I've been struggling to write a review for this book because I had such mixed feelings about it. When I finished it I shrugged and pitched it in my pile of books to sell back. But then, days later, I found myself wanting to read the sequel (which I did). It sort of boils down to two conflicting things for me: I liked the ideas but not the execution.
First the bad.
This book had some serious First Book Problems. The pacing is occasionally odd, it's downright claustrophobic with most of the action occurring in one place (the palace), certain phrases and tropes are repeated to the point that I wanted to start a drinking game, and the main character, Hail, is consistently so overcome with emotions it makes her seem mentally unbalanced. She can't get through a scene without nearly fainting from emotion, losing her temper, or giggling. (No really. Giggling. Lots of giggling.) The story keeps asserting she's a tough-ass gunrunner (indeed, it tells you this nearly every page), but the character the narrative kept insisting she was seemed at odds with how she was written. For me it didn't make her feel complex and layered - it made her feel melodramatic and unhinged.
It came down to me wanting to pull the author aside and give her some basic advice like, for example, not every piece of dialogue needs to be delivered with a sigh, giggle, or other emotional indicator. Show don't tell. More subtle and less melodrama. (By the way, I don't mean to sound condescending. My earlier works have all these problems too, which might be why they stand out so sharply for me.)
But there is also some good here too.
I liked the universe Wagers created. It wasn't terribly original, and it reads more like fantasy in places than sci-fi, but I genuinely enjoyed it. While this book suffered from feeling like a set-up for later books it did make me curious to explore the world-building more. There are multiple empires, as well as other factions, all working together to create a mosaic of a much larger tapestry. There are a lot of moving pieces, and plenty of of political maneuvering, all working beneath the surface and I found that intriguing. At the close of the book I felt like things were finally breaking out beyond the stifling confines of the palace, and I wanted to see where they would go.
Despite the heavy handed writing I really cared about the bulk of the side characters in this book. Since we aren't in their heads we don't get the melodrama we do with Hail, and they actually benefit from having to stand on their own on the page. I fell in love with her guards, especially Emmory, Zin, Cas, and Jet. The tension in the book for me was being so very worried for these people. I especially loved the way Emmory and Zin's relationship was treated - it felt authentic and not added as an appeal for a diversity gold star. I was really invested. And really, when it comes down to it, I read for character. I may never have connected to Hail, but I did connect to the rest of the cast and ultimately that had me picking up the second book.
So do I recommend this one? Well, it depends on what you want. This is a standard fantasy plot of rogue princess returns home to save her kingdom story, just set in space. There are no big space battles nor an abundance of interesting speculative science so if you're hunting for a space opera this might disappoint. (I actually think the Star Wars comparison is somewhat apt, as it also uses more fantasy tropes than hard sci-fi ones.) However, if you want to see a brash heroine steamroll through a bunch of bureaucrats this will likely tickle you. The writing has some debut novel problems, but that may not bother some readers. It has some memorable characters and fun world-building. And in case you're wondering, the second book really does improve on most of this book's shortcomings. Your milage may vary.