Review: The Girl King

16 Mar

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 EmpireThe 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.

2 Responses to “Review: The Girl King”

  1. Gary F. York March 16, 2019 at 10:23 pm #

    Assuming you’ve given a good, I have concluded that I should avoid, “The Girl King.” It seems unnecessarily tedious and, worse, uninteresting. 😦 G.

  2. jade May 7, 2019 at 9:30 pm #

    You thought Lord of the Rings was … good? I give Tolkien praise for being the first of his kind. However, other, far superior writers have easily supplanted him. His writing style was dry. His world building was … primitive as well. He was the first… but he wasn’t the best. Not by a long shot.

    As for Mistborn, sure, I like Brandon Sanderson’s books as well. It’s been a couple of years for me so it’s basically “half remembered” impressions. Sanderson has excellent pacing. His characterization was okay but these were rather “stock” characters. Oh… the wise teacher. The new entrant. The mysterious ally. Come on. And of course, the twist at the end. “Luke, I am your Father” twist. I’ll grant he did good on Wheel of Time because that was becoming so massive that I suspect Jordan had a problem fine tuning and refining the series. (Same for Martin’s book. Big sprawling epics have a problem with continuing the narrative. A problem you don’t have because your world building is rather small and done through the perspective of a “fish out of water” who is constantly mentioning how her previous life had better hygiene and health standards than the average loser in your “Nameless World”. I find it hard to believe that even in your hard scrabble world, that your people’s didn’t have a word for the world even if it was in the form of religion with a heaven/hell and Earth. The lack of religion in your world, even with magic existing, seems odd. Religion is an excellent way of controlling the masses and I would doubt that any ruler wouldn’t take advantage of religion’s pernicious ability to destroy the self-will of the average person.)

    (BTW – I preferred the sequel because Sanderson showed how history changes and stories about “actual events” can be distorted. I found the characters more appealing. That’s just my personal taste. I liked seeing how he “aged” the time.)

    Here’s my gripe with one part of your post. So what if you could place it in barbaric medieval generic vaguely European world? Aren’t the people in that world just as human? Don’t they have the same kind of motivations and desires? Similar fears.. at least of death, pain, and suffering. Game of thrones has played around in magnificent ways in actual history … in THEIR actual history. Look, I haven’t read this book. (I have a big “to read” pile.) But why do you need to have some exotic “foreignness” to the novel? Why do people, especially boring white people, require the asian world to be so exotic? Trust me, I had a classmate who thought meatloaf was exotic. Yes. Flip the mirror and you will see that you are the freak and the exotic. You are the one who is unnatural and strange. You are the one who is ‘just not right”. Your food is disgusting to them… except for the meatloaf. Meanwhile, they love their food and don’t understand how your people survive on the crap you eat. They wonder how you can behave so uncivilized? Why you don’t have honor? How strange and foreign YOU are.

    I’m a big fan of diversity. It brings different perspectives. What does the author choose to highlight? How do they present a scene, a character, a theme? What are the implicit beliefs that the author brings with them? I mean, male authors tend to diminish romance and glorify battle. Or you get the worst as in the destruction of Troy. And yet, isn’t love something that is a near damn universal human desire? The desire to love and to be loved? To enjoy romantic love? Look at those damn white country songs. They’re always whining about how they been done wrong and their dog died and their girlfriend/wife left them and now, they’re all alone alone alone. Isn’t it a human desire to welcome social intimacy? Meanwhile, romance writers tend to be overwhelmingly female and the genre is overwhelmingly looked at with disgust. But why? What’s the problem? Sure. Generic characters. Sweet heroine. Knight in Shining Armor. But it’s the same goddamn generic characters and tropes in male fantasy writing fiction as well. You rarely get the author that breaks the tropes and shows something a bit more revolutionary. (And spare me with the myrddrral, the black riders, what were they called in the Terry Brook’s elfstone group? And of course, the big baddie. The plucky hero/heroine. The wise sage. The expedition. At least one battle sequence if not more and at least one sequence where the hero/ine is captured. Some fundamental truth is revealed. Yawn. I’ve read dozens of fantasy series. They were fun. But after a while, you start seeing the disturbing parallels.)

    You can tell a war story or a romance story or a adventure story. But if you are a white guy, won’t you present it in a certain white guy way? And if you are a black guy, won’t you present it in a certain way? And if you are a woman, won’t you present it in a certain way? And if you experienced war or something like that, wouldn’t you present it in a certain way? One of the big problems with publishing is that we need new authors who present new worlds and show stories in different ways. We need to see different worlds through the lenses of different characters, even characters who are incredibly foreign to us. It is my personal belief that this is a test of character and mental strength. Can you read a story with a protagonist who is a female superhero.. perhaps a lesbian.. perhaps disabled… perhaps elderly.. perhaps not a hero? Can you handle a story where the characters that look like you are, in your personal opinion, not good. Publishing houses tend to limit scope by betting on the tried and true rather than pushing the envelope. That means a lot of mediocre Marvel movies with generic story lines. Sue me. Thor Ragnorok and Black Panther are the same goddamn movie. (Oh.. and WTF are those Asguardian’s wearing. A sophisticated advanced civilization is wearing essentially togas? I did appreciate Black Panther’s take on the clothing more.) I don’t blame publishing houses. It’s all about the money. It’s all about catering to a rather spoiled demographic that rarely wants to be challenged. After all, it’s safe to be in standard operating fare. It doesn’t rock the boat. Every bite tastes the same. You know you like it. You know you will like the next book. You don’t want to be disturbed or pushed or forced to use your mental energy up while absorbing a book. That’s hard work. And the publishing houses’ editors know that. A generic book that appeals to a bunch of people is a good thing because it’s money. But it is a cheap strategy that reduces and diminishes the entire genre(s) that are published. Everything turns into a trope and a caricature and a “I read this before” ennui. No spice. No life. Just soulless pap.

    Look Nuttal. You have a nice writing style. Your schooled in magic series is a fun light take. I find it intriguing that you seem to use female protagonists. Hey, I truly don’t mind if the protagonist is a male. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles is a beloved friend to me. Jemisen’s Essuan fascinates me. (Of course, that series was in my “bookshelf” list. Very few books get to be placed there.) But you present a rather generic, nice fill in the gaps because I don’t want to read something massive stories. Sorry. That’s the truth. Most authors, male and female, fall into that category. We need to stop demanding more from authors who come from non-standard backgrounds. I have no desire to live in an all white world. It’s rather boring and Stepfordesque. Actually, it reminds me of the Stormtroopers — generic, expendable, boring. So what if the “diverse” author writes a generic story. Are the elements well put together? If so, go for it. What’s one more run of the mill author? Why should I demand more from those authors than I do from authors such as, well, YOU? Because sweetheart, while I find your books fun, they aren’t that good. They aren’t on my “bookshelf” list. Would you like it if I were to point out the boring white guy tropes that you infuse into your stories that are in so many white male authors? I didn’t think so.

    (BTW – I’m a fan of several authors who are on my automatic buy list sight unseen, story untold. I don’t really care about their names or their genders. They tell good stories. I wish that more spoiled brats didn’t focus on the diversity and demand more all the time from non-white male authors. Or rather, I wish they held white male authors to the same standards. Again, you’re not on my bookshelf. Your series are generic. Your characters are generic. The plot is obvious. Sometimes, you get a little too repetitive. Character progression isn’t realistic. I mean – Emily is an effing moron. Were you trying to make her autistic? An autistic introvert? A naive autistic introvert who is also somewhat clever though in what I have no clue? Is that something that you write into your leads because it is something that you have experience with? Those thoughts do come to mind often when I read your books.)

    I really really hate writing bad things to authors. But sometimes, people deserve it. Who made them king? Who made them the arbiters of what is just and good? Who was dumb enough to fall for the “diversity is weakness” bs? Even in biology, we all know that diversity is a proven evolutionary advantage. Only the weak are threatened by diversity or the expanding and opening of a field to people who are not the same. And I have no time for weak people who live in fear and cannot imagine worlds that do not have themselves written in big bold letters. Their (I suspect) mediocrity and loserdom drives their fear of adding more contestants to the field. They need their safe spaces and heaven offend if somebody dared to say “Maybe we should mix it up a bit”.

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