Sunday, October 16, 2011

YA Book review: Empress of the World by Sara Ryan

One of the oft-recommended books on the short list of lesbian teen books, Empress of the World by Sara Ryan is the first person story of a smart and analytical 15 year old who spends the summer at a University course and falls in love with the beautiful and somewhat broken Battle.

Nicola ('Nic') is attending a special summer course at the University of , for high school students. She's studying Archaeology.  A quiet, creative and balanced girl, she comes from loving and slightly eclectic parents and has a tendency to over-categorise everything ( least according to some people). Her first day, she spends the welcome speech sketching people around her, which leads to the enthusiastic Katrina pouncing on her and the other subjects and deciding they should all associate with each other. One of them is the reserved, gorgeously green eyed Battle (at least, Nic thinks she's gorgeous. We don't get outside confirmation of this).
The three girls become best friends - and Battle and  become increasingly close, and there's an obvious attraction between them - to the point where Katrina assumes they're not trusting her with their relationship (which didn't actually exist yet). And then they fall fairly easily into each other's arms, and lips, and from then on they are an official couple.

Sadly the happy floating time doesn't last -  Nic can't just let things happen but has to worry and analyse and categorise, while Battle is too self-conscious and damaged, and feels exposed and threatened by having her secrets and story pulled out of her and dissected. A gift of love becomes a disastrous step too far, and first love becomes first break up, becomes... growing up and learning that a mismatch of personalities is not always the end of romantic compatibility, and sometimes real friendship survives heartbreak.

In the background, the gloriously geeky Katrina and their other friends are having their own stories of love, crushes, family drama and friendship - and everyone has to keep going to their various classes!

Told in the first person, with occasional notes to herself in her journal, the storyline feels both real and frustrating - we only see what Nic sees, and while honest, she missed a lot of what went on around her and didn't pass on all the detail, so I was always aware of having an unreliable narrator. This makes it very easy to identify with the main character - but also leaves you with dozens of questions.

Like so many lesbian books, the girls actually appear to be bisexual - Nic certainly has issues with being labelled as lesbian, and notices boys occasionally. But it's very unclear, both to the reader and to the characters, whether or not the two girls consider boys as possible boyfriends because they still think that's What Happens and have nothing to compare it with, or whether Nic and Battle are actually attracted to guys. Inconclusive, murky, and a honest, non-angsty portrayal of ambiguous sexuality at a time when they are first discovering what attraction even is. However, most of the struggle for personal acceptance is based on the romance, not the gender, and feels a lot like any teenage 'do I like them or not? Should I ask them out, are they looking at me? Is it just that they're paying attention to me, or are they actually attractive?' internal monologue!

A lot of the events that are motivating and shaping the teenagers happens 'offscreen' - parental divorce, over-expectations or support, their schools and homes are all very separate, their futures and interests equally divergent. They wander in and out of classes, friendship, love and disaster together, pushed by outside events, but with a very narrow narration that only really talks about what is actually happening to them right there and then. And that is done well - just enough to show us how they are affected by what happens in their lives, not enough to shift the story's focus.

The book feels inconclusive overall, as well as on the issue of sexuality - it lasts the length of the summer school, we see nothing outside that and get only glimpses of family and background. The story arc feels unfinished, although again, realistic - this is more a dip into an important period into the life of a teenager and the events in that time than a plot in which Obstacles Are Surmounted and the Prize is Won.  There's a sequel - Rules for Hearts - which spins off following Battle, who acts on hints that she shared about her family life during Empress of the World, but has no other real connection.

It probably counts as a classic by now - it's been reprinted a few times! I'd recommend this book quite strongly to teens, but adults may find it too slightly insubstantial and underdeveloped to hold their interest.

  • ALA Best Book for Young Adults 
  • 2002 Oregon Book Award for Young Readers Literature.
  • Finalist Children's/ Young Adult Category, 14th Lambda Literary Awards
You can order Empress of the World from Amazon either new or second hand, and the Kindle edition is $6.39.

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