I requested the eARC of The Girl King from Bloomsbury on Netgalley. I saw Samantha Shannon say some great things about it, so even though I didn’t know much myself I was intrigued! It’s is another in a longish line of Asian inspired YA fantasy novels, which I just can’t get enough of. But! I saw lots of surprisingly negative comments on Goodreads. I have so many thoughts on this book and my reading experience, so let’s go.
Click here for the Synopsis!
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.
Mimi Yu creates a new take on the Japanese yokai myth in The Girl King. At least, that’s how I read Nokhai’s storyline. He was one of my favorite characters for so many reasons, and I really think the heritage she created for him sets this book apart from other Asian inspired fantasy, and warring kingdoms fantasy in general. If you aren’t familiar with yokai myths, they are essentially shape-shifters but are typically seen in isolation. Yu’s novel presents whole communities of them, grouped together based on their patron animal. I really grabbed on to this idea, and I love the magic it brought to the world.
The Girl King is really chock full of magic! I was expecting more terrestrial forms of warfare, but there is so much mysticism in the story. Spirits of dead shamans seeking closure, hidden cities, telepathy, and of course the shape-shifters are just a few of the magical elements that create the world of The Girl King.
I want to talk more about characters because I saw some comments related to characters being flat, or undeveloped. The 3 primary characters are sisters Min & Lu, and their childhood acquaintance Nokhai. I won’t spoil how they met, but it does play a critical role in their relationship as young adults. Each of these characters struggles with very different issues throughout the course of the book. Lu has to contend with the loss of her birthright, being separated from her family, and learning that her life is based on a lie. Nokhai has to try to find his way back to his heritage, and to control newfound abilities. Min perhaps has the most difficult struggle of all. She is faced with family struggles both from without and within. Her entire world upends itself in a very short time. As the youngest POV character, it’s at times alarming to see what she has to deal with, and how she rises to that challenge.
I do have 1 qualm with the book, though it is fairly minor. I wish there hadn’t been a romance. I think the book would have been stronger if that relationship had been swapped out for a platonic one. It muddied some things that were already pretty muddy, to begin with, and burned too hot too fast. I didn’t completely hate it, but I could have done without it personally.
So, ultimately I feel confused by a lot of the popular negative reviews on Goodreads. There are some important trigger warnings for The Girl King (attempted rape, physical/emotional/mental abuse, war themes), and if those put you off of reading it I completely understand, but I can’t agree with some of the comments about it not truly being Asian inspired, or the characters lacking depth. I honestly felt like maybe there were some big changes between the edition those reviewers read and the one I read. I encourage anyone who enjoyed The Poppy War, Shadow of the Fox, or the Three Dark Crowns series to give The Girl King a try! It will be on shelves January 8th 2019.