The Empress Game
by Rhonda Mason
2015 • 352 pages • Titan Books
As concepts go, The Empress Game seems pretty clearly suited to my taste: a galactic empire elects its empress not through political process, but through the Empress Game, a tournament of ritualized combat where any woman with a title can compete for the seat. The mysterious but brutal pit fighter Shadow Panthe is hired as the illegal double for Princess Isonde, the emperor-elect’s politically powerful beloved, but participating in the game will bring her uncomfortably close to her past.
Ooh! Action, awesome ladies, and mysterious pasts? Sold! (And also sold on the strength of that cover, which insinuates both female empowerment and pulpy delights. I am a simple woman of simple tastes.) When I saw that Thea recommended this at the Book Smugglers, I immediately added it to my list.
At first, I really enjoyed The Empress Game. The action is solid, which is always a delight to see in prose, and I really enjoyed that Mason took the time to show how Shadow’s constant fights would tax her physically. The makeshift physical therapy Shadow has to put up with during the Empress Game sounds like torture, but it also feels like what probably goes down behind the scenes at any given mixed martial arts competition. Story-wise, there are a lot of balls in the air that Mason juggles elegantly, which makes for fleet reading.
Until one particular ball becomes the only major ball in the air. The Empress Game, in its home stretch, becomes overwhelmed with romance. And I don’t mean that in terms of page count; if you were to tally everything up, it probably has the same “screen time” as the other major story threads (galactic politics and Shadow protecting her family). But it feels narratively more important than the other plots, and that feels… weird.
To be honest, I just… didn’t feel the romance. Against Shadow and even the mostly sketched Isonde, the soldier-diplomat Malkor doesn’t feel like a fully realized character, despite sharing the third person limited view point with Shadow. (At first, Mason feints towards alternating chapters by perspective, before going any which way but loose.) It doesn’t help that Shadow and Malkor fight a great deal in the beginning of the book, in ways that feel like Shadow is being forced to cede agency to him against her will rather than indicators of romantic or sexual interest. For instance, Shadow wears a face covering to hide her identity at the beginning of the novel. When Malkor tells her to take it off, she refuses. Instead of accepting her no, he challenges her to fight for the right to wear it. She loses. It doesn’t feel like a sexy clash of wills; it feels like manipulation.
And when they finally get together, it’s just… okay. And look: romance, like humor, can be very, very subjective, especially when you’re a queer reader reared on fanfiction and deeply spooked by stories with any whiff of men try to “sexily” control their womenfolk without, you know, the couple explicitly agreeing to that beforehand and having a great, consensual time. It just doesn’t work for me. But there were other story threads that I really enjoyed! Like Shadow’s relationship with her family, especially her little brother Corinth. I found it really fascinating, the way that Shadow is technically closer than blood to her brother due to her ritual role as a protector in her culture. Not to spoil, but I really enjoyed how that plot developed. But the ending… again, I don’t want to spoil any specifics, but I will say that the ending torpedoes any chance of that story continuing into the next book in such a way that it feels like it invalidates everything that came before pertaining to her family. It just felt like the book was forcing my hand as a reader in a very strange way; as if it was daring me to enjoy the romance more than I did.
On top of that, there’s enough lackluster queer representation that just made me feel a little gross. We do meet a genderqueer character—who is the madame of a brothel. Which would be fine, if, I dunno, some of the many, many extras we meet were also genderqueer and it didn’t feel like the madame was genderqueer because they were involved in “deviant” sex work? It’s also implied that Vid and Trinian, two of Malkor’s subordinates, might be involved, but… why not just say it? What do we gain by implication? None of it is painful or especially damaging, but it just feels like such a half-hearted shrug of an effort.
The action’s still really good, though.
I rented this book from the public library.