The Empress Game
Author: Rhonda Mason
Publisher: Titan Books
Disclosure: A free copy of this book was furnished by the publisher for review, but providing a copy did not guarantee a review. This information is provided per the regulations of the Federal Trade Commission.
“The Empress Game” is a taut space-opera thriller revolving around a basic premise that Mason never makes convincing: That a huge galaxy-spanning space nation that encompasses hundreds of planets, having to deal with all the complex politics and economies of both its own and other space nations, would base its selection of new leaders not upon their intelligence, education, or experience but upon physical gladiatorial combat. But Mason really works to make this plausible. The result is colorful, dramatic, exciting, and suspenseful, even if its rationale does not really make sense.
Mason even works this into the plot. “Kayla drifted over to the complink. With all the talk of political structures and influential members of government today, she hadn’t had a chance to ask one of her biggest questions: why an Empress Game at all? In an empire ruled by an overlap of councils, why was one of the seats on the Council of Seven chosen by means of a hand-to-hand sparring tournament?” (p. 92)
“The Empress Game” begins small and intimate, and gradually expands to an awesome star-spanning vista. Shadow Panthe is the nom d’arena of the “pit whore” undefeated mistress of the Blood Pit arena on the slum planet of Altair Tri. The reader is told that she is really the reclusive Kayla Reinumon, on the run with a crippled brother and a deadly secret. Into the screaming bloodthirsty crowds come the mysterious Malkor Rua and his seven agents to hire her. She refuses, but they won’t take no for an answer. They turn out to be an octet team of the elite IDC, the Imperial Diplomatic Corps of the Sakien Empire, the galaxy’s most powerful interstellar nation. Malkor is on a secret and highly illegal mission. The Empress, a member of the Empire’s ruling Council of Seven, has just died. The Empire is about to call a brutal and exhausting Empress Game to select a new Empress Apparent. Malkor is personally allied with Princess Isonde Veriley of the planet Piran, one of the higher-ranking worlds of the Empire. Malkor and Isonde believe that the Sakien Empire is headed for disaster on its current political course; that Isonde could influence the Council to take a safer course if she can become the Empress Apparent; but that the cultured and intellectual Isonde could never win the ritualized but still brutal physical Empress Game. Their plan is to have her impersonated in the Game by a skilled fighter who can be trained to also match her cultured, sophisticated demeanor outside it. This will mean the execution of all involved if they are caught.
Kayla initially wants to have no part of it. Not only is it deadly dangerous, it’s too high-profile for what she and her brother are hiding from. But Malkor’s and Isonde’s plan to win the Empress Game turns out to be mixed up with Kayla’s own secret; and while she is desperate to hide from her enemy, she also wants to get close enough to him for her own revenge. Her agreement to join Malkor and Isonde brings her from the bloody slums of Altair Tri to the cultured homeworld of the Empire and its more elegant but equally vicious Empress Game.
“The Empress Game” (paperback $14.95, Kindle $8.99, 362 pages) is an equal mixture of sophisticated political maneuvering and gladiatorial drama. Mason keeps up the suspense in both areas with intelligent verbal sparring and well-choreographed martial-arts combat. There are secrets within secrets, and surprises aplenty for Kayla and the reader. Fans of exciting space opera will enjoy it very much. But it does end on a cliffhanger. The back-cover blurb warns that “The Empress Game” is only the first volume of a new series.