Book Review: The Empress Game by Rhonda Mason

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Kayla lost her home and most of her family in a bloody coup five years ago. Now all she wants is to protect her little brother and earn enough money in the blood pit to get him to safety among others of her kind. When a tall, handsome stranger shows up offering her more money than she could earn in a year, she’d be a fool not to consider. Except she doesn’t trust him.

However, when she discovers that the man they’ve been hiding from for the last five years is sniffing around her hideout, she rethinks her decision. She takes up the handsome stranger on his offer and agrees to play the role of body double for his friend in the Empress Game, a combat tournament to decide who will marry the prince. In exchange, she gets her money and a free ride back to her people, no questions asked.

The only problem is that the very man she is running from has shown up at the game. And is in league with the people she thought would be her salvation. Now she and her brother are in more danger than ever. Somehow, she has to hide from Scary McTraitorface, protect her brother, and pretend to be somebody else while competing in the galaxy’s most famous spectator sport.

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I loved this. I don’t want to oversell it for you, so I’ll try to rein in my enthusiasm.

The pacing was great, the plot was exciting, and the handsome stranger romantic arc was the kind that kept me turning pages to see when sparks would finally fly. I burned through this in just a couple of nights, at the expense of sleep, I’ll admit.

The main character is from a race of beings where male/female fraternal twins are common and strong bonds exist between them. The females are taller and stronger physically, and make up the warrior class, but each has a particular internal need to protect her male twin. The males are smaller, but have strong telekinetic and telepathic gifts which they use to aid their female twins in battle. Kayla was not only trained as one of these female warrior twins, she was a princess on her homeworld. She’s a princess who has been taught since birth to unapologetically kick butt in a society that prizes her strength, agility, and tactical prowess as the very pillars of femininity.

Too bad that the enemy empire in which she is hiding out with her brother doesn’t value any of those things in her outside of the fighting pits in the slums–until the Empress Game. An agent of the special security force officiating the game helps orchestrate her secret involvement as she pretends to be the prince’s real-life paramour. Their interactions are volatile at best, but her telepathic brother reads the agent’s mind and informs his sister that it is in part because he is trying to hide a strong and ever-growing attraction to her. It gets even better when the agent finds out where she is really from and that his thoughts have been more or less on display to her. And not all of them were PG.

Combat, political machinations, betrayals, attractions, and spectators; oh my!

It was funny and heart-wrenching at the same time. It sets up the next book in the series well, though not as cleanly as I’d like. In any case, if you like females who don’t just say they can kick butt, but actually do and males who love them for it, this could be your ticket. It is the first book in a trilogy. I have not read the others yet, mostly because the ending to this one made me want to throw things–but in the best possible way. Maybe that only makes sense to other book lovers. Or maybe it’s just me.

P.S. If you’d like to know a little more about me, K.J. Harrowick interviewed me for her Winterviews series over on her blog. Check it out, and while you’re there, you can take a peek at the other posts in the series. There are a lot of fascinating people in the line-up.

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