This was my first time reading author Rhonda Mason, and since the premise of the novel takes place in a futuristic world with a woman of royal background living the life of a cage fighter, I wanted to explore it.
We are introduced to Kayla Reinumon, known to many in the fighting pits as Shadow Panthe. But she is actually a princess in exile, protecting her last living family member, her younger brother Corinth. On the run from the forces that slew her people, destroyed their lands, and killed her ruling family, she now lives a life as Shadow Panthe. The only thing on her mind is protecting her brother, until she is discovered by Malkor, an agent of The Imperial Diplomatic Corps. The Empress games are about to begin and Agent Malkor is on the hunt for a fighter with the ability to take the place of Princess Isonde and win the games. He finds Shadow Panthe, and half blackmails/half hires her to help him with this improbable plan. And although she agrees, he knows she’s hiding something more, but he’s not sure exactly what.
Kayla Reinumon is not just a normal sister protecting her brother though, their bond goes deeper. She is from a long line of female Ro’haars with a sacred duty to protect her brother, her il’haar, with both her physical strength as well as her a psychic ability – both lost to her by the time the story starts. While for Malkor, he seeks to stabilize the empire by placing Princess Isonde on the throne, as he believes it is only through her ruling and marriage to Prince Ardin will peace through the empire occur. Unfortunately, for Malkor and Shadow Panthe the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Empress games starts off strong, as we get to know Kayla and her fierce protection of her brother, her intelligence, and ability to survive throughout worlds while protecting them with limited resources. I enjoyed the introduction of Malkor; we are able to see his intentions clearly throughout the book, and the fact that he does everything with the best of intentions. But there were times in the middle of the story in which it falters. Largely due to the nature of trying to set up the world at large, which forces us to lose the level of intimacy we’ve achieved in the first couple of chapters. But also with the dismissal of a main character simply to move the plot along. But when getting to know Kayla, we are able to use the character of her brother, Corinth, as a reflection. We see her truly selfless side come to life for his protection, even against her needs. And in getting to know Malkor through Corinth’s eyes, we see his growing admiration and respect for Kayla start to shine through.
But once all the players in the story have been established, we march full on into the world of political intrigue, and female royalty fighting in daily combat as they seek to win the crown of the empire. Every female of royal origin from the empire is present, and Kayla and Princess Isonde begin their masquerade in order to win the Empress games. But before she can win she will have to call on every skill from her former life and her current one. She has to be a calculating warrior, a lady, a politician, and a spy all the while trying to remember who she is.
By the ¾ mark of the book, The Empress Games becomes a page turner as truths and secrets come into the light, and choices have consequences. I can’t delve too much into the end of the book for fear of spoilers, but I will say I enjoyed the introduction of new characters towards the end. The investment the readers will have made in getting to know Kayla and Malkor strengthens the ending of the story.