The Empress Sword is a YA Heroic Fantasy novel (with a twist) by writer/podcaster Paulette Jaxton.
A dragon is terrorizing the kingdom of Caledon. When all attempts at stopping or slaying it fails, thirteen-year-old Prince Aster, heir to the throne of Caledon (who dreams of becoming a legendary hero), decides to take action on his own and, despite the warnings of Mandoline the court wizard, sets out to find the lost Eastern Empire and the legendary Empress Sword, an ancient and magical blade with the power to control dragons.
So far, this sounds like a very typical YA fantasy novel — but things are not quite what they seem, and Aster gradually discovers that everything is a lot more complicated than he'd thought. For one thing, the dragon, a young male named Mandrake, is not quite the rampaging beast or evil monster he appears as. And the Empress Sword is not a convenient weapon for a heroic young prince — in fact, it has a will of its own and will not let any man or boy wield it, unless he agrees to a "great sacrifice."
And the sacrifice is that he can no longer be a man or boy. So all of a sudden, Aster finds himself transformed into a girl. And is informed in no uncertain terms that he'll have to stay a girl if he wants to keep the sword and use it to deal with the dragon.
Together with a retired Captain of the Royal guard named Marcus, his spirited young daughter Maggie and a brave-but-bumbling wannabe knight called Eric, the newly-female Aster (now going by the name "Astrid") sets out on a very different kind of adventure than he'd expected, which will only get more complicated and include more shocking twists and revelations not only about the dragon and the sword, but about Aster's own life and the hidden things that have been going on in the background. The prince-turned-princess will have to deal with far-reaching consequences of his choice, learn how to handle the rampant misogyny in the country, work out his own developing feelings for another girl and for another boy — and of course take part in sword fights and dragon battles.
The Empress Sword began life as a podcast novel, but has since been released both in print and as an e-book. In 2017, Paulette Jaxton announced that she had begun work on the sequel, The Empress Spell.
- Alpha Bitch: Aster's cousin, Lady Penelope, is very much this.
- Ambiguously Bi: "Ambiguous" in the sense that "Astrid" is definitely bisexual, but it's unclear how much of it is Jumping the Gender Barrier. Aster, being thirteen, is new to the idea of having romantic feelings for anyone, and so when he, as "Astrid" develops a serious crush on Maggie and then later on begins crushing on Eric as well, it's hard to tell whether or not he was already bisexual and just didn't know it because until now he just thought romance was ick. The ambiguity just gets stronger when Aster himself doesn't seem to even think twice about the fact that his two crushes are opposite sexes, and it's never commented upon by the narrative either.
- The Atoner: Mandrake, in the later parts of the book.
- Attractive Bent-Gender: It's mentioned more than once how pretty "Astrid" is.
- Batman Gambit: Turns out that much of the story is the direct result of a carefully-planned-out Gambit devised by Mandoline (and to a lesser extent, the king) in order to get his hands on the Empress Sword, enslave Mandrake and use him to conquer the world.
- Break the Haughty: Aster — though he's a basically kind, brave and helpful person from the start, his opinion of girls is... not the best. He really has to learn to reconsider his former opinions after turning into a girl himself.
- Cassandra Truth: Aster thinks of himself as a Bad Liar — but people tend to believe his lies more than they believe his truths. This might be because the truths he tells are pretty unbelievable (I'm really a boy who was changed into a girl, I've been talking to the ghost of the Empress, that mountain isn't real but just an illusion), but it still happens so often that Aster himself ends up commenting several times on how nobody ever believes him when he's being honest with them.
- Character Development:
- A lot of the novel is dedicated to the maturation and development of Aster — even if he fights against it for a long time and seems determined not to learn anything from his experiences, eventually he ends up having to confront a lot of his old beliefs and ideals, acknowledge that he was wrong or at least very naive, and become a better and wiser person.
- Mandrake also gets a fair share of development as the story goes on, even after the narrative has revealed his backstory and showed that there's more to him than the rampaging beast the humans view him as. While he doesn't actually wish any particular harm on humans, he does view them as inconvenient annoyances at first, just wants them to go away, and thinks if he acts menacing enough they'll all eventually just pack up and leave the country. He starts to get second thoughts when he first meets Jake, the little boy whom he can't bring himself to harm... then, his reluctant servitude to the Empress Sword, as wielded by Aster/Astrid, leads to him getting to know more humans on a personal level, beginning to develop a friendship with not only Aster, but with Marcus, Maggie and Eric as well, and realizing that it's better to cooperate than to try and scare them away.
- The Chosen One: Played with. Mandrake is "the chosen one" for his people, whose task it is to awaken the other dragons from their thousand year sleep. He actually competed for the position against several other dragons.
- Cool Old Guy: Marcus, with a side-order of Retired Badass.
- Cool Sword: The titular Empress Sword. How cool is it? Apart from having vast magical powers, it's legendary, has a name ("Kai") and a mind of its own, can talk and chooses its own wielder. Oh, and Aster receiving it basically means he's becoming the old Empress's successor. And only women can even hold it — if a man tries to pick it up it he experiences agonizing pain (in fact, what he experiences is "all the sensations a woman feels during childbirth").
- Different for Girls: Played straight for the most part, but also played with a little. The kingdom of Caledon has quite a misogynistic society (even Aster, pre-transformation, has a bit of a casual misogynistic streak); women do not have many rights and aren't taken very seriously — and Aster after his transformation quickly discovers that if he acts the same way he did as a boy, people are quick to label him as an uppity little girl with ideas above her station, and people who treated him with respect before are now only condescending and patronizing. However, as he eventually discovers, people weren't really taking him seriously when he was a boy either — they were just more subtle about it because he was the prince.
- Dogged Nice Guy: Eric, who is completely smitten with "Astrid."
- The Empire: The Eastern Empire is initially presented as having been one of these, but it fell a thousand years ago and turns out not to have been evil at all — the Empress was actually a Reasonable Authority Figure whose rule was a time of peace and prosperity. At the end of the book, there is talk about trying to rebuild the Empire, with Astrid as the new Empress.
- Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Caleon is pseudo-European, while the Eastern Empire (what's left of it) is pseudo-Asian.
- First Kiss: Aster gets his from Eric. It's quick and comes as a total surprise to him — and being thirteen, he acts first with overwhelmed surprise, and then (when Eric can't see him) with "ewwww!"
- Gender Bender: Aster at first tries to make himself feel better by telling himself that he has only been made to look like a girl and that he's really the boy he's always been — but the transformation is, in fact, total.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Aster is all set to perform one of these, as he thinks that wielding the Empress Sword will kill him — but he has been brought up in the belief that it's a prince's duty to lay down his life for his people. However, it wasn't that kind of sacrifice the sword demanded.
- I Choose to Stay: In the end, as complying with the First Law of Gender Bending, Aster gives up on his quest to become a boy again and stays a girl. The Second Law of Gender-Bending is somewhat in effect here, as he does become more comfortable in his female body as time passes — and the final chapter seals the deal by having the narration finally using the pronoun "she" and the name "Astrid." The Third Law of Gender-Bending is completely averted, however; beyond maturing and becoming a little wiser thanks to her experiences Aster/Astrid doesn't really change as a person, and while she does learn to live with wearing dresses (especially after she finds one with pockets to keep her knife in), she still doesn't wear makeup and remains somewhat of a tomboy.
- Jumping the Gender Barrier: Possibly. Aster, as "Astrid," develops a rather big crush on Maggie, but realizes late in the story that he may have feelings for Eric as well. Then again, Aster is only thirteen and just beginning to grow out of the "romance is icky" stage; he hasn't really had much time to consider his sexuality even as a boy.
- Left Hanging: A few plot threads are left unresolved at the ending. The most notable one is the case of Aster's parents. King Cosmo has all but betrayed his son, but we never get to hear his side of the story or what happens with him next — and Mandoline's recounting of the story has a few notable holes in it that are never properly explained. And Queen Constance still doesn't know that Aster is not dead, despite Marcus assuring Aster that they would find a way to let her know. With the announcement of the sequel, however, it becomes likely that these plot threads will be addressed after all.
- Love Triangle: Not a huge focus in the story, but one does develop between the three young protagonists: Maggie has a crush on Eric, who is in love with Aster, who is in love with Maggie and may be developing feelings for Eric as well.
- Missing Mom: Maggie's mother died when she was three, and this was the main reason why Marcus resigned from the Royal Guard. Maggie herself doesn't remember her mother very well, but she does remember how much happier her father was back then. It turns out that Mandrake is responsible for the woman's death; she was in fact the first casualty of his ten-year-long terrorizing of the kingdom.
- Morality Pet: Invoked with Jake, the little boy Mandrake meets and doesn't have the heart to kill or even be mean towards.
- Our Dragons Are Different: Sure, they are big, winged, fire-breathing, incredibly powerful and immensely intelligent. But uniquely they don't seem to be interested in gold or riches, they don't have any kind of magic (Mandrake, in fact, explicitly dislikes and distrusts magic), and they turn out to have a very complex and ancient society and civilization, which is separate from the humans'.
- Overly Long Name: Aster's full name "would take a court herald more than twenty minutes to read aloud." Aster can't even remember all of it."Take your pick, I've got enough names to fill a book. William, Fenrick, Harcort, Nicolas, Elgin, something else with an ick on the end, I forget the rest."
- Plucky Girl: Maggie. Aster, post-transformation, probably also qualifies, even if he himself would protest the "girl" part.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Empress Afanasia, though history doesn't seem to have painted her as one. King Cosmos appears as one in Aster's eyes, but proves to be less reasonable than first assumed. Aster/Astrid becomes one, however, when taking up the mantle of Empress.
- Race Lift: In-story example. Aster is described as Caucasian, but his girl form is Asian.
- Secret-Keeper: Marcus, Maggie and Mandrake are the only ones who are told that "Astrid" is in fact the missing Prince Aster. It turns out, however, that Mandoline and even the king knew.
- Small Name, Big Ego: Eric. While his skills as a huntsman are indeed notable, his skills at bragging about them are even greater.
- Spirit Advisor: Empress Afanasia to Aster, with shades of Trickster Mentor thrown in for good measure.
- Standard Fantasy Setting: Though humans and dragons seem to be the only sentient races (no elves, dwarves or orcs, in other words), the setting is otherwise compliant with this; a pseudo-medieval society with wizards, dragons, knights and kingdoms. A few aspects of the traditional fantasy setting is lightly Deconstructed, though, and the normal lives of commoners (hunters, farmers, tradesmen and similar) is examined a little more closely than they usually are in a classic Sword and Sorcery story.
- Super Gender-Bender: Sort of, as Aster can only wield the super-powerful Empress Sword when female.
- Team Dad: Marcus. Though only Maggie is his actual daughter, he pretty much becomes a father figure to Eric and Aster as well — there's even hints of him becoming sort of one to Mandrake.
- Wrong Genre Savvy: Aster has read a lot of books about brave princes and heroic deeds, and keeps comparing his own experiences to the books he's read — and repeatedly discovering that things don't play out like in the books at all.