8 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: The Empress Game by Rhonda Mason

Sophisticated space opera. Psi powers. Holographic princess impersonation. Badass female protagonists who display said badassery in the physical AND political arenas. What else could you possibly ask for?

The Empress GameTitle: The Empress Game

Author: Rhonda Mason

Genre: Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction

Publisher: Titan Books
Publication Date: July 2015
Paperback: 352 pages

Rachel Bach, author of Fortune’s Pawn, said — “Fast, smart, complex, and fun as hell, THE EMPRESS GAME was an unexpected delight and one of the best books I’ve read this year. A near perfect blend of romance, action, and interstellar politics in a well thought out and original universe with a tough-as-nails heroine you can’t help but root for. Modern Space Opera at its finest!”

One seat on the intergalactic Sakien Empire’s supreme ruling body, the Council of Seven, remains unfilled, that of the Empress Apparent. The seat isn’t won by votes or marriage. It’s won in a tournament of ritualized combat in the ancient tradition. Now that tournament, the Empress Game, has been called and the females of the empire will stop at nothing to secure political domination for their homeworlds. Kayla Reinumon, a supreme fighter, is called by a mysterious stranger to battle it out in the arena.

The battle for political power isn’t contained by the tournament’s ring, however. The empire’s elite gather to forge, strengthen or betray alliances in a dance that will determine the fate of the empire for a generation. With the empire wracked by a rising nanovirus plague and stretched thin by an ill-advised planet-wide occupation of Ordoch in enemy territory, everything rests on the woman who rises to the top.

Tanya Huff, author of The Valor Confederation, said — “Mason delivers an old fashioned space opera — passion, politics, and the fate of Empires hanging on the strength and courage of a single woman. You’ll want to reach immediately for book two.” (less)

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Empress Game Trilogy

How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher

Format (e- or p-): Print

Why did I read this book: Look at that cover art! And the synopsis! And the blurbs from Rachel Bach and Tanya Huff! Come on. It was a no brainer.


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.

Kayla “Shadow Panthe” Reinumon despises the pit.

She hates that she must mask herself as a pit whore, fighting other women in order for the credits that she needs to survive on a backwater planet in the middle of nowhere. She hates this life, but it’s a necessary evil–for the notorious, undefeated Shadow Panthe is no mere gladiatorial champion. She’s also one of the last two surviving members of the Reinumon royal family–a powerful family in Wyrd space, marked by their intense telepathic abilities.

Having seen her family betrayed and murdered at the hands of the Sakien Empire’s deadly intelligence agents–the IDC–who were aided and working in tandem with a Wyrd traitor, Kayla has little love or trust for anyone else. And, because the rest of her family is dead, she is fiercely, compulsively protective of her younger brother Corinth–who is more than just her flesh and blood, but also her il’haar to guard to the death. The bond between il’haar (the smaller male psionic) and their ro’haar (the larger and stronger female protector) is not one that the Wyrd take lightly–for Kayla and Corinth, who have already lost everything, all they have is each other.

That is, until the IDC shows up with a madcap scheme that will change everything.

An Empress Game has been called–a tournament of hand-to-hand combat which determines the Empress apparent–and IDC agent Malcor Rua is enrolled in a scheme with the soon-to-be-Emperor and his paramour, Isonde. In order to ensure that the fair-minded and politically savvy Isonde takes the throne and has her voice and vote on the Imperial Council of Seven, Malkor enlists (or extorts) Kayla’s help. Kayla will impersonate Isonde and win the Empress Game, securing Isonde a seat on the council and the Empresship–and in return, Kayla will be able to return to Wyrd space with her brother and remain safe from the traitor who shadows her every move. (It doesn’t hurt that Isonde’s political ideals also will protect Kayla’s people, the Wyrds, from invasion or acts of biological war.)

But things aren’t as simple as they seem in the physical arena or the political one. Kayla must face the ghosts of her past if she is to keep Corinth safe, and return to the home and safety she so desperately craves.

Sophisticated space opera. Psi powers. Holographic princess impersonation. Badass female protagonists who display said badassery in the physical AND political arenas. What else could you possibly ask for?

NOTHING, that’s what. The Empress Game is everything that I want in my space opera, and then some.

The first novel I’ve had the pleasure of reading from Rhonda Mason, The Empress Game is a fresh trilogy that has quickly made its way up on my “most highly anticipated books of the year” list–and a lot of this is because of heroine Kayla “Shadow Panthe” Reinumon. In many ways, The Empress Game is like Gladiator meets The Prince and the Pauper (but with women) set in outer space–the fact that the main character Kayla is so wonderfully developed and the urban fantasy-reminiscent third person narrative style is just the icing on the cake. I loved Kayla’s sense of duty and her fierce protectiveness of her younger brother and for the Wyrd people–she’s clearly affected by the trauma of her past, seeing her family and her il’haar murdered, and her subsequent paranoia and PTSD is wholly believable. The motivations that drive Kayla and her decisions, especially as she learns more about the coup that resulted in her family’s demise, and the mixed political motivations leading to Isonde’s play for power are similarly (impressively!) nuanced. This type of detail and care doesn’t just extend to Kayla, though–Malkor’s guilt over his actions as an IDC agent, particularly where Kayla is involved, is also palpable, as are the complex relationships between anyone who is in on the impersonation scheme.

The Empress Game

Relationship-wise, The Empress Game also shines, and on several different levels. While there is a romantic angle between Malkor and Kayla, it’s thankfully restrained and not a priority for either character (making it both realistic and fodder for plenty o’ angst). The most important relationships in both characters’ lives (actually, to all characters in this series) are with their responsibilities–for Kayla, no single romance could challenge the bond she has to her il’haar; for Malkor, his desire to do the right thing for the good of the Empire (and the fate of the galaxy) is his cross to bear. The Empress Game is all about those larger responsibilities and motivations, and how they color relationships at every level: between Isonde and the Empress seat (as well as her relationship with the Emperor Apparent), between a traitorous agent and that agent’s home planet politics, between a leader who will do anything to stop his people’s suffering at the hands of a sophisticated biochemical virus… and so on. Also on the relationship front, one minor aside: one of my favorite relationships in this piece, brief as it may be, is between Kayla and Isonde. The mutual respect and deference that both women show each other is made of awesome–I hope for more in the next book.

Beyond the strength of Kayla’s character and the relationships between players, the other high points in The Empress Game concern the actual plot and setup of this particular universe–the Sakien Empire is vast and stretches across the reaches of space, from backwater slaver planets, to the psi-powered inhabitants of Wyrd Space, to the main civilized Imperial worlds. Cultural appropriation–in the form of the Empress Game itself, no less–is examined overtly in this first trilogy novel through Kayla’s narrative (as a Wyrd and ro’haar, the games are a pale imitation and misunderstanding of the actual tradition of her people). Also, the very idea of a marital tournament, in which women fight for the honor of becoming Empress, is an intriguing gender role reversal in the traditional bid for power. It’s also worth noting that marriage is hardly important to anyone in the Game other than Isonde–the driving force here is the political power and influence that the Empress may yield, far moreso than the marriage part of the bargain.

Oh, and I did mention that the Wyrds are telepathic, right? The intricacies of the bond between twins, the power of an il’haar versus the physical prowess of the ro’haar, the ability to combine psionic power or protect against its attacks? That’s all SUPER wicked cool, too. Without any spoilers, let me also just say how much I appreciated this aspect of the worldbuilding within The Empress Game, and how fear and a lack of understanding of the Wyrds and their abilities lead to larger plot implications overall.

SO, in sum: The Empress Game is action-packed, fun-filled, awesome badassery in outer space. I loved it all, and cannot wait for the next book in the series. Trust me on this one, people–read it.

Rating: 8 – PURE AWESOME. Another amazing read that I loved, and have no doubts will make my shortlist of notable books of 2015.

Want more The Empress Game? Check out over at Kirkus.

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  • Review: The Empress Game | The Literary Omnivore
    January 27, 2016 at 7:03 am

    […] both female empowerment and pulpy delights. I am a simple woman of simple tastes.) When I saw that Thea recommended this at the Book Smugglers, I immediately added it to my […]

  • Heidi
    March 1, 2016 at 9:00 am

    Was stoked to see this as a 99 cent deal for March via Kindle after it made your Most Excellent Books of 2015 list! Totally snapping it up. I need a little more badass in my life.

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