The Girl King is the first book in a young adult fantasy series, and while it is a solid beginning, its trope-y nature, simplistic worldbuilding and weak writing made for a mostly unremarkable book. But that’s not to say it didn’t have potential.
My problem with YA fantasy is that I have read too much of it. I have read enough “princess tries to take back the throne while falling in love” stories for a lifetime. And I still find some I like, but most of them don’t work for me anymore. While it did get some things right, The Girl King ended up not working for me.
One of the things I appreciated the most about this book was the way the main character was portrayed. Lu is an ambitious girl who doesn’t let other people use her as a pawn, and I’m sure some readers will find that frustrating because of how headstrong she is, but I didn’t. I love ambitious female main characters, especially when they don’t end up being the villains of the story, especially when they’re somewhat selfish and think of their own good and goals first. It may not make them good rulers, but it makes them more realistic, interesting teenagers to read about.
And it’s not like this book shies away from the evils of imperialism. The main character wants to be Empress, but she’s confronted with the fact that what she saw as her birthright is based on the suffering of colonized and exploited populations – she is not the rightful ruler, she’s the lesser of two evils. I really appreciated this discussion, I almost never see it in books about royalty.
Another thing I liked was that the love interest isn’t a masculine, confident guy whose personality is 90% smirks. Nokhai is as insecure and confused as everyone else, he’s more of a “soft” love interest than a fighter like Lu, even though he can literally shapeshift into a wolf. Unfortunately, I often felt like he lacked depth, but that’s true for almost every character in here.
And then there’s Min. Min is Lu’s younger sister, and her storyline, while unique, left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m probably reading too much into it, but I wasn’t a fan of the fact that an addict and a feminine girl coded as mentally ill (her thought process often read as anxiety) are shown as morally corrupt while Lu, who is masculine and brave and pretty, is fundamentally Good. However, I did like an aspect of Min’s PoV too: she’s a far more realistic portrayal of a teenager with magical powers than most YA protagonists. Teenagers can be selfish, and becoming so powerful this quickly usually doesn’t end well.
I liked the beginning of this book, but the more I read, the less I cared. During the second half, The Girl King becomes a travel book, and a really trope-y one at that: the characters get captured and then rescued, they end up meeting other relevant characters because of contrivance, they discover that characters they thought dead were not that dead after all, and find love. Trope-y books can be great, if they’re well-written, but the writing wasn’t as strong as it should have been.
To work for me, travel fantasy books need a really strong sense of atmosphere. Here, there was almost none; the writing was very dry and the descriptions vague and uninteresting.
I read an ARC and I hope this changes in the final edition, but the writing also felt very juvenile at times. There’s enough snarling and shrieking that I noticed it (I usually don’t), and the dialogue tags are often redundant. Sometimes this book tells you that a character was clearly offended, when that was, of course, obvious from the dialogue itself.
The worldbuilding wasn’t that interesting either. I liked the mythology and and everything involving Yunis and the gods, but as I never got a sense of how anything looked like, I couldn’t really get into the world. I still think it had potential, and I hope the sequel explores more of it, but I don’t think I will be reading it.
I initially gave this book three stars – it was one of my most anticipated releases for 2019, I love the cover, and I’m glad I got an ARC (thank you, Orion Publishing Group!) – but the more I think about it, the more some parts of it make me uncomfortable. Not only I had some problems with Min’s storyline, I also rememberdd that every character is straight or implied to be straight; the only character you could read as queer sexually assaults the male mc. It’s 2018, can we not?
My rating: ★★½