The Exiled Queen by Cinda Williams Chima is the second (of four) novels in the Seven Realms series (I reviewed the first book, The Demon King, here). While I thought the first book was solid/good, The Exiled Queen (TEQ henceforth) was even better. Be aware that while I will try to avoid spoilers for events in book 2, if you haven't read book 1 yet, some things below WILL be spoiler-ish.
You can't always run from danger... Haunted by the loss of his mother and sister, Han Alister journeys south to begin his schooling at Mystwerk House in Oden's Ford. But leaving the Fells doesn't mean danger isn't far behind. Han is hunted every step of the way by the Bayars, a powerful wizarding family set on reclaiming the amulet Han stole from them. And Mystwerk House has dangers of its own. There, Han meets Crow, a mysterious wizard who agrees to tutor Han in the darker parts of sorcery—but the bargain they make is one Han may regret. Meanwhile, Princess Raisa ana'Marianna runs from a forced marriage in the Fells, accompanied by her friend Amon and his triple of cadets. Now, the safest place for Raisa is Wein House, the military academy at Oden's Ford. If Raisa can pass as a regular student, Wein House will offer both sanctuary and the education Raisa needs to succeed as the next Gray Wolf queen. The Exiled Queen is an epic tale of uncertain friendships, cut-throat politics, and the irresistible power of attraction.
The above sums up the plot pretty well. If you didn't pick it from the above synopsis, you should know that the setting for most of TEQ is a group of academys at Oden's Ford (primarly a military school and a wizard school). So yeah, a natural first reaction is some sort of Harry Potter experience. And there is a small bit of that, but mostly just due to the age of the main characters (16-18) and the school setting. If you think that is going to bother you, stay away. Don't get me wrong, I didn't have HP flashbacks, but if teens in school bother you, I would find something else to read. For myself, I was looking forward to the school setting...there is just something I like about these types of stories. And while the setting took place at a school, the main narrative drive is provided by the likeable characters, especially Han and Raisa. The setting could have been anywhere, as the focus of the book was more on how Han and Raisa were affected by the events in book 1, and what they will do to prepare for what comes next. I liked how all of the storylines progressed. Due to their ages, their is a bit of "coming of age" stuff to the tale, but I liked how the author has handled it in this series. Each character naturally grows and evolves based on events in his/her life, and its pretty neat to see how they have changed over the course of 2 books. While the story itself is good, too, the real reason to read is for Raisa and Han.
I've seen some comments refer to this series as A Song of Ice and Fire for the teen set, and I can kinda see that. Obviously it is nowhere near as complex or brutal, but the story, characters, and writing do NOT feel "young". I probably mentioned this in my review of book 1, but the Seven Realms series (so far), feels like what adult fantasy used to be before it got dark and graphic. In other words, TEQ is perfectly readable for adults if you are looking for a semi-complex tale, but without the adult language or gore. I would compare the level (i.e. feel) of TEQ to that of the Shannara books. I'm not comparing quality, just the age level.
As mentioned above, while I thought book 1 was good, TEQ was a big step up in quality, taking it beyond very good and bordering on great. I was in the mood for something with a more "classic" (pre dark and gritty) feel and TEQ hit all the marks for me. The ending sets things up nicely for the next book, too. There is still a lot of good story left to tell, and I am looking forward to seeing what happens in the final 2 books).
Grade: A (I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads)