Series: The Girl King #1
Published by Bloomsbury YA on January 8, 2019
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Mimi Yu’s debut novel The Girl King is an Asian-inspired fantasy that is filled to the brim with political intrigue, sibling rivalry, betrayal, rebellion, and of course, magic. It follows Lu and Min, two sisters who are as different as night and day, and who are princesses of the Empire. Lu, the more outspoken and rebellious of the two, believes that their father (against their mother’s wishes) is about to name her as his successor, which would make her the Empire’s first female ruler. Min, the more docile and reserved sister, also believes that Lu is destined to be Empress and that her own role is simply to continue being the meek and dutiful daughter that makes their mother happy.
It’s also not only the sisters who expect Lu to be named the next ruler. Most of the citizens of the Empire expect it as well. So, when the unthinkable happens and their father names their cousin Set as the new Emperor instead and proclaims that Lu’s destiny will be to marry Set, chaos ensues on all sides. Lu feels betrayed and Min is utterly bewildered. Determined to reclaim her birthright at all costs, Lu sets out to find allies who will help her take back the throne. In doing so, however, she leaves her sister Min behind. Min’s future has also been up-ended, both by their father’s proclamation and by Lu’s desertion. What role will Min play now that everything has been turned upside down?
The three main characters of The Girl King were the story’s biggest draw for me.
- Lu. I really liked Lu’s fierceness and determination, and that she’s a bit of a rebel. Most of all though, I liked her self-confidence. She truly feels that she is more than capable of taking her father’s place as ruler of the Empire. The fact that she would be the first female ruler doesn’t faze her in the least. Some may find her arrogant, but I just found it refreshing that she knows what she wants and feels ready for the responsibility. My heart broke for her when her father announced that Set, a cousin that Lu despises, would be named the next ruler instead of Lu.
- Min. Min was a little harder to get to know, mainly because she’s so quiet and retreating compared to Lu. She functions as little more than a secondary character while Lu is around. Even relegated to the background, however, Min still got to me. I still found myself really caring about her and feeling protective of her. It seemed like no good could come from her being left behind at the palace without Lu there as a buffer between her and anyone else who might try to take advantage of her meek nature. I don’t want to give away anything too spoilery but I will say that the transformation Min undergoes throughout the course of The Girl King wins her the Most Shocking Character award. It’s amazing what can happen when someone is just pushed way too far!
- Nokhai (or Nok). Nok was actually probably my favorite character. As much as I enjoyed the sibling dynamic between Lu and Min, I just found Nokhai’s story equally, if not more, compelling than theirs. Nok is a wolf shapeshifter, and thanks to Min and Lu’s father wiping out his people, Nok is the last surviving one of his kind. Unable to master this shapeshifting power that he has, Nok has been in hiding and would prefer to stay that way, However, when he and Lu meet up out in the forest, he finds himself drawn into an awkward alliance with her and vows to help her reclaim the throne. I love how the author infuses this character with so much complexity and inner turmoil. On the one hand, he hates the Empire and everything it stands for, but on the other, there’s something about Lu that makes him believe he can trust her to be a just ruler. Add to that Nok’s immense frustration that he cannot master his power and that there is no one left to teach him how to do so and we have ourselves an emotional mess of a character. Nok just needed a hug so badly.
Aside from the characters, I also thought the worldbuilding was wonderful too. Everything is just so detailed and vivid. There’s a complex and very cool magic system of course, but there’s also spirits, shapeshifters, prophecies, and even a hidden city and temples. I do wish I was more familiar with Asian folklore and history so that I could have appreciated it even more, but I was still quite captivated by the world the author has constructed.
The author also strikes a nice balance between action and emotion. While much of the story feels quite character driven as Lu, Min, and Nok are each battling their own inner demons, there is also a very strong plot that is filled with political intrigue, betrayal, and epic fight scenes.
Overall, I found The Girl King to be a very entertaining read. My only real complaint was that I wish the story had felt a little more original. I guess I’ve just read too many stories where the rightful ruler goes into exile and has to come back and fight for their throne. It was a nice twist to have that rightful ruler be a female this time though.
There were also a couple of plot twists regarding Nok that I found somewhat predictable. Predicting how things would turn out didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the story, although I always prefer to be kept guessing for as long as possible to build suspense.
If you like fierce heroines, sibling rivalries, vivid worldbuilding, and political intrigue, I think you would find The Girl King to your liking. I found it to be a very solid debut for Mimi Yu and look forward to seeing where the second book in the series takes me.
Two sisters become unwitting rivals in a war to claim the title of Emperor in this sweeping tale of ambition, sacrifice and betrayal for readers of Sabaa Tahir and Alwyn Hamilton.
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.