To be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about this book. THE GIRL KING is another book in a long line of "strong female" heroine-centered YA fantasy novels being marketed to young adults, and it doesn't do anything that's too different from what's already on the table, apart from being an Asian-inspired kingdom with a heroine who's a person of color. I get that people of color don't have the luxury of saying that they're fatigued by tropey fantasy novels, since they don't even have that degree of rep, but at the same point, it's frustrating to pick up a book that promises to be different and ends up just being more of the same.
That said, THE GIRL KING did a lot of interesting things that set it apart from other disappointments I read over the last year, like FLAME IN THE MIST and GIRLS OF PAPER AND FIRE. THE GIRL KING has two heroines, a pair of sisters. Lu is the fierce and tomboyish one who has her eye on the throne and thinks up a rather bold and daring coup to wrest it away from her douchey cousin, Set, who also happens to be her fiance. Min is the feminine and passive sister who historically has been cowardly and weak. The best part of this story, in my opinion, is how their characters change over the course of the story. Rather than being rewarded for her impulsive behaviors, as characters like Celaena are in the THRONE OF GLASS series, Lu's foolhardiness results in negative consequences, and she gradually learns to let go of her impulsivity and confront her biases. Min, on the other hand, starts to become more assertive and angry, and that gradual transformation was really satisfying to see.
As for the world-building, I think Emily hits it on the head in her review. It's Asian-inspired, yes, but not in a way that really seems like the culture was thoroughly integrated into the storyline. Contrast that with a book like Sherwood Smith's THE BANNER OF THE DAMNED, where the customs, religions, and social mores are thoroughly enmeshed into not just the world, but also the plot. I had my issues with that book, as well, but the world-building was lovely. I wish that were the case here. I also think THE GIRL KING scrapes at the surface when it comes to racism, which I ordinarily wouldn't really mind, except that it's a pretty big part of the plot. The slipskin/Kith part of the story, for example, deals with genocide, and yet I don't think this was explored or treated with the gravitas it deserved. It took me a while, for example, to realize that "slipskin" in the book was actually a slur, and even when the characters are called out for using that word there aren't really dialogues and back stories in place to explain why "slipskin" is bad, or the resentment and inequality that give it power.
Yu also includes another nation of people - I forget the name of their country, but they're white - derisively referred to as "pink people" at times. This is also derogatory, and characters are called out for using the word - but, again, the world and the history aren't developed to the point where it's clear why "pink people" is offensive (is pink an offensive color in this culture? does it represent something bad?) or what the relationship is between this other nation that would create that sort of tension.
One thing I did really like about this story was that it's grittier than most YA has been allowed to be. We live in a PC culture, and while I think it's incredibly important to refer to people on their own terms with the words that they choose and be mindful of people's sensitivities and triggers and basically just be a decent human with respect for your other fellow humans, I do think that this fear of offense is watering down YA, to the point where people feel uncomfortable tackling difficult issues or ugly topics for fear of causing offense. THE GIRL KING has violence, it has racism, it has genocide, and it has rape - and yes, looking at the reviews, people were offended by these things, for various reasons, which is their right. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about it, and I felt that Yu made a solid effort to incorporate these concepts into her book in a meaningful way without being OTT.
THE GIRL KING isn't a bad book. It isn't a great book, but I also didn't feel resentful of the time I spent reading it. Part of the problem is the tedious beginning, the reliance on tired fantasy tropes, and the lack of solid world-building to make this kingdom feel like a real place with high stakes consequences. That said, it also did a lot of interesting and even daring things, and ultimately, that willingness to try and be different and take risks was what pushed me over the edge to liking this book.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars