Length: 432 pages
Release date: 10 January 2019
All hail the Girl King.
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.
A daughter understood only in relief–defined by what she wasn’t.
The quote above refers to Min, the younger, more docile princess. It could just as easily refer to The Girl King. This book is decent: smoother than Heart of Thorns, gentler than Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, more enigmatic than The Smoke Thieves and less annoying than Ash Princess. But what is it by itself? Readable, mildly entertaining and ultimately forgettable.
There are no new ideas here. Don’t be fooled by the Chinese aesthetic–the story is the same betrayed exile fighting for her birthright, gathering allies in unexpected places that you see all too often in YA fantasy. To its credit, The Girl King executes its tried and tested concept with sufficient skill to keep readers engaged for the duration of the book. A strong element of mystery stemming from the lost city of Yunis pushes the plot forward to a payoff that, while completely expected, still proves satisfying.
The Girl King‘s predictable nature extends beyond Yunis. Heroes and villains are recognisable from their first appearance, pinned to their role as good or evil and rarely allowed to stray. If you’re looking for grey morality, this isn’t the place. Characters behave just as anticipated, bar one or two developments obviously setting the stage for the sequel.
Lu and Min could have been so much more than they were. Starting out as Sansa and Arya with the ages reversed, their relationship could have metamorphosed in any of a dozen directions more interesting than the one-sided rivalry Mimi Yu affords them. Lada and Radu they are not. It doesn’t help that most of Lu’s story is taken up by a travelling subplot. If traipsing through the forest evading faceless enemies isn’t your thing, you may find her chapters boring. To be fair, I liked Lu’s character for the most part, and it’s not her fault that she didn’t really get to do much in this book.
I want to see Lu become truly ruthless. The Girl King teases the beginnings, showing her ambition to secure her inheritance at all costs. I want to see Min fight for the throne suo jure, master the darkness within her and stop relying on other people. Again, The Girl King allows us a few glimpses of what that would be like. I want to see Nok take up the mantle of his people instead of letting his life be defined by obligations to Lu or Omair. Once more, The Girl King leaves the true character development to its sequel. Which is fine if Mimi Yu comes out with a great second book, but The Girl King reads like it’s a prelude when it was supposed to be the opening act. As it is, Nasan’s story would probably have more bite than the three actual protagonists put together.
This novel isn’t bad by any stretch of the word. If you haven’t reached a satiation point with YA fantasy as I’m starting to suspect I may have, you might find it quite engaging. Personally, until the story hits its own stride and shows something different, I have a hard time understanding it any way but in relief.
*Thanks to Orion Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*