The Empress Game by Rhonda Mason
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Okay, seriously, this took a long time for me to start caring about the characters, but it finally happened well after the half-way point of the book. That's a real shame, because I was frankly bored out of my skull by most of it.
Best Space Opera? Please.
We got ourselves a bit of knife fighting in a tournament and then a road trip with blackmailing spies and a con job to put an empress on the throne of a multi planet empire. If that isn't bad enough, we've got the old trope of princess-in-disguise right out of standard fantasy fiction. (Or even Shakespeare, if you want to go there.) We've got the way overdone psi schtick and a throwaway nanoplague, too. What the book really needed were solid characters to pull a tired and not-so-fresh landscape into a vibrant and interesting novel.
And we did. Very, very late. It saved the book in full estimation, but if we'd had the glories of that character vibrancy and depth and the hint of a great plot twist or two brewing at the beginning, I wouldn't have had any problem slogging through the meh roadtrip or the throwaway battles. I would have seen them as build-up and atmosphere enhancing, not just a page-filler that did oh-so-little to propel the actual STORY.
So what am I saying? Oh, perhaps a bit of editing would have been in order. Do a time twist in the story. Bring some later events to the front end then let it back up and build again. Show us the love, the important action, the heartache and the epic, and do it right off the bat. Maybe then I wouldn't have been yawning and asking myself why I was reading this.
It didn't end with a whimper, at least. But it sure started with one. Yes, Yes, the first scene was a fight, and yes she kissed the boy who would be hers in front of a whole stadium, and yes she was kidnapped and blackmailed almost right away... but that's no excuse for not grabbing me by the heart and insuring my interest from the very start. It didn't happen until much, much later, and that's my problem.
And then there was the growing suspicion that the book was entirely about the teenage boy. So much revolved around him, and little about it was even interesting. The MC was a superstar, for heaven's sake, and I was wondering why the hell I was stuck in a boring cul-du-sac with this mute boy who's oddly a mary-sue. Huh? Huh? Why?
Oh, it's only meant to give the MC something we can relate to? Some human charm and heartstring-pulling? No. It was too little and too drawn out and threatened to consume ALL of the momentum of the tale.
I was also a bit annoyed with all the orphaned place-and-name-dropping that meant very little to me as a reader. Not even a two-word descriptor to placehold them for me or give the rest of the world a bit of depth and color. Though, to be honest, I'd be just as annoyed if I was just given some map that I'd never refer to as I read the book. I've seen WAY too many wonderful examples of incorporating names with beauty and verve, and it was all sadly missing from this novel. Zoom zoom idc zoom zoom.
I know this sounds a bit like I should be giving the novel a one or a two star rating, but in the end, it did affect me. It was redeemed, even if it was very flawed. There were a lot of standard tropes and ideas that really required a first class talent to bring to life even though they're rather standard, OR it required such glorious characters and development that everything else receded into the background. We eventually got the latter, but it only half-worked as a great piece of writing and only late did it succeed in its characters.
Not sure if I'd really recommend this to anyone, unless:
You've never read about nano plagues happening off-screen and mostly out of mind unless you need a plot bogeyman.
You don't need anything more than a skimpy and almost inexplicable reason for holding a tournament designed for females to fight single combat for the right to become the Empress.
You've never gotten tired of the omnipresent hidden-princess trope.
If you fall into any of these categories, then dive right in, friends. :) Fair warning, though, it'll take a while before the action becomes good and decent and not just a fart in the wind.
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