The Girl King
Written by Mimi Yu
Published by Gollancz/ Orion Publishing
Publication date: 10th January 2019
Summary (from Goodreads):
Sisters Lu and Min have always understood their places as princesses of the Empire. Lu knows she is destined to become the dynasty’s first female ruler, while Min is resigned to a life in her shadow. Then their father declares their male cousin Set the heir instead – a betrayal that sends the sisters down two very different paths.
Determined to reclaim her birthright, Lu goes on the run. She needs an ally – and an army – if she is to succeed. Her quest leads her to Nokhai, the last surviving wolf shapeshifter. Nok wants to keep his identity secret, but finds himself forced into an uneasy alliance with the girl whose family killed everyone he ever loved . . .
Alone in the volatile court, Min’s hidden power awakens – a forbidden, deadly magic that could secure Set’s reign . . . or allow Min to claim the throne herself. But there can only be one Emperor, and the sisters’ greatest enemy could turn out to be each other.
“Ay!” Lu hollered, striding over to them. “What are you doing here?”
“We overheard you sparring,” Min said. Her voice was ever tentative, like the tip of a toe testing hot bathwater. “It sounded so exciting that they— we—wanted to watch? Just for a moment.”
Lu blinked in pleasant surprise. It had been some time since Min had watched her spar— years, truly. She’d always assumed Min wasn’t interested. Her sister had always been a sensitive creature, flinching at even the clashing of practice swords.
“Don’t be cross, Princess,” Butterfly interjected, pulling Lu’s gaze away. “We just wanted to see if the rumors were true, that you’re as deft with a blade as a man.”
Snowdrop let loose a fresh peal of laughter.
“What’s so amusing? You don’t think I’m as good as a man?” Lu demanded good-naturedly.
“Oh no, it’s not that!” Butterfly smirked. “Snowdrop was just commenting that in your practice robes and helmet, Her Highness cuts as handsome a figure as any crown prince could hope to—”
“You truly are the Girl King, just as they say!” Snowdrop interrupted, dissolving into fresh laughter. Lu caught herself before she reacted, but from the corner of her eye she saw Minyi stiffen.
“Girl King” was the derisive nickname Lu had earned among both court officials and commoners contemptuous of her ambitions —as Snowdrop well would have known, had she the sense of a child half her age. She understood the language of awkward silences at least; she went quiet, sensing her error.
“The Girl King?” Lu said with a deliberate smile. The tension eased just slightly from Min’s shoulders. “Perhaps I will be! We’ll see soon enough.”
First impressions:I was so excited to get this approved on Netgalley and devoured it in a matter of hours, despite the length!
After reading it, I have very mixed feelings. There were many things I loved about it, but also a few elements which I felt could have been improved. I was looking forward to the Asian-inspired fantasy, sister relationship and courtly intrigue and deception.
I loved Lu and Min, two very different sisters and was looking forward to their relationship being one of the central ones in the book. Unfortunately, they spent rather a lot of time apart, but it was interesting to see how the dynamic between them changed during their childhood, adolescence and finally when they end up on opposite sides of a conflict.
Set was a rather weak but adequately dislikable antagonist, though I wanted to know much more about his advisor, Brother, and his knowledge of magic. Despite Lu training to be her father’s successor, I could see his choice coming long before it happened. I just wish he had time to explain it to his daughter or had helped to prepare her for the eventuality of marriage rather than ruling as ‘the girl king’.
I found Nokhai the most interesting character, especially due to his complicated history and the fact that he is not a stereotypical ‘macho male’ protagonist. His story is revealed in pieces which was intriguing but, at times, confusing. The prologue also took a while to fit into the larger scheme of the book so I had almost entirely forgotten the significance of it when it eventually came into the story.
Lu and Nokhai’s relationship had some potential, but I feel like it didn’t have enough development, particularly considering the years and issues that have separated them. There was an attempted rape scene which seemed gratuitous and a few uses of derogative slang language such as ‘pinks’ and ‘slipskins’ which were never addressed. The expulsion of the foreigners has historical parallels, but the implications or effects weren’t examined, leaving me wondering about some of the world-building. Hopefully, many of the questions raised will be addressed in the next book.
Overall, this book had lots of good ideas, but was not without issues.
“. . . Even at the best of times, an empire must not leave anything to chance. A strong emperor does not just rule for the present— he plans for the future.”
His words sent a trill of excitement traipsing down the notches of Lu’s spine, like a series of bells, each amplifying the last until her body rang with it. The future. It was finally happening. She kept her face trained in a mask of assured solemnity. “And so, today,” her father continued. “I will announce my successor.”
He was looking at her. Lu gazed back with the slightest of smiles.
And then it happened. He looked away, as though ashamed of himself. An unfamiliar sensation seized up her insides, then released, like the black and spotted fronds of a dying fern unfurling in her gut.
What I liked: The differences between Lu and Min, their sibling relationship, Lu’s determination to take the throne, her character development throughout as she finally sees the negative side to the Empire her father and grandfather established. I liked the Asian-inspiration for the world-building, although, because there were recognizable elements from China, Japan, Korea and other countries, it did risk becoming a bit muddled.
Even better if: There had been more time spent on establishing Lu and Min’s relationship before they were separated, if some of the coincidences in the book hadn’t been quite so useful to the plot (e.g. being captured by the exact people who could help you rather than one of your many enemies), if Nokhai’s backstory had been expanded upon and explained more clearly, if some of the slightly problematic uses of language had been addressed.
How you could use it in your classroom: This would be better recommended for older teens or adults due to the level of violence. It could be used to spark discussions about power and gender, looking at different countries and the traditional roles of power, the implications of imperialism, etc. I would like to use it as a ‘What if…?’ exercise. Which historical events might be different if there had been an Empress rather than an Emperor etc? You could also look at historical figures, such as the famed Last Empress of China, etc.
(Thank you to Netgalley and Gollancz for my e-ARC)
What did other bloggers think?
Kristi from Confessions of a YA Reader said:
“The Girl King was a highly anticipated 2019 book for me and it didn’t disappoint. ”
Judith from Chain Interaction said:
“If you’re a YA fantasy fan then I would highly recommend you read this book, whatever you enjoy about the genre I do not doubt that you will be able to find a piece of it in this story.”
Thanks for reading!