Review by Gina Chen
Add Princess Lu to my list of favorite heroines.
Mimi Yu’s debut THE GIRL KING is a prime example of how a great story isn’t about the tropes but the execution of them. It’s a familiar, fast read: upon betrayal in the court, Princess Lu loses the throne she’s meant to inherit and she’s forced to go on the run. She crosses paths with illegal shapeshifter Nok, and together, they plan to reclaim her throne and prevent her cousin Set from reigning. Meanwhile, Lu’s biddable sister Min is betrothed to Set, but Min’s own forbidden magic is coming to light. Her taste of its power sets her on her own dangerous, ambitious path.
It’s exciting and fresh and briskly-paced. I rarely like action-adventure journey stories, but this one feels like it’s written just for me, namely for its primary heroine Lu, the one kind of character I’ve always wanted: an arrogant disaster of a warrior princess.
Nothing against ingenues, hesitant wielders of power, or girls just coming into their own. But the heroines who are unshakably confident from the very beginning are the ones who own my heart, the ones I consider relatable, and they’re almost never written about. As pretty as Asian costume dramas are, it’s dispiriting when the girls never get the role I want them to have. Similar narratives almost always feature some cocky-yet-honorable prince good with swords, horses, flirting (and not much else), who meets a poor, gentle-yet-feisty girl with a tragic backstory and secret powers. Change that to princess and peasant boy and you’ve got Lu and Nok respectively. Lu gets to be charismatic and aloof, and Nok gets to be soft and protected and the emotional heart. On paper, it doesn’t sound like it should be so momentously unique, but in reality—as someone who feels like they’ve been wandering the desert in search for these archetypes—THE GIRL KING is a magnificent oasis.
I don’t just want a heroine who takes no prisoners. I love girl power, but I love messy girl power more. Lu makes inescapably difficult decisions that flesh out that impulsiveness and stoicism to give us a glimpse of what kind of leader she might be. She’s cold and somewhat insensitive and knows it, but she’s learning to grow beyond that on the journey. That would have meant so much to me growing up. The story also tackles matters of imperialism and what gives Lu—or anyone—the right to rule, especially through Nok’s questioning, as his kin have been prosecuted until they’ve all but vanished. Then there’s Min, whose rise to power is more of a slow burn back in the capital. Her impossible decisions are about reclaiming who she is, but also raises the question: at what cost? The sisterly relationship is deliciously tangled and their hostility feel earned as they pursue their goals with a ferocity that leaps off the page. I’m excited to see them interact more in the next book as their paths diverge and clash.
While there are patriarchal elements, this is very much a story about female power, with an abundance of female leaders, rivals, villains, witches, mothers, and goddesses to prove it, and the sisters at the center of it all. They get to be as supportive as they are scheming, and foolish as they are wise, and brutal when pushed to the brink. This kind of story may have been told before, but rarely in such a way, with characters that so resonated with me. At the end of book one, I have no idea what’s to come, and I can’t wait to find out. All hail THE GIRL KING, indeed.
The Girl King is out today from Bloomsbury!
Special thanks to author Mimi Yu for sitting down with Journey to the Best for a Q&A. Read her fascinating responses below!
1) THE GIRL KING is full of action, intrigue, and hidden lore. Did you draw from any specific inspirations when writing it and building out the world?
A lot of the media that I loved best as a young person, from the Star Wars franchise (I’m including the extended universe books, which I consumed like water during middle school), to A Song of Ice and Fire, and even classics like Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, attracted me in large part because of the scope of their universes. Big worlds with lots of voices. That interplay between warring points of view creates such a full, complex vision of what people are capable of, why they do what they do. I wanted to build a world with that in mind.
At the same time, none of these universes I mentioned featured people who looked like me. So, when I sat down to write THE GIRL KING I really wanted to do my part to contribute to the growing diversity and breadth of YA fantasy. To that end, the world of the book is loosely based on various East and North Asian histories. Some are maybe more obvious, like the Empire of the First Flame’s parallels with the late Qing Dynasty, and some are more general, like Yulan City, which is sort of an amalgamation of folklore and C-drama aesthetics! It was kind of a tricky balance for me, honestly, as a diasporic US-born Asian American. Despite the book taking place in an imagined world—and so much of fantasy being built on loose analogs!—I wanted to make sure I was being respectful of the histories and references I was borrowing from.
2) I love the chemistry and messiness between all the characters. What’s your favorite relationship(s) to explore in this series?
I don’t know that I can pick, to be honest! They each hold an important place in my heart. I think I was surprised by how…not fun, exactly, but real and almost easy it was to write Min and Lu’s dynamic. I don’t have a sister, so I think I wasn’t quite expecting the depth and resonance that would have. Lu and Nok have a slow burn of a relationship, which is one of my favorite things to write, although it’s also tinged with a certain sadness.
3) Sibling relationships can get especially complicated and Lu and Min have such a fraught one; do you think the sisters are stronger together or apart?
Wow, that’s a great question! You know how in intimate relationships, whether it’s between friends or family, we tend to develop roles? Someone’s the peacemaker, someone’s the shoulder to cry on, someone’s the one who always picks what we have for dinner, and so on. And even if those roles aren’t super healthy, or we’re simply tired of playing them—of living like sleepwalking—it’s so easy to fall into them out of rote familiarity. I catch myself doing it whenever I visiting my parents for more than a few days! That’s very much where Lu and Min are at when we first encounter them. Their relationship is built entirely on circumstance and reflex, rather than mutual understanding or anything resembling intention. They’ve just always done what they feel they need to do to survive within their deeply troubled family, whether it hurts themselves or each other. And I think deep down both of them know this in their own ways, but they don’t know how to break out of it, or even imagine an alternative. So, in this moment, at the start of the book, I think some time apart might help them to better understand what they want from themselves, and maybe what they want from and for one another, versus what they’ve been asking or taking.
4) If you could trade places with any of the characters, who would you choose?
Oof, that’s a tough choice. None of them are terribly happy, are they? That said, I absolutely could not turn down the ability to shift shape into an animal, so I’m going to go with Nok.
5) What should readers look forward to in the next book?
A theme that comes up a lot in the first book is the repetition and lingering trauma of past mistakes—whether on a grand, historical scale, or between generations in a family—and whether or not the characters are able or willing to stop those cycles, that rote recurrence of violence and pain. Without getting too specific, I can tell you this will come to the forefront in the second book as readers get a look into the more distant past, to better understand how everyone ended up where they are, and where they may choose to go.
And circling back to your earlier question, readers can definitely expect a deepening of the relationship between Lu and Min. Some very heavy family secrets, rifts and resentments are exposed by the end of the first book, and I think both of them now see more clearly the ways in which they’ve misunderstood—and underestimated—one another. And they’re going to have to each grapple with that as a matter of life or death.