The Empress Game
by Rhonda Mason
352pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 4/10
Amazon Rating: 4.4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.5/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.75/5

The Empress Game, Rhonda Mason’s first published novel, is the first book in a science fiction trilogy sharing the same title. Although it features some tropes I enjoy and had potential to be a fun story, I found the writing and characters bland and did not find it nearly compelling enough to want to read Cloak of War, the next book, after its release in October.

Five years ago, Kayla Reunimon and her younger brother Corinth escaped their home world after the rest of their family was attacked and killed. Since then, they’ve been hiding on the seedy side of another planet, slowly saving enough credits to get Corinth the psi training he desperately needs. Their best hope of earning these credits is utilizing the fighting skills Kayla acquired as a princess from the Wyrd Worlds, and she enters the Blood Pits under the name “Shadow Panthe.”

As the undefeated champion of the Blood Pits, Shadow Panthe’s reputation spreads to other worlds—and Malkor believes she is the perfect fit when he is tasked with finding a body double who can win the upcoming Empress Game as Princess Isonde. Malkor and Isonde’s lifelong friend Prince Ardin, the Emperor’s heir, is not allowed to choose his own future Empress but must marry the woman who triumphs over all others in a fighting tournament. As the Empress Ascendant is a member of the powerful Council of Seven, Ardin, Isonde, and Malkor are willing to risk everything to ensure that Isonde ascends to this seat for the good of their Empire.

When Malkor first approaches her with his rather substantial offer, Kayla scoffs at the idea of impersonating Isonde and refuses, but Malkor vows not to give up, going so far as to track her to her home, break in, and stun her. Though Kayla still continues to refuse to take part in this dangerous plot, she quickly changes her mind when she realizes her past may be catching up with her—and she’d rather take her chances posing as Isonde at the Empress Game than be discovered by the one who seeks her.

In theory, The Empress Game sounds delightful. Switched identities and secret identities are some of my favorite tropes so the story of a princess in hiding pretending to be another princess (in a fighting tournament, no less!) could have been a lot of fun. There were times I found it readable even if not fully engaging, especially during the first half, but I was bored a lot during the last quarter. The more I read, the more every plot twist seemed orchestrated rather than natural, and I thought it was completely missing heart and memorable characters. The straightforward prose, uninspiring dialogue, and jarring use of “frutt” as a swear (especially grating considering other common English expressions and curses were still present) didn’t help. Furthermore, the worldbuilding was rather generic and very little focus was given to the universe at large.

I may have been able to overlook the bland writing and setting, but what really held it back was the lack of interesting dialogue, chemistry between characters, and compelling characterization. None of the characters had a dimension of their own, and even the main character did not have a lot of depth. She’s tough and protective and her ability to survive is admirable, but she seems to exist more to serve the plot than as a real personality. Her relationships are also mostly hollow, especially the romance: its obvious setup in the beginning feels forced and it never gets better.

The only character relationship I found intriguing was the mutual esteem that develops between Kayla and Isonde, which is, unfortunately, underutilized. At first, Isonde is hostile toward Kayla and skeptical that she’s a good fit for the role, but as the two begin to work together, they come to appreciate each other’s skills. Kayla respects Isonde’s political acumen, and in turn, Isonde respects Kayla’s ability as a fighter and lets her take the lead when deciding what’s best in related aspects of their plan. However, almost as soon as I as beginning to feel like this was a partnership to root for, plot drama intervened and separated the two. This was also disappointing because Isonde was one of the characters I would have liked to have learned more about due to her determination to see her vision for her Empire come to fruition.

The bones of the story had definite potential and parts of it were even entertaining, but I thought The Empress Game was too insipid to stand out. Keeping the story exciting seems to come first, and in my opinion, that’s its biggest issue. It prevented the characters from coming alive, got in the way of advancing one of the more interesting relationships, and failed at creating tension: I wasn’t on the edge of my seat when the characters were in danger because I just didn’t care that muchConsidering that the world and writing were also unremarkable, The Empress Game was ultimately a rather lackluster book despite some fun parts.

My Rating: 4/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

This book is July’s selection from a poll on Patreon.