Space Opera machinations, a Princess and Prince on the run, and vicious combat both in and out of the ring mark the plot of Rhonda Mason’s The Empress Game.
I’m a sucker for Traveller-style Space Opera, with multiple star-spanning empires and kingdoms and republics, politics between different worlds, intrigue and adventure on far-flung worlds. The Empress Game provides us with an Empire that seems to dominate a swath of the galaxy, but is not alone in its suzerainty. It is the intersection of those polities, or on the boundaries of them, that rich and interesting characters and story can occur.
The Empress Game’s story centers around two poles. Kayla, a thought-to-be-dead princess on the run, fights savagely in gladiatorial games on the far edge of settled space. It’s a hard life, but one that protects the identity of herself and her brother from those who may yet still be hunting her in the aftermath of a coup that ended her planet’s independence at the hands of the Empire. Her skills are brought to the attention of Malkor, an Imperial agent with an agenda of his own. An Empress Game has been called, to choose the bride of the Crown Prince, and also earn a seat on the ruling council of the Empire. The Empress Game, however, is not a chess match, but rather a dangerous form of ritualized combat. The Prince’s preferred choice of bride, for both political and personal reasons, Isonde, is no fighter, though. So the Prince has engaged the imperial agent to find a substitute to secretly put in Isonde’s place in the combat, to win it on her behalf. And so when Malkor spots what he thinks is simply a talented pit fighter on a backward planet, a tale starts to weave.
The novel’s strength is definitely in the action sequences. The idea of a galactic-wide tournament to decide a political future for the Empire that is under threat from within is a juicy one, and the novel really shines when the fists and the knives come out. Action building character may be a cliche and a truism in writing, but it is one that the author takes to heart. Gladatorial Princesses is a high concept that the author takes and runs with, to a reader’s joy. The action is sharp, clean, and not without consequence, both physical and psychological. We get to see what it means to participate in these dangerous games at the highest of stakes.
There are plenty of interesting ideas at work in the novel, too. Psionics are not a common trope in novels these days, especially space opera (Karen Lord being an exception). The psionics displayed here in the Empress game, and the politics and restrictions and ideas around them, are a fine bit of worldbuilding. It does help give a definite Dune-like cast to the proceedings. Those Dune-like ideas also extend to some of the revelations of the backstory of some of the motivations of the antagonist in the novel, as well. I also did enjoy the Prisoner of Zenda plot running through the novel. It’s an old pulpish plot, but the author knows how to run with it and not take it too seriously.
While I did like the strong main characters, and many of the minor ones, I think that Isonde, herself, came off as a bit of a cipher in the narrative. Even more so, the Prince who desire to marry her does as well. The lack of a point of view from either one makes their actions and true thoughts and ideas somewhat obscure, and I think the author missed an opportunity to make their story stronger. While the tight focus on Kayla and Malkor does make them come across well, given how wrapped up the Prince and Isonde are in the councils of power, not having those figures have more goals and desires and personality than they do is a wasted opportunity.
The novel ends a wee bit sloppily without a clear exit ramp for a reader who isn’t looking for a series. While I think the setup of the universe and the characters will encourage readers, myself included, to progress further into this world as the author reveals it, it does make for a bit of a tangled finish for those who want a clean ending. That said, I would like to see more of Kayla and the remainder of the Space Opera universe that the author has constructed in The Empress Game.