The Girl King by Mimi Yu. ★★★ 1/2
TW: Sexual assault
The Girl King is the start of a new YA epic fantasy series where two sisters are rivals for the throne of an empire.
Lu has spent her entire life preparing to become the first female emperor, the Girl King. Her sister Min lives a quieter life, bullied by their mother and disregarded by everyone. But then their father doesn’t name Lu has his heir — he names male cousin Set, and announces that Set and Lu will be married. Lu isn’t going to just set back and let Set take what’s her’s without a fight. She refuses to marry him, and barely escapes an assassination attempt. Now she’s on the run, searching for an army she can use to regain her empire. Meanwhile, Min has taken Lu’s place as Set’s bride, but she’s also discovering that she has previously-unknown, powerful magical abilities.
The Girl King is told through three POV characters: Lu, Min, and Nokhai, one of the last shapeshifters to remain free. Most of his people have been killed by the empire’s armies, and the survivors rounded up into labor camps. He has a history with Lu and never expected to see her again… but he finds himself drawn into her quest for the throne and her promises that she will right her father’s wrongs towards his people.
I’m not in love with any of the characters. Lu and Nokhai have that sort of friends to enemies to lovers arc that will probably appeal to many, but their romance wasn’t anything surprising. Of course, Lu and Nokhai will wind up together, and I was never invested in either character enough to care about their romance. I was initially more interested in Min, who is clearly emotionally abused by her mother. I wanted Min to find her own power and self-confidence. Well, Min does, but her character ends up going some other places as well, and it all feels very sudden. I’m not sure I completely buy it.
I would also have liked stronger relationships between the female characters. In the second half of the book, Lu does find another ally who is a woman (and there was a handmaid she was initially friends with), but otherwise, all the relationships between women are characterized by antagonism. I guess that was in the description of the book what with Lu versus Min, but I was still hoping for some solid female friendships.
If you’ve been following my reviews, you’ll probably know that I now keep track whether or not the books I read make any indication that queer people exist within their world (I should probably just make a post on this and link to it so I can stop explaining in every single review). Anyway, The Girl King does something I’ve encountered before and really hate. It is throughly heteronormative, never acknowledging trans people, intersex people, or people who aren’t heterosexual… And then it includes a completely egregious scene where a male soldier attempts to rape Nokhai. This scene was completely unnecessary and a blatant plot device to have Lu kill the solider and force Nokhai and Lu to get back on the run. That alone would put me off the book, but I there’s also something really problematic about it in relation to the overall heteronormativity of the novel and many harmful stereotypes about queer people as predatory.
I walked away from The Girl King for a while after that scene, but I am glad that I ended up finishing it. If for no other reason, I’m glad that I can review it. I do think that The Girl King is in the better half of young adult fantasy novels, but it’s not a book that I will ever be enthusiastic about. I will not be continuing with this series any further.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.