Book Review: Empress of the World, Sara Ryan (2003)

March 16th, 2015 12:00 pm by Kelly Garbato

Feels Oddly Incomplete

three out of five stars

Like other “gifted” students her age, fifteen-year-old Nicola “Nic” Lancaster has elected to spend her summer at the Siegel Institute, pursuing her passion: archaeology, in her case – or garbage, as her professor unglamorously describes it. She expects to spend her vacation exploring a career path, rounding out her college resume, maybe even squeezing in a little fun. What she doesn’t anticipate is falling in love. For the first time. With another girl.

The second she spots the improbably named Battle Hall Davies across the auditorium, Nic is infatuated:

“For a while I forget where I am. I’m trying to be like Dad, to look at her the way he looks at things when he draws. He says he breaks objects up into forms: like he doesn’t see a head, he sees an oval.

“But I just keep seeing this girl.”

(Even if it does take her head a few weeks to catch on to what her heart knows almost instantaneously.)

The daughter of a failed actor-turned-minister, Battle comes from a home not broken by divorce (like fellow students Katrina and Isaac), but by religious strife: her older brother Nick ran away when he was just 17, rather than put up with their father’s new rules and regulations. Shaken by his absence, and increasingly resentful of her parents, Battle has some serious intimacy issues. Hardly ideal when you’re starting a new relationship; doubly so when the very fabric of the relationship is uncharted territory for both travelers.

Both have thus far mostly/only been into guys. Nic is readily accepting of her feelings, and soon comes to self-identify as bisexual, even as she decries the need to label and categorize people at all. (Ironic, since Battle takes issue with Nic’s need to label, categorize, and explain everything and everyone: “It felt sometimes like you wanted to vivisect me.”) Battle…well, we don’t really know what Battle thinks, since the story’s told entirely from Nic’s point of view – much to the story’s detriment, as I’ll soon discuss.

Nic and Battle’s romance is inevitable and intense – and seemingly over before it even started. On their two-week anniversary, Nic gives Battle a well-intentioned but ill-conceived gift, sending her into the arms of “Kevin the Inarticulate Composer,” the fifth member of their quartet. While the kerfuffle doesn’t quite come out of nowhere – Battle drops copious hints of discomfort and dissatisfaction – her reaction does seem a little disproportionate, if not outright confusing. This is where the story lost a little of its shine, imho. I’m still not completely sure how I feel – or if I even liked it overall – which is unusual for me.

A few other reviewers seem puzzled as to why Battle was so upset over Nic’s gift; and, while I think I understand, it would have been helpful to get Battle’s perspective. All we know is what Nic knows (or can guess), which isn’t much; she seems as clueless as Battle is closed off. Given the story arc, Battle feels at least as much an MC as Nic; but without a voice, her part seems incomplete.

What’s even weirder is that Goodreads lists this as the first installment in the “Battle Hall Davies” series; and indeed, there’s a sequel that seems to focus on Battle exclusively (The Rules for Hearts). Naturally I can’t know for sure until I read book two, but this gives Empress of the World the feel of a prequel.

Either way, I’m on the fence. There are pieces I really liked – Battle shaving her head; the different reactions Nic encountered when she “came out” (tacit approval from the Angst Crows; snide muttering from the homophobes: “I guess I should be getting angry, or upset, but more than anything it’s just odd – what has changed about me, that makes these people now want to call me this name? Do I look different?”); Nic’s field notes; Doug, who looks “just like my ex-girlfriend from the back”; Katrina & STEM; Nic’s parents (she’s a scientist; he’s an artist); the general diversity of the cast (in addition to the LGBTQ elements, Kevin is Asian; Isaac is Jewish); the costumes Katrina styled the crew in for the end-of-summer dance. Plus its content must have been rather groundbreaking back when it was first published, some fourteen years ago now. But when assembled, all the shiny bits don’t quite make a satisfying whole.

3.5 stars, reluctantly rounded down to 3 where necessary.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Nic and Battle are two young women who have previously dated boys, but now find themselves attracted to one another. Nic self-identifies as “bisexual,” even as she condemns the need to neatly label and categorize people. Of the group of five friends, Nick is Asian and Isaac is Jewish. The loud and flamboyant Katrina is computer science “chick.”


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