Books

Empress of the World

Book Review

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Empress of the World
Sara Ryan
(Viking)

"Aside from the whole gender question, Battle is beautiful and graceful and coordinated, and that just confirms that there's no hope for me. Maybe I can talk myself into a crush on Isaac after all. Of course, I'd have to talk him out of his crush on Katrina, first... I pretend I'm an anthropologist observing a ritual."

One way to write from a youthful voice and successfully walk the line between overly naive and overly sophisticated for the age, is to set the whole narrative at a school for the exceptionally bright. Sara Ryan's first novel, Empress of the World, takes place at a summer institute for academically and artistically gifted youth. The students at this school move from complaining about cafeteria food to quoting John Cage, utilizing their Red Cross certified emergency skills and debating the role of computers in the modern world. Archeology, music theory, computer science, history--these are worldly teenagers who chide themselves by saying, "We're acting like teenagers."

But for all their sophistication, they still struggle through early love, sex, and sexual identity. The main character, Nicola Lancaster, falls in love with the beautiful, blonde Battle Hall Davies. Battle is first interested in Nicola, then Kevin, then Nicola again. Parents show up only briefly, for Parents Day, and otherwise the teenagers are left to work it out on their own.

"This is a different kind of shy than I've ever felt before. Being shy was always about not knowing what to say to people, being afraid I'd say something stupid that would make them laugh at me. Now--it's about not knowing what to do. If I sit on the bed, is that too forward, like I'm expecting that we'll immediately start making out? If she wants a back rub, is it too much to kiss the back of her neck?" Nicola's voice, throughout this young adult novel, is sweet, smart, believable, and charming.

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