The emperor was so in love with these strong, dedicated and deadly women that when his son Ghirit came of age, he passed an edict that the boy’s bride would be determined in the style of a ro’haar tournament. Considering that any female with a claim to power in the empire would be allowed to enter the tournament, the councils adopted the edict immediately. Everyone imagined their sister, niece or daughter winning and becoming the next empress.
The Empress Game had persisted since.
This week, I’ve been reading Rhonda Mason’s The Empress Game—a fully awesome space opera featuring an ass-kicking heroine, an antiquated and highly corrupt tournament to determine power, and the fate of an entire race of people hanging in the balance. Kayla “Shadow Panthe” Reinumon has suffered the betrayal of her people, a coup d’etat that has resulted in the murder of the royal family—her family. Thanks to blind luck and survival instinct, Kayla and her youngest brother Corinth were barely able to make it from her home Wyrd worlds to a backwater slaver planet.
Now, Kayla fights.
She fights to keep her 13-year-old brother safe, she fights to earn enough credits so that she can leave the pit behind, she fights in the desperate hope that her family’s murderer will not find her. Someone else finds her, though, and Kayla makes a bargain—she’ll impersonate a royal and win her the Empress Game in return for safe passage and enough credits to get her and her brother back to Wyrd Space. Easy…right?
I love, love, love this book. The Empress Game has everything one could want from a space opera: complex politics, heavy thematic exploration of power and murder, some awesome hand-to-hand combat scenes, and a hell of a female protagonist. In other words, The Empress Game is bonafide Thea-crack.
If you’ve read The Empress Game and are thinking about other books to try in this same vein—awesome female main character, tightly written action, sweet space-opera setting—here are some books that I eagerly recommend:
Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach. The Paradox trilogy by Rachel Bach is urban fantasy in style with its smart-talking badass mercenary heroine Devi Morris, set in outer space. There’s a reason that Rachel Bach has a huge blurb on The Empress Game—if Kayla and Devi ever crossed paths in hyperspace, I’m sure they’d approve of one another.
City of Pearl by Karin Traviss. The first book in the Wess’har Wars series, City of Pearl introduces readers to a highly coveted world called Cavanaugh’s Star. In 2198, Earth sends a retirement-aged Environmental officer, Shan Frankland, and her team to explore this world; Cavanaugh’s Star, however, is already claimed by three different alien races, with the planet’s guardian, Aras, watching on. An ideological book with excellent worldbuilding and heavy ideological tones, City of Pearl isn’t as whiz-bang as The Empress Game, though if you enjoy the politics of that book, you’ll probably love the intricacies of this one by Traviss.
Andromeda’s Fall by William C. Dietz. This prequel series to Dietz’s Legion books is, in my opinion, a ton of fun. Yes, Lady Catherine’s eponymous fall and subsequent rise to revenge-bent warrior is a little predictable, but when you’ve got a deposed socialite breaking her own face in order to escape recognition scans and fight her way to the top of the most brutal ranks of soldiers? You’ve won me over. Cat Carletto’s—now Andromeda Key’s—choices are reminiscent of deposed Wyrd princess Kyla’s, another pair of women who probably would understand each other perfectly.
Jaran by Kate Elliott. Jaran is a slight change of pace from the other books on this list. The novel is set in a future science-fictional world, but it also largely takes place on a technologically stunted planet. When Tess Sorenson ends up stranded on an alien world, she learns much of its nomadic people and the goals of the clan’s leader. Tess isn’t a brawler like Kayla, but her introspective narrative—and her ability to trust in her feelings and act, especially where matters of the heart are concerned—remind me very much of Kayla.
The Clone Wars Series by Karen Miller. I HAD to have a Star Wars book on here, and what better series in the Expanded Universe to include than one that follows the politically fraught, battle-ridden Clone Wars arc? Anakin Skywalker, Obi Wan Kenobi, and my favorite jedi, Ahsoka Tano, all come to life in this excellent series by Karen Miller. Ahsoka’s arc, in particular, comes out nicely in book 2 (Wild Space), as does Padme Amidala’s. If you’re a fan of the Clone Wars series (as I am) and of the women in the prequel era, read these books.
Code of Conduct by Kristine Smith. Jani Killian has had a rough past. After disobeying her superiors in order to save her troops, Jani was presumed killed in the bloodbath; in reality, she was saved and reconstructed with a new face and body, thanks to alien tech. When a man from her past asks for Jani’s help in clearing his name of the murder of his wife, Jani grudgingly complies…and discovers a whole web of intrigue that relates to her own situation in the process. If you like slow burning, character-driven science fiction, this one’s for you.
Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells. Ok, so two Star Wars EU books on the list (can you blame me with all of the Star Wars goodness going on these days?!). Martha Wells is one of my favorite fantasy/SF authors, and her contribution to the Expanded Universe is fantastic. Razor’s Edge follows Princess Leia in the period between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back and is the first book in the Empire and Rebellion arc. Leia here is grappling with the destruction of Alderaan, the fledgling hope she has for the rebellion, and her own growing relationship with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo (the other two main characters followed in this Star Wars arc of books). Princess Leia and Kayla Shadow Panthe struggle with the same survivor’s guilt and larger diplomatic decisions that mean the future for their people—and they also know how to fight, when it comes down to bloody knuckles and weaponry.
Of course, there are probably plenty of other books that capture the perfect blend of strong female characterization and space opera that I’m missing—any other suggestions?