The Girl King was one of my most anticipated reads for 2019 – political fantasy, with a fraught sibling relationship, in an Asian-inspired world? It sounds brilliant, and it really is.
Book: The Girl King by Mimi Yu
Read before: No
Ownership: Physical ARC provided by Gollancz for fair review. All opinions my own.
One of my very favourite fantasy tropes is when heirs go wrong – either an expected heir fails to take their place as king/emperor/power figure, or someone else in the family is forced unexpectedly into a role that they were never prepared for. The Goblin Emperor, which follows the latter version, is one of my favourite political fantasies, because it explores how hard it would be to learn to rule on the job. The Girl King is a really perfect example of the former version of the trope, which I’ve not seen done this well before!
We follow three characters in The Girl King: Lu, who has trained all her life to become Empress; Min, her younger sister, who is resentful of Lu’s status as golden child; and Nokhai, who is the last remaining member of a culture that no longer exists. Lu and Nokhai end up spending most of the book in each others’ company, but their own personal quests are so different that this didn’t feel redundant at all. I actually couldn’t choose a favourite POV character, which is so unusual for me! I never got bored of any of the storylines, and every time I finished a chapter I was excited to start the next one to see what was going on with someone else. I thought that the action was really well balanced between POVs, so that an action-heavy chapter for, say, Lu, was succeeded by a plottier chapter for Min. It kept me paging through the book, for sure.
What I loved about this book is that it showcased so many different ways for female characters to be strong. Lu is physically strong and charismatic, whereas Min has always lived in her shadow. Getting to see Min learn how to use her own emotional and mental strength was really a highlight for me – she’s a completely different character by the end of the book. She’s intelligent and ambitious, and kind of reminded me of Xifeng from Forest of a Thousand Lanterns in her drive to get what she wants. She may well discover magic powers, but her real power is herself, once she allows it to be… Then we also see the Empress, the girls’ mother, whose strength is very much that of the schemer and manipulator, and Vrea, a priestess whose kindness and determination to save her people is her strength. The variety of women here is wonderful. Lu may well be trying to become the first female Emperor (the “Girl King” of the title), but she’s definitely not the only powerful woman here.
I really don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but things get a lot more epic than they initially sound, with hidden cities, lost birthrights, magic powers, and large-scale battles. It’s a little bit familiar to begin with, but I think original enough that it should sit really well amongst the giants of the genre. The book builds to a marvellous crescendo, but those of you hoping that this would be standalone will be disappointed, as the ending really only ties together enough to lead into a sequel. I definitely had that moment of ‘oh wait, there aren’t enough pages left to tie this all up’! I’ll be eagerly awaiting that second book, as I loved this, and I think Mimi Yu is definitely one to watch!