Empress of the World

Empress of the World

Empress of the World was written by Sara Ryan and first published in 2001. It is a contemporary romance, focusing on a teenager discovering her sexuality when she finds herself drawn to another girl at her summer school. The novel is the first part of the Battle Hall Davies series and is followed by The Rules for Hearts (2007). It also won 2002 Oregon Book Award for Young Readers Literature.

Nicola Lancaster only really has one thing in mind when she enrolls in the Siegel Institute Summer Program for Gifted Youth – to study hard and decide if she really wants to make a career for herself in archaeology. She’s never really been one for making friends. Sure, she has theatre friends and orchestra friends but never just…friends.

Yet it’s not long before she finds herself surrounded with an eclectic selection of people. There’s Katrina – excitable and obsessed with computers – and Isaac who seems pleasant enough but has serious family troubles. And then there’s Battle. Beautiful, elegant Battle with her flowing blonde hair and trouble expressing herself in words.

Nic is immediately drawn to Battle and their friendship quickly becomes something more. Nic has never been attracted to girls before but quickly grows obsessed with Battle, wanting to understand everything about her. Yet Battle doesn’t like to be analysed and it’s not long before friction begins to grow between them…

I’m going to start this review by pointing out that this novel really was revolutionary at the time it was written. Gay characters are still usually relegated to supporting cast in young adult fiction and bisexual protagonists are even rarer. Empress of the World was written at a time when female/female romances usually ended in death and was bold enough to present a realistic summer fling between two teenage girls. Better still, it was penned by a bisexual author who was able to pour her own experiences into the story, making Nic’s narrative voice and personal struggle seem all the more real.

That said, reading this novel fifteen years later, it’s not fantastic. Its primary issue was that it is just lacking in content. The book doesn’t really have a plot to it. There’s not really a beginning, middle or end to the tale and so don’t read it expecting any degree of closure. The story merely follows Nic over the course of one summer break, from her first day to her final evening at the college.

Empress of the World is a slice of life story, flitting between Nic’s archaeology classes, conversations she has with her new friends and her relationship with Battle. This relationship actually takes up relatively little of the story and so most of the book is just build up and aftermath. There’s no real structure to events and some of them felt fairly insignificant in the greater scheme of things but at least the novel is a very short and easy read so it never dragged.

The best parts of the novel for me were Nic’s journal entries. These were spaced out throughout the story and provided much of the humor in the story, as well as the deepest insights into Nic’s character. Nic understands the world around her by close scrutiny, keeping field notes about her discoveries like a scientist. Because her notes tend to focus heavily on Battle, it’s clear to the reader from early on how Nic feels, even though it takes a long time for Nic to come to this conclusion on her own.

Nic really was a brilliant character. She is a completely realistic teenager, proving to be witty and intelligent but also naïve and prone to making silly mistakes. The story doesn’t portray her as being anything more than ordinary. She’s no paragon of virtue or Mary Sue. She’s just relatable because she talks and acts like a normal girl.

I also really loved the way that Ryan treated Nic as a microcosm to show how society regards bisexuality on the whole. This is really clear in the way that Nic’s friends treated her after she came out. Katrina can’t quite grasp the concept, believing that if she fancies a girl she must just be a lesbian. Isaac, on the other hand, believes that if she fancies one girl she must be attracted to all girls. These are common misconceptions about bisexuality and are nicely dispelled by Nic’s reactions to her friends’ ignorance.

However, the other characters in the story are not as well developed. Although some of them do get a little more emotional depth (such as when Isaac discovers that his parents are divorcing), they’re all fairly unimportant in the greater scheme of things. Nic is just so focused on Battle that she doesn’t really notice much of anything else going on around her. Katrina was probably the worse of these as she’s pretty 2-dimensional, existing purely to fill the kooky friend role. While she gets a little more backstory in the companion comic, Me and Edith Head, this is unfortunately only briefly touched upon in the main story.

I also didn’t really understand Battle at all. While she still did behave in a suitably teenage fashion – the drama, the sudden break-ups, the angst – I’m still at a loss to explain what Nic did wrong. I don’t really see the problem in asking a romantic partner what attracted them to you. It’s a pretty innocent question. The anger that Battle shows over the Empress of the World puppet is also a bit over the top. While I understand where her anger was coming from, Nic clearly didn’t and Battle made no attempt to explain it to her.

We don’t get much of Battle’s backstory in this novel – details which could explain her volatile temper – and therefore her reaction seems very over the top. She reacts very badly, breaking Nic’s heart over the tiniest of misunderstandings, and her immediate rebound fling with Kevin just seemed a little too cruel. While Battle was beautiful, I struggled to see her in the same way that Nic did and therefore couldn’t understand the attraction.

Apologies for the short review but there’s not really an awful lot more to say about this one. All in all, Empress of the World wasn’t bad for a quick read and you have to admire it for being revolutionary at the time of its publication. However, it’s a very shallow story and doesn’t offer much by the way of plot or secondary cast. If you’re interested in reading a powerful novel about a teenage girl discovering her sexuality, I’d definitely recommend The Miseducation of Cameron Post over this one.

Empress of the World can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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