Science fiction at its best is about real meaning. What it means to live in this world and how things might turn out if certain paths are taken. Far future science fiction, or those books set in galaxies far, far away have a harder job of staying relevant to the modern reader. The Empress Game, the debut novel by Rhonda Mason, works hard to give a fresh feel to the Space Opera genre and works hard to feel relevant.
The seat of The Princess Apparent stands vacant on the Council of Seven. Not won by votes or marriage, but by a brutal tournament of ritualised combat. Now The Empress Game has been called, and the women of the empire will stop at nothing to secure political dominance for their homelands…
The plot begins in a back-water planet; all grunge, violence and fear. Mason twists the usual gender roles in the opening sequences. The women appear to be the gladiators in a blood-pit, where they fight for enough to get by. Shadow Panthe is a champion, and fights to be in control of her own destiny. The women are bigger and stronger than the men, and they fight with skill and viciousness. A mysterious man, who we soon learn is a senior agent, approaches Kayla, Shadow’s real name, with a deal to get her and her brother off the planet and potentially back to her home. The deal is she fights in the Empress Games, pretending to be someone else – a physically weaker princess who must win the crown. Kayla is reluctant at first, but soon becomes involved in the politics and people surrounding the games. Unfortunately, someone from her past discovers her secret and while she progresses through the tournament, her position, and that of her brother, becomes increasingly perilous.
The Empress Game is an odd mix of science fiction genres. The opening is brutal and recalls dodgy b-movies of the 80s, those ripping off the Mad Max films, where strong women fight in brutal filth. As soon as Kayla, her brother Corinth and the agent, Malkor, are at the games, however, all the brutality is left behind and the book is about imperial politics, war, and family, with a dose of prejudice against those who are different. Kayla Reinumon and her brother come from Wyrd Space (bit of a cliché or perhaps a nod to Dune?) and have a tragic past. Kayla quickly learns the social skills and political alliances and moves with barely mentioned ease through the tournament’s early rounds. Fighting as Shadow Panthe her battles were visceral; disguised as a princess they are efficient and thrill-less – there is no doubt she will win. The crowds in the former baying for blood. In the latter, barely there.
The world-building, such an important part of science fiction is at times clunky (mentions of beverage synthesizers and hover cars in particular seem out of place while characters spend a lot of time explaining big-picture stuff to each other) while at others fine: Kayla and her brother have special familial bonds which are nicely introduced and described. It also bothered me that Mason used descriptions such as the bass in techno music, and while she invented a swear-word (frut) still used shit and bastard. Almost half in the readers’ now and half in her universe which perhaps is the attempt to make it relatable? What is interesting, however, is that if I was more engaged in the story, these descriptions and foibles wouldn’t have been as irksome.
The plot rattles along at a decent pace and the characters change along the way. While Kayla does have a little of her own agency, she occasionally seems to be swept along in events that keep happening to her at convenient moments in the story. She does grow and change her perspective, as all good characters should in good fiction. The courage she shows in her decision making at the climax was surprising and refreshing, although as this novel is announced as part of a trilogy, it was never going to end well. Which is a shame. If this hadn’t been advertised as such, Kayla’s struggle would have had more toll. However, at no point and despite all that happened, was I concerned about her or her brother.
The Empress Game is an enjoyable novel. More fun than many Space Opera’s I’ve read. Not sure about all the political machinations and if they made sense. A lot of history between the empire and the Wyrds and a nano-virus was fine but there seemed to be a lot of unnecessary detail. There is an awful lot of double-crossing, hidden agendas and trying to guess who the bad guys really are. The family plot and the relationship between Kayla and Malkor were the most interesting points to the story and I wish the fighting had retained its early grungy promise. Mason’s strength is in the characters. In the end, however, her novel isn’t really about anything. Just a romp through space.
AUTHOR: Rhonda Mason
PUBLISHER: Titan Books
Reviewer: Ian J Simpson