The Girl King

-Mimi Yu


I first heard of The Girl King through a discussion on ‘diverse’ books, which - unfortunately - prejudiced me against it from the start.  Like most fantasy and SF readers, I have nothing against books set in foreign lands or drawing influence from non-westerners or mindsets (come on, how many of us actually live in Middle Earth?) but I have a great deal against authors being touted as anything other than authors.  When an author is described as being a great ‘person of colour’ author rather than a great fantasy author, I get worried.  It suggests, very strongly, that the author has nothing else going for them.


Fortunately, The Girl King has quite a lot going for it.


In an empire that is very clearly based on Imperial China, complete with a diverse collection of nationalities brought unwillingly under the empire’s banner, there are two princesses, the only children of the reigning emperor.  The older girl, Lu, is a classic action princess, learning to fight with swords as she awaits her nomination as her father’s heir.  Min, her sister, is a far tamer character, a timid girl who expects to be married off as soon as she becomes a woman.  Their lives are suddenly disrupted when their father names Set, their male cousin, his heir instead and commands Lu to marry him. 


Determined not to take this lying down, Lu challenges Set to a contest to determine who should be the rightful heir.  The challenge - a hunt - ends badly when Set’s men try to kill Lu, then - adding insult to injury - blame her for the death of her father.  Lu flees into the countryside, meeting up with Nokhai, the last surviving wolf shapeshifter.  They form an uneasy partnership - her family has done his people a great deal of harm - and go in search of an army to take back the throne.  They eventually reach a lost city and kingdom, with a strange magic of its own that promises aid, but their enemies catch up with them before they can ready themselves for the fight.


In the meantime, Min finds herself married to Set, caught in a network of court intrigue and experiencing gruesome visions that are the first sign of her magic coming to life.  She hopes to be a good wife and empress, but instead becomes a tool of Set and his allies as they start to hunt down Lu.  Her powers growing out of control, Min descends into madness and - in the aftermath of the first desperate battle, where her husband is killed - declares herself the empress.  The stage is now set for a struggle between the two sisters, as only one of them can rule ...


In some ways, The Girl King is not as diverse as its fans argue.  On one hand, it is a very Asian-themed story indeed; on the other, the plotline could easily have been set in something akin to medieval Europe without losing anything of its overall shape.  The runaway princess trying to regain her throne, taken from her unjustly by evil patriarchal men, is far from uncommon.  This works in its favour, to be fair; the names may be foreign, but the characters are very human and the stakes are understandable.  There’s nothing incomprehensible or outrageous - a ‘heroic’ character acting in a manner we don’t consider heroic - in The Girl King. 


The worldbuilding is a curious mix, to be honest.  There’s a very definite flavour of Imperial China, but we don’t learn enough about the magic - and how it fits into the world - to grasp how this world actually works.  We are left to fill in the blanks far too often, rather than being shown the key to understanding the system.  (The attack on the hidden city makes no sense, as far as I can tell.)  There’s also a sense that the world is small, rather than immensely huge.  Either Lu travels a vast distance at an astonishing pace, which is possible, or the empire is nowhere near as large as the book claims.  And the book pulls no punches about how devastating wars can be on the commoner populations, where they are caught in the middle or abused by victorious soldiers.  Lu learns, firsthand, that her father has unleashed a nightmare on his people.


The characters of the book are a curious mix.  Lu is very much the standard rebellious princess, although - and this is a point in its favour - this is deconstructed as often as it is feted.  Lu thinks tactically, not strategically; she doesn’t seem to realise, for example, that she isn’t guaranteed her father’s throne, nor that she needs to make alliances with the older men surrounding her father to convince them that she’s the best possible person for the job.  This would not have been easy, certainly not in a world where men and women (particularly royal women) were kept separate, but she doesn’t even appear to try.  She’s also prone to being very self-centred; again, something that blows up in her face more than once.  Her storyline is about her learning how the world really works, just as much as it is about her trying to survive and raise an army of her own. 


Min, by contrast, is - on the surface - placid, timid and compliant.  Unlike Lu, who wants to climb out of society’s box, Min wants to embrace her future role as a wife and mother.  Her personal tragedy is that she cannot be a mother, at least; she is kicked out of the box because she is barren (the price for her magic).  As she strives to develop her magic, caught between Set - the only person who was ever really kind to her - and her stepmother, perhaps it is no surprise that she starts to descend into madness.  She doesn’t want much, but she cannot have what she wants.  It’s a curious reminder that not everyone wants to rule the world (or at least the empire.)  And while she spends most of the book as a helpless pawn, she does - eventually - come into her own.


The two main male characters in the book - Set and Nokhai - are both dragged down by the past, both held back by humiliations caused, directly or indirectly, by Lu.  Their resentment keeps them from moving forward, at least at first.  And yet, they’re not bad people.  Set is actually kind to Min, while Nokhai grows to accept that Lu is growing up.  Set is also quite clever - and certainly better prepared for the game of thrones than Lu - in that he takes advantage of his position to secure himself, which is more than Lu managed to do.  (Lu’s stepmother points this out to her, quite bluntly.)


But the weakness here lies in how the characters relate to one another.  I can easily believe that Lu and Set hated each other, even before he took ‘her’ place as her father’s heir.  There’s a lot of bad blood there, so much that I wonder why her father expected Lu to marry Set without protest.  On the other hand, Lu is - to some extent - dismissive of her sister and it’s hard to see them as having any real relationship.  (Min does plan to try to get Lu ‘pardoned’ for the crime she didn’t commit, which is something more sisterly than her elder sister did for her.)  I did expect Lu and Min to have a major argument, something to account for their split, well before the main plot actually started.  And the constant shift in relationships between Lu and Nokhai started to grate after a while.


The wider plot is also hampered by relatively little of it making sense, at least from what we are given.  One of the princesses is a bastard, but which one?  What are Set and his allies, including the stepmother, trying to achieve?  What role is played by outsiders from distant lands?  It isn’t clear.  Hopefully, these issues will be cleared up in the sequel.


I found The Girl King to be slow going at first, partly because the author took too much time for character development.  This caused an odd stop-start effect where Lu’s side of the plot advanced rapidly, while Min and Nokhai’s sections seemed to be moving slower.  On the other hand, once both sides started to advance ... they advanced.  It is also remarkably clean, particularly given the stakes: rape is mentioned and threatened, but not shown; Min is not expected to consummate her marriage to Set immediately, which is something of a relief as she only just started puberty. 


And yet, the book came to an end before any of these matters were resolved ... (roll on the sequel).


The book also hammers in the ‘royal privilege’ mantra more than once, although it does take care to deconstruct it.  Lu (and Min) were astonishingly privileged, by the standards of the time, yet they were also birds in a gilded cage.  Their mistakes and character failings stem from their upbringing just as much as their intellects; when they are taken from their cage, they don’t know the rules and they don’t know how to act.  Lu is very lucky to survive Set’s bid to kill her, let alone remain alive long enough to start planning revenge.  And when she appears to be nothing more than a helpless peasant ... well, she discovers that their lives are not comfortable or safe.  Thankfully, unlike some of the other books I’ve read - Sorcerer to the Crown, The Collapsing Empire - The Girl King is well aware of their flaws and works to show their disadvantages as well as their advantages.  Lu, at least, is well on the way towards becoming a heroine when the story ends.


Overall, The Girl King is a good fantasy novel.  Not great, not on the scale of Lord of the Rings or Mistborn, but well worth a read.


And, as a first novel, it shows lots of promise to come.