Whaddup, homies? (Homie is still gender-neutral, yes?) Today I’ll be reviewing one of my most anticipated reads for 2019 (speaking of which, I’ll be talking about this year’s releases that I’m looking forward to, so keep an eye out for that post!), the East Asian inspired fantasy, The Girl King. I was semi-resigned to just having to get it on Amazon or Book Depository, but, wonder of wonders, NetGalley granted this request for me!
Too bad I really didn’t enjoy it.
I tried, I really did! It looked like it was going to be another one of those books whose praises I shouted to the heavens! (And y’all know how hard I roll for the books I love.) But it just wasn’t meant to be.
Title: The Girl King
Author: Mimi Yu
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
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.
Trigger Warnings: Attempted rape, homophobia, graphic injury, imperialist/colonialist themes, use of racist slurs
☕ Quotes ☕
“Beauty was a weapon–one that required honing and care, like a sword. But also like a sword it could cut both ways.”
“Tears are easy. Tears don’t cost anything.”
“Your title – your station – your very existence – is built on the subjugation, on the suffering of others.”
“I wasn’t made to torment you. I wasn’t made for you at all. I was made for me.”
☕ Plot ☕
I’ll be honest. I’m not into “journey” books. You know the type – our intrepid heroes cross forests and oceans and deserts in order to fulfill their destiny. I personally find them boring and an excuse to force character development. But I decided to give this one a try because I’m a sucker for stories where the hero has to fight their way to a throne. Contests between the existing heirs apparent? Fights to the death? Battles between embittered siblings? Gimme!
Unfortunately, I was, in the end, disappointed.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: I am not completely writing off this series. I’m intrigued enough to buy the next book, and certainly I don’t feel that this book warranted a 1-star rating. While I wouldn’t say that this was a great read (which I’m a bit sad about, considering how much I was looking forward to this), I also did still enjoy the plot.
But ultimately, there is a ton to unpack about The Girl King that just made me uncomfortable. So get comfy, comrades. This is going to be quite a lengthy rant.
First of all, I want to mention something that Vicky @ Vicky Who Reads pointed out. As a queer POC, it doesn’t bother me so much if a book contains POC characters but not queer characters (your mileage may vary, of course). But if a book that contains POC characters does have queer characters, I expect the queerness to be as excellently represented as the fact that these characters are POC. But, as Vicky said, that’s not the case here. There’s only one queer character (who to be honest is only vaguely queer) and he’s also commits attempted rape, so that was super iffy for me. For a more in-depth analysis, you can read Vicky’s review here.
I also wasn’t too enthusiastic about the handling of the usage of slurs. In-universe, there is a race of people called the Gifted for whom the term ‘slipskin’ is offensive. One of the main characters, Nokhai, is a Gifted, and explains to the other character, Lu, who as an Imperial princess possesses privilege, that the term ‘slipskin’ is not appropriate. And while Lu never uses the slur again, her reaction when Nokhai points it out to her tells me that she didn’t really internalize why the word should not be used.
But what really immensely bothered me about the book was how sympathetically the themes of imperialism and colonialism were portrayed. I get that this book is based on ancient China, but it just really rubbed me the wrong way. There’s a particular scene where Lu and Nokhai are arguing about a massacre the Imperial Army committed, and Lu insists that because Nokhai wasn’t born at the time, he can’t refute her insistence that the army only killed combatants and rebels. As a Filipino, this scene reminded me so much of Martial Law Era apologists and historical revisionists.
Lu doesn’t seem to understand what the rest of the characters do: that empires are won through bloodshed and the oppression of other people. True, she repeats to herself the quote, “Your title – your station – your very existence – is built on the subjugation, on the suffering of others,” over and over again, but I feel like this is a cop-out in place of actual introspective character development. Throughout the book, Lu seems more concerned with defending herself rather than righting the wrongs of her ancestors.
I will say this though. I was super interested in the court intrigue surrounding Empress Min, Lu’s sister, and the subsequent discovery of her magical abilities. Her chapters showed great character development, and I’m honestly excited to see where the second book takes her.
☕ Writing ☕
Mimi Yu has a gift for words, I’ll say that much. Her descriptions of the palace where Lu and Min once lived, the city of Yunia, the gowns that Lu and Min wear, and Lu’s armor are so evocative; as are her portrayals of the opposite end of the spectrum: the stark reality of poverty and hardship in the empire.
I also adored how she described the pantheon of deities worshipped by the various characters in the book. I especially found Nokhai’s interactions with his own caul, with the beast gods of the Gifted, and the Ana and the Aba incredibly poetic.
And, as I mentioned earlier, I was just in awe of how Mimi portrayed Min. She grows from a timid little girl, her mother’s pet, into a powerful empress in her own right. The book’s ending is ambiguous about her future, but I for one am super excited for it.
☕ Characters ☕
Honestly? This book would probably have a higher rating if it focused on her taking the throne instead.
Everyone else felt like…well, a caricature, to be honest. There’s the badass princess who’s “not like other girls”, the hilariously over-the-top evil cousin who wants to usurp the throne, the tough and sassy leader of a band of rebels, the member of an ethnic minority who serves as the sheltered princess’s love interest and helps her to see beyond the walls of her palace, the ethereal and mysterious priestess. And there really is nothing much more than that.
Don’t get me wrong. I love tropes. In fact, I firmly believe that all modern literature is just variations of the same tropes. And when done well, I actually end up really appreciating them!
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the characters of The Girl King. Beyond the characteristics expected from the trope, these characters don’t have personalities of their own. It’s like the author picked out traits from a list, or molded the character according to a cheat sheet.
As you can imagine, this made for some pretty flat and uninteresting interactions between these characters. It also resulted in a bland romance between Lu and Nokhai, which utterly lacked in chemistry. And you all know how much chemistry and romantic build-up means to me!
☕ Overall ☕
There was a ton about this book that made me feel uncomfortable, or that I didn’t like. But it wasn’t terrible enough for me to completely write off the series, considering all of my hang-ups could possibly be addressed in the next book. Here’s hoping!