The second installment in the “Kings of Sin” series, King of Pride shows exactly why Ana Huang is the go-to author for romance. King of Wrath, the first installment, told the romance of jewelry heiress Vivian Lau and billionaire CEO Dante Russo. King of Pride takes two beloved characters from King of Wrath — vivacious bartender Isabella Valencia, friend of Vivian, and introverted CEO Kai Young, friend of Dante — and throws them into an “opposites attract” romance. The dynamic sets the tone for a steamy and dramatic story.
Isabella is bartending for the exclusive Valhalla Club, which is how she comes into contact frequently with the studious Kai. She wants to write an erotic thriller, but she struggles with writer’s block and pressure from her brother to finish her novel. Kai, meanwhile, is getting ready for a pivotal CEO vote for the Young Corporation, the family business that he’s heir to. Through their encounters at the Valhalla Club, Isabella and Kai grapple with their forbidden attraction to one another — fraternizing with a bartender at the club could cause Kai to become embroiled in a scandal and lose the CEO vote — but eventually find that nothing can keep them apart if they’re destined to be together.
As far as the plot goes, Huang allows the romance to develop and capture readers’ attention. Aside from those moments of passionate physical attraction, she also makes sure to give the characters the individual attention that they deserve to develop. While Isabella’s identity as a Filipino Chinese factors in occasionally with references to buko pandan and her lola, it’s the respect for family that really comes across. Familial pressure is a big presence in King of Pride as well; Isabella’s on-top-of-it brother, Gabriel, demands that she make something of her life and achieve something instead of meandering through jobs and not actually having something to show for it.
Family pressure is also a big deal for the British Chinese Kai, who literally embodies the “King of Pride” title. Born with a silver spoon, Kai’s won all his life. From his educational pedigree to his work, Kai has become accustomed to success and therefore wants to get the CEO position on his own merit. His worst fear is to beg for any votes or resort to shady business and blackmail to become CEO, but soon finds that his pride might be costly when it comes to the consequences of his relationship with Isabella. His mother, Leonora, is also intent on controlling Kai’s reputation among the public; she disapproves of his relationship with Isabella and how it has negatively affected Kai’s “face.” It’s a subtle cultural issue that defines the plot, but it doesn’t keep reiterating itself to do so, which further affirms Huang’s strong writing.
Huang could have focused exclusively on the steaminess between the two, and it would have been a great romance novel on its own. However, character and story are always at the heart of King of Pride. Isabella and Kai banter through intelligent dialogue. There are dramatic plots, although extreme, that unfold with the frenzy of media attention and antagonistic businessmen; they also ensure the story has much more than romance, including corporate dealings and intrigue. Huang juggles all of these different elements and never loses sight of a single one of them. It’s no easy feat, but she does it so well that you might forget you’re reading a romance novel and are instead in a stellar literary mash-up of Crazy Rich Asians (Young’s motherly disapproval, anyone?) and Succession (who will get the power?).
It’s especially meaningful, too, that Huang never extensively attributes Kai’s love of Isabella to her body, which may be a fear for readers of steamy romance novels. Books that center on the physicality of romance can oftentimes fall into the trap of making the romance all about intense sexual encounters. Although Kai is attracted to Isabella sexually, as expected of the premise, he also respects her aspirations and helps her achieve them. There are particularly sweet moments when he’s so attuned to her needs that he goes the extra mile to try and address them in ways that only he can. The same goes for Isabella, who makes the effort to understand Kai beyond his serious exterior and gives him the opportunity to pursue his interests and identity beyond his work, which is all he’s known throughout his life.
Perhaps inevitably, King of Pride isn’t completely free from flaws. There’s such a tension-filled buildup to Isabella and Kai getting together that unsteadiness can’t help but come afterwards. With the recognition that they can’t stop themselves from falling for one another, the plot has accelerated and reached the top. Coming down afterwards is slightly rocky. Much of the last third of the book feels like a hasty attempt at adding some unwarranted conflict between Kai and Isabella, and there’s not enough reasoning provided to justify this detour. Once the end comes, that’s when readers get to settle back in their seat again with relief.
Those who loved Vivian and Dante in King of Wrath will be sure to love their appearances in King of Pride. Isabella and Kai have all the attention in this installment, though. Huang might not be a CEO, but her writing definitely demands a vote across the board.