Overall Grade: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
“Elias, she was wrong. It doesn’t matter what we’re born into, how wealthy one of us is, or how smart, or strong…we’re the same. Our hearts are the same.”
There is this idea that we should only get what we deserve. That there is some random assignment of pleasure or privilege afforded those with the most promising traits. In the end, this is simply that…random. In Willow Aster’s second book from the Kingdoms of Sin series, Exposed, this seems to be the prevailing ideology.
We meet Elias and Mara in the first book of the series, Downfall, the story of Mara’s brother, Luka, and his journey of love. In Downfall, Mara is horrible to the heroine, Eden, and readers like me assumed it could be difficult to accept a story about a character who is vain, shallow, and mean-spirited. Yet, Aster, through her astute storytelling, helps us empathize with Mara in Exposed. We find out quickly that Mara’s behavior is a consequence of conditioning and emotional/mental abuse. It becomes clear quickly that Mara simply wants to be seen, cherished, and loved for herself. She finds this with her friend, Elias, and her brother, Luka, in her youth and teenhood. However, complications in her present separate her from Elias and set her up as an enemy towards her brother. All of this occurs because she simply doesn’t have all of the parts of the story. Aster also shows us through Elias that choices from their past have separated them, even though it’s clear from the first page that Elias and Mara are destined for each other. Exposed is a journey of a 1000 deaths as Elias and Mara struggle against each other. While these two seem fated from the start of this book, they spend much of the book apart because one cannot accept that he can have what he wants and the other believes she isn’t worthy of him.
To begin, you should know that I loved Downfall, the first book in Aster’s series. Yes, there were times when I wanted to reach into the book and strangle Luka for his torturous ways with Eden. Yet, Aster uses his bullish ways to illustrate his internal struggle against his familial responsibilities. In the end, he redeems himself with Eden, and that story finds a most beautiful happy ending. To say that I was excited about Exposed would be an understatement. I’m a fan of authors taking the most unlikeable character of a story and enlisting me to fall for them. In Downfall, Mara is tied for this role with her parents, so going into Exposed, I was ready to be challenged and encouraged to accept Mara.
And to a certain extent, I did. It’s smart that Aster allows us to see Mara’s past. In fact, it’s necessary as it helps us empathize with her. Mara has borne great abuse on herself, and it has transformed her into a spiteful woman who views herself as only something to be possessed. She doesn’t recognize her talents and abilities for most of the story. What can be frustrating about Exposed is Mara’s continual self-sabotage. She’s the queen of it in this book, and it grates on your soul because she makes choices time and time again that leave her dejected and broken. This is more than Luka’s bullish ways in Downfall. There were many times when I found myself yelling at the book, yelling at Mara, to stop. Some might find this frustrating, but I believe this is Aster’s capability to pull us into her world. When authors provoke us to feel deeply for their characters and respond vehemently to them, I think they’ve done their job. Aster achieves this distinctly in Exposed through Mara’s characterization.
Similarly, Elias produces the same results. He’s stubborn and obtuse in his characterization. Honestly, it takes much of Aster’s book for Elias to finally understand his relationship with Mara. Every other character in the story recognizes his connection to Mara except Elias. Just like Mara, this is biting. For all of his intelligence and power as the king’s advisor, he too self-sabotages and remains dense for much of Exposed.
There is a big pay-off with this book, though. Aster plays on your emotions for much of Exposed, making us feel that journey of a 1000 deaths as Elias and Mara struggle with their connection. When they finally earn their happy ending, it’s blissful and well-deserved for her readers. But know, that you must traverse the pitfalls of their inane choices to get there. Reading Exposed is like walking through an emotional minefield. Once you begin, you cannot stop until its end as you can only gain respite from the tension of potentially stepping on bombs of emotion at its borders. Yet, the journey feels fulfilling, insightful, and worth the time you spent negotiating the challenges of it. In the end, Elias and Mara teach us that we are worthy, that we can be more than our pasts, and that love will always reign when we fully accept it.
“Mara has always been a part of me. I won’t ever be able to let her go.”
In love and romance,