as they need to be. A compelling read in its own right, the book sets the stage for Gods of Tabat, due out later this year, perfectly.