The REadWind series gets contributors to re-read the books they haven’t read in years and self-reflect. The goal is to explore how the contributors’ growth as a person plays a role in their experience in revisiting the book. Do they still like/hate it? How has it changed? Why?
We ask the contributors to for a small blurb of what they remember and how they felt about the book before they start re-reading.
Up until recently, parents did not want to confront the subject of queerness. When their children inevitably found out about queer people, they usually swept it under the rug—or so my mother did. And in accordance with this approach, mainstream media generally followed suit. This, of course, told kids as they grew up that queerness was bad, uncomfortable, and not something that should be discussed out in the open.
Sara Ryan’s novel Empress of the World was one of the first experiences to challenge that notion for me. It presented lesbianism as normal, even desirable considering the beauty and unusualness of the love interest, Battle. I rooted for her and the protagonist, Nicola, to get together. I was saddened when Battle, insecure in her sexuality, distanced herself. I came to catharsis at the story’s closure. And the novel definitely helped me realize that one day I could potentially fall in love with a beautiful girl too.
Empress of the World starts with Nicola Lancaster’s first day at a summer program for gifted teenagers. At orientation, she meets and befriends Katrina, Isaac, and the gorgeous Battle Hall Davies. What follows is an emotional journey of self-realization as Nicola and Battle fall in love, and then first heartbreak after Nicola pries too deeply into a part of Battle’s life that she would rather not confront. The novel embodies everything good about a teenage drama while exploring a queer relationship that feels real in all of its intricacies.
Having read it over 10 years ago, I didn’t remember many details of Empress of the World. So, of course, I had forgotten that the protagonist Nicola had referred to both herself and her beautiful, but insecure girlfriend, Battle, as bisexual. Not lesbian, although I had tucked the novel away inside my head as my first “gay girl” book. Bisexual.
Is that how I knew that the word was a legitimate orientation, even when respected adults in my life insisted otherwise? Was it that passage that let me first gain an inkling of my queerness, even though like Nicola, I had had crushes on boys?
Perhaps it’s juvenile, but I am still a lot like Nicola in some ways, particularly when it comes to my queerness. Nicola can’t take her eyes off Battle, a fellow and enigmatic student in their gifted summer education program. Eventually, through this compulsive behavior, she realizes her infatuation. I often still find myself thinking about other women like that, “Gosh she’s pretty, gosh she’s pretty, gosh she’s pretty,” before remembering that, “oh, yes. It’s not just that she’s pretty, it’s that I’m attracted to her”. Empress of the World taught me that that was what made me differ from straight women, even when it had faded from conscious memory.
One could argue that as a young adult protagonist, Nicola is meant to represent all of us. After all, how is looking for the meaning of everything supposed to be a character trait, never mind a flaw? It’s something we all do, even if we’re not super into archaeology, which Nicola has a special interest in pursuing. It differentiates her as a character, which Ryan does nearly effortlessly for her entire cast.
As for Nicola’s friends and their differentiations, Katrina’s loudness, Kevin’s quiet obnoxiousness, and Isaac’s compassion and humor form them into living machinations. Battle’s paint strokes generally come a bit smaller and more subtle, like her bitten off cuticles or the way Nicola describes her glances. That said, Ryan’s character work isn’t perfect because her often stilted dialogue sometimes outright betrays the plausibility within her cast’s dynamic (what smoker wouldn’t feel offended by another person calling their habit “vile” to their faces? Yet this doesn’t seem to negatively impact Katrina’s opinion of Battle, who she just met).
Notably, Empress of the World is still a very strong book despite its story’s firm plant in the early 2000s. Certain things, like Nicola’s journal writing, seem timeless. The homophobia less so—although “dyke” wasn’t always considered a slur toward queer women, it appears surprisingly often in a book that was published while it was. And what’s more disheartening than the outright hatred in one scene from two pretentious boys in Nicola’s archaeology class is the micro-aggressions from supposed friends. Never in my seven years of constantly coming out (as queers do throughout their whole lives if they “pass”) have I had a friend assert in the same conversation, “You know I’m straight, right?” in order to lay out that I shouldn’t pursue them. Nicola faces this twice.
Whereas Ryan’s depiction of external homophobia is relevant, the use of slurs like “dyke” and microaggressions from Nicola’s so-called friends become rather demoralizing. I wonder if an emphasis on the cause and consequences of internalized homophobia would have been a more positive and appropriate inclusion for young, queer readers.
At any rate, to lay all my cards on the table, I am so glad that this book doesn’t suck a decade later! It could have. Homophobia rarely goes down well in young adult novels and Empress of the World shares that dumb trope with books in the same category wherein the story’s love interest has an exotic name. Battle’s name at least has an origin story. Plus she comes off, in general, much more human than I had recalled. I think I still have a crush on her. That’s more creepy now than it was when I was 12-ish, but oh well. The giant monster we call Age may have captured me in its crushing jaws, but that doesn’t mean I’m not the same person!
Empress of the World is a warm visit to a time when I was introduced to something wonderful. That something was my queerness and I will always feel pride and joy in that part of me and the place that brought me here.