Review: Empress of the World

(Cross-posted from We Read to Seek a Great Perhaps)

Empress of the World
by Sara Ryan
Published by Speak (Penguin Group), 2001
ISBN 0142500593
Pages: 213
Ages: YA
Awards: ALA Best Book for Young Adults, Lambda Book Award Finalist, Booklist Top Ten Teen Romance, Oregon Book Award

As I finish reading Empress of the World, I am wondering wherein lies the correlation. The majority of the books I’ve been reading for the LGBTQ Book Club feature teens who are not only LGBTQ, but also brilliant. Do authors feel uncomfortable writing average (or, heaven forbid, unintelligent) gay characters? Are the sort of authors with the guts to write about such things also the sort of authors who want to write smart characters? Or am I unconsciously selecting books that feature interesting, intelligent characters? I’m thinking all three ideas may be correct; goodness knows I’m often guilty of the last.

Empress takes place at a summer camp for brainy kids at a local college. The teens are taking a wide variety of college-level mini-courses, learning more about topics from music theory to computer programming. Our narrator and protagonist is Nicola, who has come to camp to study archeology and determine whether she wants to be an archeologist when she grows up.

Ultimately, the main thing Nicola seems to learn about archeology (since she’s already more savvy about the subject than most of the other kids in her class) is that it all depends on grants and fundraising. Instead of archeology, Nicola learns about her heart – specifically, that it can fall for, and be broken by, a girl.

This book is the story of the romance that blooms, explodes, collapses, and regenerates between Nicola and a female camp-mate, Battle. It’s a story about young love, and it’s – more directly so than some of the other books I’ve read – a story about lesbian love. Indirectly, it’s a story about (obviously) coming-of-age, exploring possibilities at that crucial pre-college transition point in our lives, and negotiating expectations. It is really well-written, and the language, story, and narrator’s voice kept me engaged to the end.

On the flip side, as a character-driven reader, I felt uneasy about the two central characters’ development. Battle is, in many ways, the more interesting character. Her father is a minister whose past life as an actor suggests a certain artificiality in his life, and her mother has an idealized vision for Battle that is seemingly devoid of interest in what Battle actually feels or wants. Battle’s absent brother is a dark shadow in her life, and all of the affection she would have focused on her brother and her distant parents is poured into her two corgis. Rejecting her mother’s autumn-in-the-Hamptons vision for her, Battle shaves her head bare and begins a passionate romance with Nicola. Frustratingly, the summary I’ve provided in this paragraph is almost as much insight as Ryan gives us about Battle. There is so much provocative material to work with, and yet Battle is still drawn in two dimensions – a caricature of a rebellious preacher’s daughter away at summer camp.

We have so much more insight into Nicola, as the book is written from her perspective – and we have the added benefit of glimpsing into her “field notes” that she keeps throughout the camp. And yet there’s a curious hole in all that remarkable character development. One moment, Nicola is thinking about her (male) crush from high school and being slightly surprised at how riveting she finds a female camp-mate, and the next moment she’s as comfortable in a physically-intimate lesbian relationship as if she had been in one her entire life. There’s never any fear or doubt, and despite being a painfully reflective person, she doesn’t really try to understand whether she is lesbian, straight, or bisexual until the book is nearly over. I kept wondering how realistic her almost thoughtless coming-out could be – does anyone just come out, to themselves and their friends, so seamlessly and quickly? (It’s a sincere question – I don’t know. But it struck me as being a little too tidy.)

I see, on Ryan’s website, that she’s written a sequel that apparently focuses on Battle and her estranged brother. I’m hoping to track it down and see Battle’s character rendered into 3D, even though I’m a little disappointed that the blurb seems to suggest that Nicola won’t be making a reappearance. She was a fun character, and I’d like to see what happens to her as she grows up, too.

Confession: This book pushes my comfort level a little bit; I would have to have a very good relationship with a student before I’d recommend it, and there’s a part of me that squirms when I imagine leaving it on the shelves for students to browse. There’s no graphic sexual details, but it’s very clear that Nicola and Battle shed clothing and are intimate, and there are some mildly crude (but wickedly funny and realistic) comments between the teens. Maybe it’s just because it’s late at night and I’ve been thinking about some of my more conservative students today, but… yeah. I’m squirmy. That being said, it will be on my shelves. It’s a good story, and it may be exactly what some of my students need to read.

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