Two sisters become unwitting rivals in a war to claim the title of emperor in this richly imagined, Asian-inspired fantasy for fans of Renée Ahdieh and Sabaa Tahir.
Sisters Lu and Min have always known their places as the princesses of the Empire of the First Flame: assertive Lu will be named her father's heir and become the dynasty's first female ruler while timid Min will lead a quiet life in Lu's shadow. Until their father names their male cousin Set his heir instead, sending ripples through the realm and throwing both girls' lives into utter chaos.
Determined to reclaim her birthright, Lu has no choice but to go on the run, leaving Min to face the volatile court alone. Lu soon crosses paths with Nokhai, the lone, unlikely survivor of the Ashina, a clan of nomadic wolf shape-shifters. Nok never learned to shift - or to trust the empire that killed his family - but working with the princess might be the only way to unlock his true power.
As Lu and Nok form a shaky alliance, Min's own hidden power awakens a forbidden, deadly magic that could secure Set's reign...or allow her to claim the throne herself. But there can be only one emperor, and the sisters' greatest enemy could very well turn out to be each other.
This sweeping fantasy set against a world of buried ancient magic and political intrigue weaves an unforgettable story of ambition, betrayal, and sacrifice.
About the Author
Mimi Yu was born and raised in rural upstate New York. She is an alumna of VONA/Voices. She received a BA in liberal arts from Sarah Lawrence College and an MFA from the New School/Parsons School of Design. She currently resides in Chicagoland with her husband. When she's not writing, she enjoys gardening, quilting, boxing, and fostering kittens. She has five cats, one dog, and four planets in Aquarius.
Read an Excerpt
The Girl King
The sword cut through the air a finger's width from Lu's face. She suppressed the instinct to flinch. The thrust was meant to throw her off balance so her opponent could knock her to the ground. Once that happened, she would be done for.
She wasn't so easy. Sorry to disappoint, Shin Yuri.
Lu leaped back lightly, swinging her own blade in a hard, upward parry just as the sword master sent his crashing down upon her. She was ready for it. Their weapons met with a flat thwack. Wood on wood.
"Good!" her shin barked, dancing back from the blow. "Now, fix your stance!"
Lu darted a look down at her feet. Shin Yuri took advantage of her distraction. She barely had time to raise her sword before he fell upon her.
"Don't use your eyes to fix your feet!" he scolded between thrusts. "The body knows the body. Eyes are for the opponent!" 10 MIMI YU
Idiot! A beginner's mistake. Hardly befitting a princess who had picked up a practice blade at the age of seven and spent the past nine years training daily. A princess who in a few short hours would be named her father's successor ...
Yuri came at her hard, raining fresh blows on her. She shuffled back, taking him with her. His movements were violent, almost wild, but she wasn't fooled. His control was ironclad.
Still, a man his age could not keep up this pace for long.
"Keep me moving!" Shin Yuri barked. "Let me use up my energy."
I know that!
The shadow of Kangmun Hall's massive red walls fell over them as they danced along the perimeter of the Ring. The hall was named for the first ethnic Hu emperor — her own greatgrandsire — who had led his army of nomad warriors south to conquer the failing last Hana dynasty. They had had the Gift of the tiger back then, allowing them to rend their enemies with tooth and claw. But that was long ago.
Yuri pushed her back another step. Lu imagined herself in the bronze-laced red wooden armor and orange tiger pelt of the old Hu kings, like those she had seen hung in reverent display in the Hall of the Ancestors.
She leaped forward and swung hard. The blood pounding in her ears became the thundering hooves of a thousand Hu warriors astride massive black war elk. The warriors screamed for victory — for her — their magnificent mounts foaming at the mouth in their toil.
"Reckless!" she heard Shin Yuri shout. "Control your strokes! Fewer swings, more knowing."
His words meant nothing to her. She was what thousands of years of warriors had wrought. She had the blood of the tiger in her veins. Who was he to tell her how to swing a sword?
She drove him back another step. As Shin Yuri raised his blade, she spun away from him, then reversed the motion, circling back toward him, raising her sword high above her head. She brought it down, hard, just as he completed his own stroke. The force of her unexpected blow knocked the sword clean from his hands.
Shin Yuri dove after the blade, but Lu kicked it out of reach. He hit the sandy ground, rolling away from her. He bounded back to his feet, poised to dash, only to find her wooden blade at his throat.
Lu kept the sword steady in one hand and used the other to pull off her leather practice helmet, the heavy black rope of her plait tumbling down her back.
"I believe there is a saying for this situation, is there not?" She grinned, wiping away the sweat brimming on her upper lip with her sleeve. "Something about the student becoming the shin?"
Pride and annoyance tugged at the old man's features, but before he could speak, applause broke out, sharp and unexpected as the ringing of a glass wind-chime.
Lu turned and saw three girls gathered just outside the chalked perimeter of the sparring ring. Against the sandy practice yard, the trio's pastel-hued robes gave them the misplaced look of flowers scattered in the dirt: Lu's younger sister, Princess Minyi, and two of her nunas, Butterfly and Snowdrop. Seeing the surprise on her face, they burst into pleased giggles.
Minyi's sallow face was sun warmed and flushed. She was dressed as their empress mother preferred her to be, in the old Hana way, her layered robes of pale pink cinched high at the waist. The empress had never tried to dress Lu this way, even when she was a young child. But then, between the two of them Min had always been the more malleable.
Butterfly and Snowdrop wore the yellow batik robes customary of palace nunas, topped with a hooded cape — a symbol of modesty. But Butterfly and Snowdrop had uncovered their heads to enjoy the late summer sun.
"Ay!" Lu hollered, striding over to them. "What are you doing here?"
"We overheard you sparring," Min said. Her voice was ever tentative, like the tip of a toe testing hot bathwater. "It sounded so exciting that they — we — wanted to watch? Just for a moment."
Lu blinked in pleasant surprise. It had been some time since Min had watched her spar — years, truly. She'd always assumed Min wasn't interested. Her sister had always been a sensitive creature, flinching at even the clashing of practice swords.
"Don't be cross, Princess," Butterfly interjected, pulling Lu's gaze away. "We just wanted to see if the rumors were true, that you're as deft with a blade as a man." Snowdrop let loose a fresh peal of laughter.
"What's so amusing? You don't think I'm as good as a man?" Lu demanded good-naturedly.
"Oh no, it's not that!" Butterfly smirked. "Snowdrop was just commenting that in your practice robes and helmet, Her Highness cuts as handsome a figure as any crown prince could hope to —"
"You truly are the Girl King, just as they say!" Snowdrop interrupted, dissolving into fresh laughter.
Lu caught herself before she reacted, but from the corner of her eye she saw Minyi stiffen.
"Girl King" was the derisive nickname Lu had earned among both court officials and commoners contemptuous of her ambitions — as Snowdrop well would have known, had she the sense of a child half her age. She understood the language of awkward silences at least; she went quiet, sensing her error.
"The Girl King?" Lu said with a deliberate smile. The tension eased just slightly from Min's shoulders. "Perhaps I will be! We'll see soon enough."
Very soon. By the end of the day, she would have her new title, and finally put to bed all the rumors: that she was too weak to rule, that the Hu dynasty was on its last legs, that her father was planning to marry her off to her stupid, drug-addled Hana cousin, Lord Set of Bei Province.
"Yes," agreed Min. Her voice was rushed in eagerness, grateful to move past the discomfort Snowdrop had initiated. "We should probably head over to court soon."
"Court?" Lu repeated. She cursed, looking toward the sun. "Is it that late already? Why didn't you say so sooner?"
Min flushed as she always did when sensing the slightest displeasure directed her way. "Well, it's not so late yet —" she amended quickly.
"Snowdrop, take Princess Minyi to her apartments and get her dressed for court," Lu interrupted, her thoughts racing. It wouldn't do to be late today of all days. "Butterfly, run ahead to my apartments and tell my nunas to prepare a hot bath and lay out my clothes. The formal teal robes, and the plum underskirt with gold trim. Make sure to speak to Hyacinth directly. She knows the clothes and how best to prepare my bath."
Lu turned toward her sister. "I'll see you at court."
"Should we meet beforehand so we can walk to Kangmun Hall together ...?" Minyi ventured hopefully. Lu tamped down a sigh; Min hated making an entrance on her own. Most days Lu didn't mind playing the chaperone ...
"Not today," she said brusquely. "I can't afford to be late."
"I won't be ..."
"Best hurry now!" Lu flashed her an encouraging smile before turning away.
She hurried back to Shin Yuri, who had removed his sword belt and was now worrying the shoulder buckles on his sparring jerkin.
"I apologize for the interruption, Shin Yuri."
"Interruption?" he said blandly. "What interruption?"
A smile quirked at the corners of Lu's mouth.
Shin Yuri spat in the dirt, then turned to fix her with a tight frown. "Time for court, is it?" He didn't wait for her answer. "Well, before you go, allow me to do my duties as a shin and give you some notes on your performance today."
Lu sighed, hands on her hips, but Yuri was immune to her impatience by now. "I'm an old man, Princess. Half a century on this earth wears on the body," he told her, extracting a handkerchief from his tunic. He wiped his face, soiling the fine silk. "You did well today, used your speed to your advantage. But you would not have succeeded against a man — an opponent — the same age as you."
Lu bristled. Her arms rose to fold over her chest — a defensive gesture. She willed them back down. "You can't know that."
"You have talent and strength on your side. Good instincts. But that will take you only so far. If you're going to survive in a battle, you need to develop your mind as well as your body. Efficiency of movement comes from experience, keen observation, and observation can only be done with — "
"Patience!" she snapped. "Yes, I know. You've told me a thousand times before."
"And I'll tell you a thousand times more if I think it will help you survive." His eyes locked with hers, and Lu was struck with the uneasy sense that he was speaking of more than just sparring.
He is just being condescending, she told herself fiercely. Her father was about to name her his successor; what did she have to fear? One day she would be Yuri's empress, and yet he persisted in trying to put her in her place like she was a child. Why were old men so tiresome?
As though hearing her thoughts, he said, "If you do not trust my words as your elder, then trust my experience as a warrior."
A warrior who abruptly resigned from his post in the North for the comforts of the capital, a nasty voice in her head hissed. This was the undercurrent of gossip that had been following Yuri around since he had returned to court some five years ago. An odd tension — to be labeled both the best and a coward.
"I trust you," she told him, scuffing the sand with the toe of her boot.
Yuri resumed the task of loosening his jerkin. "I should hope so," he said. "If you don't, I'd have no business being your shin."
He dismissed her with a wave. "Best get prepared for court. You have a long day ahead of you."
"Yes," she said firmly. "I do."
* * *
The drums heralding the start of court beat solemn and orotund, steady as blood. The theater of power. Standing with her sister and their nunas like actors waiting backstage, Lu peered through the seam of Kangmun Hall's closed front doors, out into the Heart. The massive yellow stone courtyard was made small by the scores of court officials, magistrates, prefecture governors, and Inner Ring gentry pouring in.
There would be more people outside the closed gates — unlucky lower gentry whose family rank did not warrant a seat within the Heart, and supercilious First Ring gossipmongers who bandied fresh information as currency. There might even be a few Second Ringers lucky enough to sneak through the Ring walls under some pretense or another. All of them waiting to hear secondhand tellings of the emperor's pronouncements.
Word of my succession will spread fast. Lu's chest tightened in anticipation. At long last, it was happening.
"Really? You can't even wait for them to open the doors?" The voice was low in her ear. Lu jumped, whirling to find her eldest nuna Hyacinth doubled over in silent laughter.
"Cut it out," she hissed. But she was unable to suppress a smile. "I'm just gauging the crowd," she said with exaggerated primness. "Reconnaissance."
Hyacinth snorted. "You look like a child sneaking into her birthday gifts."
"I think you mean I look like a future empress."
"Certainly. A future empress sneaking into her birthday gi —" She broke off into a strangled giggle as Lu poked her in the ribs.
"Oh!" Min exclaimed. "I'd forgotten. The pink men are visiting today."
Her sister was peeking through the gap in the doors. Lu leaned back in over her shoulder and glimpsed three foreign men in the crowd, their pale pinkish flesh and bulbous facial features marking them as the delegation from Elland.
Lu pulled her sister back from the doors. "Call them Ellandaise. Not 'pink men.'"
Min flushed at the admonishment. "Of course. The nunas call them that sometimes ... It's just a bad habit. Forgive me."
"Commoners use that term. It does not do for a princess," Lu told her. Then she frowned. "It doesn't become a nuna, either. Well-bred girls from old Inner Ring gentry with sky manses ought to know better. I'll see that Amma Ruxin has a talk with them." The stern old amma in charge of training Min's handmaidens would not stand for such behavior.
"I understand, sister. I'm sorry —"
"So," Hyacinth's effervescent whisper came in her other ear. "What will be Emperor Lu's first decree?"
"Stemming the northern expansion," Lu said, turning away from Min. "We're bleeding resources needed for the city's poor into the colonies."
"It'll be difficult to walk back those mines. The wealth from the sparkstone they're dredging up — it's enticing. And popular."
"What is popular is not always what is right," Lu countered. "We've encroached onto northern land for too long."
Hyacinth tilted her head, considering. "It's not like there's any slipskin clans left to give it back to."
"Right," Lu snapped. "Because the few Gifted we didn't kill are languishing in the labor camps."
"It's time! Everyone into their places!" Amma Ruxin snapped, giving both Lu and Hyacinth a reproachful look as the doors began to open. Hyacinth rolled her eyes at the woman's turned back. Then she winked at Lu and stepped into place with the other nunas.
"Good luck," she mouthed.
Lu took a deep breath and stepped outside, in front of the assembled court. Min trailed so closely it looked like she was trying to hide beneath her skirts. Even a regular court session left her little sister anxious; a crowd this size might kill her. Hopefully Butterfly would catch her if she fainted.
Their parents were already seated on the stone portico, side by side, though somehow they made the arms'-length distance between them look much wider. Theirs had been a marriage of politics, arranged to strengthen ties between the ethnic Hana aristocracy and the ethnic Hu royals, and they had never found reason to make it anything more.
"Come on, then," Lu directed Min. "Let's play our parts." She said it with the edge of a shared joke — one only they in the whole world could share.
Her sister blinked, a surprised smile quivering across her mouth, chasing away the rictus of fear for a moment.
The sisters filed over and fell to their knees before their father, Emperor Daagmun, ruler of the sixteen provinces of the Empire of the First Flame. "Your child and subject bows before the Lord of Ten Thousand Years," they recited in unison.
"Rise, my daughters."
Lu stood easily; Min's heavy layered robes made the task more difficult. Butterfly and Snowdrop hurried over, heads still bowed in respect, to assist the younger princess.
Their father caught Lu's eye and smiled. He looked well today, resplendent in formal robes of saffron and gold — all signs of illness tucked away beneath silk and royal pomp. He looked every bit the strong and formidable Hu ruler he needed to be.
Lu stepped forward and dropped a warm kiss on his hand. It trembled in hers and she swallowed a pang of sadness. He could not hide his disease forever. From this close she could see the tired lines of a much older man around his eyes.
By contrast, Empress Rinyi looked ten years younger than her thirty-some years. Lu had always felt there was something almost urgent in the care she took with her appearance — all those oils and salves and meticulously applied powders. As though she were preserving her beauty for some later occasion. Lu nodded curtly in her direction, and their mother responded in kind, her fixed smile barely hiding a poisoned well of disdain and impatience beneath.
As Lu and Min took their seats the drums stilled, leaving in their wake only the sharp crackle of the First Flame, burning bright and eternal at the center of the Heart. According to Hana legend, the flame had been ignited by a drop of the sun thousands of years ago — a gift from the gods to their thenfledgling kingdom — and kept alive ever since.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Girl King"
Copyright © 2019 Mimi Yu.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Two sisters fighting for the throne and kingdom go from family to enemies. Lu, the fighter and fiercely independent one, and be readying herself to become the first female leader of the kingdom. But her hopes are shattered when her father makes the unexpected decision to give the throne to her younger sister's, Min, fiance. A fiance that has ulterior motives and plans to rule with an iron fist. Lu is a very strong, but unfortunately stubborn, character. She has a picture in her mind of how things should be and struggles to accept it when that picture is shattered by events unfolding around her. Forced to make allies in unusual places, we are introduced to Nokhai, a man from a culture and magical background thought to have vanished. But they will both find out that he is far more than what he seems, and his race is far from disappeared. While Lu is a strong and likable character, I felt drawn to the story of Min. The younger daughter that grew up in the shadow of her sister. When she discovers she could be so much more, the power calls to her and she finds herself in the hands of a skilled manipulator that would do anything to keep her under his heel and under his control. He sees her ancient magic as a tool to recreate the world under his rule and wipe everyone who opposes him off the face of existence. She struggles to find out who she is and what her place in the world will be. This is the first book in the Girl King series, and while it sets the stage for an epic fantasy battle, it is an amazing story on its own as well. There is much more to come in the world, and I feel several surprise revelations on the horizon as the sisters battle each other for the title of King. **I voluntarily read a review copy of this book**
Princess Lu is ready to be named her father's heir and become the first woman to rule their empire with her sister, Min, hiding in the shadows. But when their father names their cousin, Set, as the heir instead, a series of events are put into place that puts their empire into mortal peril. Lu abandons the palace in order to take her rightful place as heir, making an unlikely alliance with Nok, a survivor from the labor camps up north. Little do any of them know that they have set events into motion that will wake long sleeping magic--leaving none of them the same. Thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury YA for giving me an early copy of this book to read and review! I'd been seeing this book everywhere on Twitter it felt like, so I'm glad I got to nab a copy before it was released. Fantasy has been the genre where more diversity is slowly being included, so it's refreshing to have an Asian protagonist that can fit into the likes of characters like Katniss or Aelin. We'll start with my favorite aspect of this book: the magic. I though the system that Yu created was unique, giving this book an edge when put alongside other YA fantasy books. Additionally, I thoroughly enjoyed the sort of sibling rivalry that's included in the book; we don't see many YA fantasy books where sisters are pitted against each other, and just having a strong female power on both sides of the narrative adds another element to the book that makes it that much more enjoyable. We were also given a large variety of points of view that also gave the reader a larger picture of the war that was quickly escalating. And there was a lot going on, between Lu, Min, Nok, and the various wrongs that the empire had committed. The multiple points of view helped some in keeping these events straight, but I do think a map would have made a huge world of difference (at least for me). I couldn't keep straight where everyone was going and who was moving to fight where. Maybe there will be one in the final version? Despite the magical and mystical elements, the world building here fell a bit flat to me, as did some of the character development. While I enjoyed the different types of magic included here, I didn't feel like I got a good sense of the world as a whole. I wanted more detail, more information about the lives that Lu and Min lead, more about Nok's background. I feel that this would have made the book more immersive--and easier to follow. By the end, I was inundated with characters and places that it was difficult for me to follow what was going on. Instead of including so much in the first book, save some of the events and people for later books; this would allow the first book to breath, as well as creating a more immersive world building experience. Overall, this is an enjoyable read that I think many YA fantasy fans will enjoy. Despite falling into similar tropes of the genre, Mimi Yu is still able to create a compelling narrative that I think will bring fans back for book 2 (because there's obviously going to be a book 2). 3.5/5 stars
The Girl King was an interesting read, with a storyline that keeps you on your toes, and a wide variety of characters to interest you. Told through three main perspectives in the third person – Lu, Min and Nokahi – it is a politically-minded story that has themes of imperialism, colonialism and xenophobia. Lu is the older daughter of the Hu (an ethnic group)Emperor, and a natural leader – she has been trained like a warrior, studied statecraft like a politician, and the grace of a princess to round her out into the perfect heir. Which is why she is enraged when her father instead chooses her first cousin (and her archenemy) for his heir, and her to be his wife. Meanwhile, Min, her younger sister has been bullied by the Empress (who is Hana, another ethnic group) into being a docile obedient princess who doesn’t have much aspirations of her own, but who is starting to awaken some latent magical powers. Nokhai comes from a line of shape-shifters called Kith, whose culture had been decimated and people enslaved by the Hu two generations ago. With such a volatile political situation, the ascension of the next Emperor results in Lu being framed for her father’s death, and ridiculed as the eponymous Girl King. The people in the kingdom are a mix of Hu and Hana, but while their loyalties are more towards the Hu monarchy, they definitely are much more comfortable with a man in charge; Lu rails against this misogyny as she thinks she is better than her cousin Set, who marries Min instead (manipulating a 15 year old is super easy for the golden warrior). As a fugitive, she goes on with Nokhai to gain support from Yunis, another city-state that was conquered by her own ancestors. While on the way, she has to face the truth about her line, how they have destroyed other cultures or subjugated them, how they mistreat people just because they have magic, and contend with her family’s bloody history. While Lu is a good character to look through, primarily because she is, well, badass, and also because she grows so much in the book, understands her privilege and the honor she falsely attributed to her family line, Min is pretty much the opposite. The latter is set up to be the antagonist, or at least to be used by the antagonists which makes her blatant oversight over the terrible things her husband and his advisor do even more frustrating. Granted, she was bullied by her mother and Set showing her any interest was enough to give her loyalty to him, but she keeps supporting him even when he shows he has no qualms about endangering her, or even after ‘witnessing’ what he and her mother did; heck, she keeps going on and on about giving him babies to be heirs *eyeroll* Even when she gains her own power, she only wants to use it for Set’s sake, with no ambition of her own. Nokhai, meanwhile feels terribly underutilized only as a love interest and I hope with that ending, he has a larger role to play in the plot of the next book. The magic system of this book could have done with more development. For most of the book, I was confused as to the existence of Yunis, and why there were gates made before it crossed into the Inbetween. Then there is the whole shamanesses thing, which is never really cleared. As for the sisterly rivalry, that seems to be an exaggeration in the blurb – Min and Lu barely have any interaction, and Min is never really at odds with Lu; her resentment towards the golden child seems justified, but she also looks up to Lu, so it seems o
The cover caught my attention and I was drawn in with the synopsis. That is usually the case for most diverse books these days. And I'm very thankful that there are books with Asian girls on the covers. It's amazing. The Girl King by Mimi Yu is told through three point-of-views: Lu, the promised heir to the empire, Min, the young sister with the hidden power, and Nok, the last of his kind hiding from everyone who would remember him. When Lu's was not chosen as the heir, it split the destiny of the sisters, changing their future and catapulting this story. This story fell a bit short for me. While I enjoy the overall premise, and I absolutely love Lu, Min and I didn't connect as much as I wanted to. Lu was a force that was strong and fierce. She knew what she wanted, and her gumption was loud and clear. I loved how determined she was, and didn't let any man, especially her father, get her down. I enjoyed how she developed as a character, and is my favorite part of the story. Min is young, and her personality clearly showed that. I didn't agree with anything she did, and it was hard for me to read through any part that included her. Nok was someone that I enjoyed but didn't mind either way. I didn't enjoy the romance, but I felt that Nok and Lu would have been better off as friends. Their dynamic is fun, but the romance changed it, and I just didn't ship them. Every time the sisters were pitted against each other, I was waiting for a catalyst to just really propel the story and the pacing. I was waiting for an all out fight between two strong characters. Overall, I enjoyed the story and am interested in reading the next story. *Thank you to the publisher for an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.*
The Girl King is about an empire thrown into mayhem when the oldest of two siblings decides that she will create her own fate no matter the cost, leaving the younger sister with the consequences of her older sister's decisions. Lu, the oldest sister is strong-headed and knows what she wants. Min, the youngest, is very quiet and does as she is told but with such restraint comes a breaking point. They are both relatable since we have all had to decide at one point if what we want has too high of a risk and if we are willing to keep going despite the damage it has on others. We also have had times of being in someones shadow and wanting to break through. The characters are well developed and you really connect with them through her writing as she adds a few PoV which adds another layer to her already in depth characters. The sibling rivalry was something I enjoyed because they didn't really start off as rivals per say. Over the course of the book it builds and we get to see another side of the characters when everything begins to fall apart. The writing is wonderfully detailed as it adds depth to the world she surrounds us in. The one small thing I didn't care for was the relationship building between two of the characters. It felt a little pushed but it's such a minor thing that it didn't make me love the book any less. Filled with mystical beings, sibling rivalry, and secrets this book is nothing short of incredible. If you are a fan of Three Dark Crowns, Shadow of the Fox or just love fantasy, I would recommend this book. I have already ordered the UK version and a US signed copy because I love this book so much! I will anxiously be waiting for the second book. Seriously, if it isn't on your TBR, add it! eARC provided by publisher through NetGalley