I've read more than my share of YA coming out novels, and Sara Ryan's Empress of the World is undoubtedly one of the best. It's a book about beginnings; a book that says that sometimes, the happy ending can wait. It's the journey that's important.
In Empress of the World, Sara Ryan gives us a romance between two characters who are complex and believable and not the slightest bit stereotypical. Attending a summer program for gifted students, protagonist Nicola spinkles her endearingly honest first-person narrative with 'field notes' about her new group of friends, herself, and particularly her crush, history student Battle Hall Davies. She's enrolled in the program to decide whether she wants to be an archaeologist, believing it's important to decide her future path in life now. Battle, in contrast, seems to have spent her life being defined by her parents. They want to keep her confined - to dress how they want her to, and to keep her beautiful wild hair in a braid. And while it's this chaotic beauty that seems to draw Nicola to Battle in the first place, her urge to analyse herself and others is what threatens to destroy the fragile love between them.
While Nicola's newfound friends on the program aren't always as sensitive as they could be about her feelings for Battle, they're no more or less sensitive than she is about their crushes. There's exuberant Katrina, who loves computers, sensitive Isaac, who loves Katrina, and Kevin, who may either be really smart or really stupid. They tease each other, they step carelessly on each other's feelings sometimes, but in some ways that's because they're an accepting crowd: nobody gets treated differently. At the same time, Ryan keeps it real by demonstrating that in the wider world, even so-called smart people can believe that they have the right to judge those who are different. There are no rose-tinted glasses here.
Where Empress of the World really excels is in the way it acknowledges that sometimes, the answers don't all fall conveniently into place... and that's perfectly okay. Nicola's struggle to define her identity is resolved not by finding a definition that fits, but by accepting that she doesn't need to define herself right now. Or maybe ever. Her feelings for Battle are the important thing. This is a book that goes beyond the traditional coming out story because it doesn't rush those readers who might be in a similar situation into thinking they need to make a choice or label themselves. And for readers who happen to be sure of their own identity, it gives an insight into what some of their peers might be struggling with.
Empress of the World is a poignant and thoughtful take on the YA coming out story. With a captivating and vivid cast of characters, it's a novel that will stay with you long after you've turned the final page. Highly recommended.
Out: since 2001.