Aug 6, 2010

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan

Nicola (named after Nikola Tesla – geekdoom runs in the family) is fifteen, and she’s spending the summer at the Siegel Institute Summer Program for Gifted Youth. Nic’s goal is to take an archaeology class to try and figure out if that’s what she really wants to do. She goes achieve that, but unexpectedly she also ends up making friends. As Nic tells us, she’s had theatre friends and band friends before, but never really just friends-friends. One of the friends Nic makes is Battle, a beautiful girl from North Carolina with a complicated family background. And before she quite knows what’s happening, Nic realises she’s in love with her.

First of all, I really liked the fact that Empress of the World has a geeky vibe to it. This is a story about smart kids at a gifted program, and it’s full of references to things like Weetzie Bat, Ursula K. Le Guin, Madaleine L'Engle and Lord of the Rings. But no matter how smart, bookish or sophisticated Sara Ryan’s teenagers are, they still have a lot to figure out, they can be bratty and immature, and they often struggle with their emotions. They kind of reminded me of John Green’s characters, in the sense that they’re smart and realistic teenagers – and to me that’s as high a compliment as they come.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that I liked the characters for the most part, I didn’t enjoy Empress of the World anywhere nearly as much as I enjoy John Green’s books. And I have to tell you, Internet, I’ve had it with this whole Not Much Caring For Books I Expected to Love thing. It makes me so sad. When is it going to end? And is it the books, or is it my expectations? I can never quite tell.

In the case of Empress of the World, the problem was mostly that it was too short and therefore didn’t really make much of an impression on me. Even the characterisation was ultimately harmed by the book’s brevity. I do give the unapologetic girl-girl romance two very enthusiastic thumbs up, but sadly that was the only thing that made the story stand out. Had Battle and Nic not been both girls, I’d have found Empress of the World completely unremarkable. And as much as I think that the world desperately needs more non-heterosexual love stories, I don’t think that this should be the main thing a book has going for it. In fact, in an ideal world, in which these stories weren’t routinely erased, the sexual orientation of the characters would certainly not be enough to make me notice or enjoy a story. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t want the lack of more glbtq stories to make me settle for less, because that would be a very sad thing.

To be fair, the problem could very well be me – Jodie at Book Gazing did love this book, and I know she has excellent taste. I read the whole thing in an hour and a half, and perhaps rushing through it was part of the problem. I noticed that Jodie said in her review she read it twice, and maybe I’d have seen the book with new eyes if I had done the same. But as it was, in the end I just didn’t care that much. I felt that the story lacked the wisdom, complexity and all-age appeal of books like Looking for Alaska or The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.

Nic and Battle’s relationship was perhaps a case of opposites attracting, as the two could hardly be more different. Nic is open and straightforward, whereas Battle is afraid of intimacy and avoids open communication. This makes for interesting dynamics, but unfortunately I couldn’t feel their relationship as much as I would have liked. I think that what Ryan was going for here was a subtle depiction of those moments that mean the world to the people involved, even if they don’t seem like much from the outside. When Battle first tells Nic about her brother, for example, I could see that the scene was meant to be meaningful – but sadly the book didn’t really get that feeling across. And when I compare it to similar moments in, say, Looking for Alaska (yes, again) or What I Was by Meg Rosoff, I can’t help but feel let down.

One thing I found interesting was the fact that Nic very much rejects the term “lesbian”. On the one hand this could be seen as disappointing, and as an attempt to dissociate herself from who she is. But on the other hand, I completely understand her discomfort with people’s constant attempts to brand or define her. We’re far too concerned with neatly labelling things anyway, and for one summer at least Nic is able to create a space where she can merely exist and experience things, without having to worry about establishing a clearly defined sexual identity.

Despite my lukewarm reaction, Empress of the World is far from a bad book. I didn’t find it amazing, and I’m not sure how well I’ll remember it in a few months, but I’m glad to have read it and I’m glad it exists. I’ll leave you with a passage that made me smile – I actually remember the first time it dawned on me that much of what I was expected to learn, accept and Not Question had in fact been made up by people who, regardless of their Authority Status, didn’t necessarily know what they were talking about:
“I remember now,” Battle says. “It bugged me too. The way they divided things into categories was so arbitrary—like the book would say that such-and-such design was a fertility motif, and how do they know?”
“Exactly! That’s my exact problem with it. It makes me think—this is going to sound stupid—but do you ever have the feeling that everybody’s making everything up, all the time? Like when a teacher tells you something is the absolute truth, and then you learn it was just completely his opinion?”
Battle nods vigorously. “It’s not just school. People ask my dad for advice, because he’s a minister. I know he just says whatever comes into his head. But they think he’s this grand authority.”
Reviewed at:
Book Gazing (Do make sure you read Jodie’s thoughts, as she really connected with the book and explores it in much more depth than I did.)
Villa Negativa
Dreaming Out Loud
A Book Blog of One's Own
Bookshelves of Doom

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. Such a shame you didn't warm to this more. The characters sound fun and I like books that have homosexual relationships in them without making it a massive deal.

  2. The Not Much Caring for Books I Expected to Love never ends, my friend, it will always be there.

    I completely agree that a lack of visibility for queer romance doesn't mean we ought to settle for less.

  3. I'm sorry you were not very happy with this book.

    There should be more to a book than the sexual orientation of the characters.

  4. Too bad this didn't work for you. I get what you are saying about wanting glbt books to be just as good as the rest of literature - you shouldn't have to settle on the story only being meh just to get those relationships. And the relationships shouldn't be the only good part of a story either. With time, hopefully!

  5. The geeky vibe sounds good. I love when characters are named for a "reason" too. Interesting that you felt it was too short. One thing I like so much about YA books is that usually they can pack so much into such a small format! I think that's definitely a special talent, however.

  6. Despite your lukewarm vibe, I think I'll add this to my wishlist. I liked that you, and the book, brought up the anti-labels. I detest being labeled because it feels to boxy. I think that sexuality can be a rather gray area. Sometimes it's all about meeting the right person, and gender is merely and afterthought.

  7. I just read this last night, and while I liked it, when I thought it over after I was done, I was a little off-put by the fact that there was so much setup and no payoff. Why did we find out all that stuff about Battle's family? What was the point of her minister father and the thing with her brother? I feel like there was so much built up just to be dropped. My copy does say that Ryan is writing a sequel, so maybe some of those things will be addressed, but it does seem really strange that there was SO MUCH emphasis on the setup for things that could have packed an emotional punch, but then didn't.

  8. I started reading this is as one of my top choices for my teen lit class, but I just could not get into it at all. I felt that the conversations were too superficial and the characters seemed like the stereotypical gifted students you find in any high school novel. I too wished I could have enjoyed it. My second choice for the GLBTQ section of that class was Annie on my Mind, which I loved!

  9. Too bad about the book! I've had a string of disappointing reads this summer as well, and for quite a few of them, I've wondered how much an impact my expectations had on the reading experience. Then again, I was expecting a lot out of The Passage and I enjoyed it; and I am expecting a lot out of Dracula, and I am loving it. Who knows?

  10. I hate being disappointed by books I expect to love, too! I often feel there is something wrong with me. But diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks, I guess!

  11. I do love that there is a love story between two girls, but, if there isn't enough of a story to surround that, it wouldn't work for me either.

  12. I am sorry to hear that this book didn't work for you. I know just what it's like to be so excited about a book, only to have it let you down. It seems to happen in trends in my reading. I hope that you are soon able to find some books that live up to your expectations of them!!

  13. I'm also all in favor of the unapologetic girl-girl relationship here, but I'm not sure I'll give it a read. I think I should probably go with John Green first!

  14. I read this book earlier this year and felt rather the same about it as you did. I think I would have enjoyed it more were I a teenager, so perhaps I was just too old for this book. :)


  15. We seem similar in a way that when we don't really like a book, we think the problem lies with us!

  16. I really like that quote! You know, I think I really want to read this one. It sounds good. It sounds like it's lacking some character development though. Like she gives you enough to like the characters and get to know them but not enough to go deep with them. Which is sad :( Definitely want to read this one though!

  17. "I’ve had it with this whole Not Much Caring For Books I Expected to Love thing." I guess we've all had it with that, but it seems unavoidable unfortunately. I do think this sounds interesting, especially the geeky vibe you mentioned.

  18. Sorry to know that you didn't like the book much, Ana. I loved the passage you have quoted - about facts and opinion. It is amazing how much of opinion is actually floating and how much less facts there are and how one has to really mine them with a lot of care.

  19. Sorry this one didn't work. We all have times like that. I think sometimes there is too much hype around some books and it raises our expectations in an unrealistic way. I think it's just a fact-of-life thing; every book is touted as a marvel and a gem but in truth only a few really are.

  20. But! Not Much Caring For Books I Expected To Love often precedes Absolutely Loving A Book I Thought I Would Hate. So over a course of a lifetime, things do even out, don't you think?

  21. The gifted camp/school thing does make it very easy to compare with 'Looking for Alaska' (love it). Both books fit the coming of age genre, but I think Green is at a different end of the genre spectrum from Ryan. He wrote this really intense, defining moment of teenage life, that helps to cement the shape of Mile's character. Ryan has written a book that takes a quick jump into her characters lives, then leaves them still figuring things out. At the end of 'Looking for Alaska' I knew that was all I was going to get of Miles and crew and I was fine with that because that's all I really needed, because everything was very definite. I do not daydream about what Miles life is like after that summer, even though I really love the story that I have about him. He is kind of captured in this specific moment in time for me, a time I'd love to reread, but not a time I can ever extend independently in my head. I think about Nic and Battle's continuing lives quite a bit, especially after reading the sequel.

    Like Amanda said above so much YA packs a strong emotional punch and Green does that so well - love him for that. Sometimes though I want smudgey lines. But not all the time! I am not a constant reader.

    I agree that Ryan's book doesn't have the same kind of depth Green's does, maybe the same kind of hard emotive pull. She's describing uber normality (if you allow for normalacy laced with a bit of framing privilege in the shape of a gifted camp) and the result is something more normal than the quietest of novels might be. Although there's Nic and Battle's relationship as the central event, it's not a drammatic event the whole novel gravitates to, although it takes up a lot of Nic's focus. But then I feel like I'm doing 'Looking for Alaska' down, because that book is NOT melodrammatic. It's maybe more focused, sharper. And that's part of what I love about it, that driving forward energy.

    And being able to connect emotionally with the characters in 'Empress' is so important. If you don't feel a connection with the characters I think that book is sunk for you, because the whole book is about wandering around with them caring about the small choices they make. I mean I miss them sometimes. But emotional connection is the pinnacle of subjectivity that defines us as individual readers so there's no telling which books we think we're going to love and then don't (hate that feeling though, it makes me sad when I think something will be brilliant but I just don't get it in the end).

    Ramblage ends now.

  22. Great review Nymeth - I was wondering if this was any good and it doesn't sound all that satisfying. Granted, I didn't like Looking for Alaska anywhere near as much as you did, but that just makes this one dip further. (or is that "farther"? I can never tell the diff!)

    Stop by my blog, I've an award for you! :)

  23. Its fine to have high expectations from a book. Sorry you didnt love this one though, hopefully your next read will be better.
    Great review as always :)

  24. I'll have to check out this book. Is it YA? It sounds very promising and it's sad that it didn't quite live up to expectations. It looks like you've had quite a bad run with expectations let down - which is why my expectations are never quite high to begin with. :-) The best feeling is when you're blown away when least expected like I was when I picked up Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair.

  25. "Not Much Caring For Books I Expected to Love thing. It makes me so sad. When is it going to end? "

    Boy, do I know how that feels. Sometimes, I don't like to read the reviews before as they cloud my expectations. Prior to this summer, I had quite a few that left me so disappointed. I think because I read so much, and read so many blogs about great books, we do have high expectations. I think it is a hazard of the to speak.

    I just had two books in a row that left me sobbing and I'm still thinking about them. The Gift of Rain, by Tan Twan Eng is a beautifully written story and yet it is mentally tiring book, in a good way.

    You must realize and be optimistic that this sadness you feel about these Not Much Caring For Books I Expected to Love thing will pass. The alternative of never reading would be far sadder.

  26. Sad! I have also been expecting more from some of the dystopian books I've been reading. heartbreaking!

  27. I don't see anything wrong with identifying oneself as a lesbian, but I completely understand the desire not to be slapped with a convenient label. I am that way about many things -- I resist people's attempts to put me in a tidy box.

    This sounds like a good story -- I like the geek angle too. It's a shame it was short and a bit under-developed, but I may give it a go.

  28. Hm, hm, hm. I have no idea if I'd like this book or not! I've never read anything by John Green (I know, what a disgrace) so I wouldn't be able to compare it to that. When in doubt, though, I always give the book a shot! So I might try Empress of the World if I see it anywhere.

  29. I'm starting to resign myself to the fact that it happens, that whole not caring for a book I expected to like thing. I've had that happen a few times lately. And it's exactly as you describe - it's not that it's a badly written book, it just doesn't grab hold of me the way I was expecting.

  30. Darn...sorry this one let you down, Ana. :( I have this one on my shelf, too, and I think I'll still give it go. With lower expectations than I might have otherwise had...and if you ask me, that's a good thing.

  31. Rhinoa: I did love the fact that the romance could just exist without angst. Well, mostly without it anyway :P

    Clare: It will, won't it? Ah well, those unexpected gems do make up for these.

    Violet: I guess it's unfair to say there isn't more to it, but there was nothing else that make it remarkable for me, sadly.

    Amy: Yes, hopefully with time!

    Jill: It definitely can be done - Jacqueline Woodson is a perfect example! - but in this case it didn't really happen :(

    Christina: Do read it - hopefully you'll enjoy it more than I did!

    Amanda: Yes, I can definitely see what you mean. I think the sequel is already out and Jodie has reviewed it - it focuses just on Battle and does seem to get into that back story more.

    Gricel: I'm glad I'm at least not alone! I'll add Annie on my mind to my wishlist :)

    Trisha: It's hard to tell, isn't it?

    Aarti: I guess in a way it *is* us, in the sense that it's always half the book and half the reader :P

    Kathy: Yeah... it was a pity :\

    Zibilee: It's been a trend in mine lately too! Sob.

    Meghan: Yes, John Green all the way :D

    Tiina: The same might have been true for me. And while I believe we should take the target age into account to some extent, to me the best YA and children's lit definitely does have all-age appeal.

    Jenners: As I was telling Aarti, in a way it's true :P

  32. Jodi's got it when she says it comes down to being able to connect emotionally with the characters. Either you have to be able to get out of your own skin and into theirs, or identify with them in your own skin. Neither happened for me when I read Empress of the World. I know I have forgiven books with more little faults (or simply things that didn't sit well with me) in the construction, when I empathized with the characters.

    I think I said as much in my long-ago mini review, but while I was reading this it was as if I could envision myself as I was at age 16 *into* the book, where I would certainly have been written as a contemptible minor character. I remember knowing people who reminded me of Nic, Battle and co. and they were rude to and impatient with people who didn't interest them, or who they decided were beneath their notice.

    All that said, I am going to read the sequel, because I think I may like these people better when they are out of high school.

  33. Chris: That's how I felt about it, but others have felt differently, so make sure you do read it!

    Iris: Yep, it's unavoidable - and at least they make us appreciate the really good ones more, right?

    Vishy: It really is amazing - and I think that taking even intellectual authority with a grain of salt is SUCH an important lesson for teens to learn.

    Marie: I don't like the concept of "hype" (long story :P) but I see what you mean. Sometimes my expectations just ruin the book for me.

    Mumsy: An excellent point :P

    Jodie: Don't worry about "rambling"; you know I love your comments and the longer the better :P I was thinking even as I wrote it that the comparison with LFA was unfair, as they don't have much in common beyond being YA set at boarding schools, and if you think about it those are very superficial similarities. And yet for some reason I expected this to deliver the same sort of emotional punch - it was unfair of me, but I couldn't help it! I think emotional connection can be everything, yes. I really wish it had happened to me in this case, but the fact that it didn't made the book less than it could have been.

    Shannon: Thank you again for the award! You know, I think not liking LFA doesn't mean you wouldn't like this - quite the contrary. As I was telling Jodie above is actually is pretty unfair of me to compare them.

    Naida, thank you!

    Mae: It is YA, yes. Funnily enough The Eyre Affair also suffered a little because of my expectations. I did like it, but I kind of wish I'd never heard of it so that I could have been blown away too :P

    Wisteria: I guess it's an inevitable part of a reader's life, but it does get frustrating sometimes :P I'm glad you read two great books in a row, though! I so love it when that happens.

    Lenore: :( I hope we both read something amazing soon!

    Stephanie: That's what Nic thought as well - she didn't want to be labelled and catalogued; she just wanted to live her life.

    Emidy: Do try this one, but read John Green too ;) And you know, not being able to compare them is probably a good thing.

    Belle: It is sad, but there's nothing we can do I guess. At least there will always be those unexpected gems too!

    Debi: No sorry! I'm still glad I read it, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate your kindness. And I honestly hope you'll have better luck with it than I did!

    Trapunto: Yes, Jodie put it perfectly. I didn't feel that connection either, and the result is that the book just didn't stay with me. I think you might be right about the characters becoming more interesting people once they were out of highschool, though, so I'll consider reading the sequel too.

  34. Dare I say it? This book must might make a better movie!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.