In one of those feats of coincidental timing that the world is so good at, I read an article about YA fiction (in the newest Bitch magazine) that interviewed Sara Ryan, just after I posted my last book review here and several people recommended Empress of the World to me. I borrowed it from a friend, and really enjoyed it.
I’m starting to wonder if I’m getting too old for YA fiction, especially the kind that takes place in high schools (as opposed to the speculative fiction kind.) I realize some people never get too old for YA fiction, but I might be. The past few books I’ve read have just felt like sketches rather than novels, without the level of character and plot development that I look for. And I like lots of denouement, with all of my loose ends neatly tied in, while very uncertain endings seem to be in these days. But that said, I quite liked Empress of the World, and I especially like how Sara Ryan handles her characters’ sexuality.
The book takes place over the course of a summer, at an academic summer camp similar to the one I went to. Our protagonist, Nic (short for Nicola) meets and quickly develops a crush on a girl named Battle. The two of them and the rest of their group of friends deal with loads of academic work, various family drama, and their attraction to each other.
One of the things I like most about the book is that all of the characters (save one, who seems to be pretty much a plot device) are real people with real troubles, things other than their sexuality. This is not one of those books that takes place in a world where the trials of being queer happen in a vacuum, and I appreciate that. There are trials to being queer – Nic and Battle’s friend Katrina has an oh-so-familiar reaction to Nic’s interest in girls, rushing to make clear that she’s totally straight even while she’s being supportive, just in case Nic should interpret her hug as a come-on – but it’s nice when needing to come out doesn’t define a character’s relationship with her parents, or consume all of her attention, because she’s real enough to have other things going on in her life.
In fact, Nic and Battle approach their sexuality with refreshingly little angsting. Nic seems confused for a few pages, wondering how she can get so tongue-tied and awkward around certain boys <i>and</i> certain girls, but she accepts it pretty quickly. She seems to have had an inkling even before, watching a girl change costumes during the school play (right before a major crush on a boy.) And even when she’s confused, she’s not horrified or disgusted with herself. She’s anxious about her crush on Battle, but because she has no idea if Battle likes girls, not because she’s appalled that she herself does. That doesn’t seem to strike her a impossible or undesirable. My favorite moment is probably when she’s musing on the heteronormativity of her surroundings, and wondering if anyone else could be anything other than straight – “and there’s another boy i’ve seen, i think he’s in katrina’s class, who often wears long velvet skirts and lots of black eyeliner. but i believe this to be fashion statement rather than a declaration of sexuality, since i have observed him making out with various angst crows.
“i suppose he could like boys, too, though.
“i of all people should remember that.” Indeed. I think we’ve all caught ourselves thinking that one, and having to stop and point it out to ourselves. And yay, acknowledging the possibility of male bisexuality.
And when Battle runs into the arms of a convenient boy when things goes wrong between her and Nic, Ryan never gives us reason to think that it’s because he’s male, rather than because Battle needs a rebound and a distraction. Battle is avoiding her problems, but those problems don’t necessarily involve being attracted to girls. We never observe her internal monologue, and I won’t pretend to know whether she’s ever been attracted to a girl before or what her sexuality is and how she feels about it, but it’s neat to have two character in the same book come across as bisexual. It’s lovely that, even while she’s making out with a boy, the reader isn’t given the impression that Battle’s actually straight after all and was just trifling with Nic’s heart – I am so over that, and so glad it’s not the moral to this story.
I did find Battle to avoid her problems in a way that I don’t find admirable but the book seems to. I’m just not that into the take-home message of “Words don’t always work.” As a queer woman, I’m a champion processor. And while I recognize that the amount of talking I and most of the people I know do about our feelings and needs can be a little excessive, I’m not ready to swing that far in the other direction. I agree with Battle that one shouldn’t assign narratives to people because one doesn’t know their stories, but not that words are so imperfect that it’s better not even to try to communicate meaningfully with the people one cares about. Nic and Battle might have had a much easier time of it if they hadn’t spent a good chunk of the book avoiding each other, while Nic repeated to hersef Battle’s motto of “Words don’t always work” (which one assumes Battle was doing, too, since she was the one who ran away when something went wrong instead of trying to talk it out. That strikes me as excessive armor, not wisdom.)
So: A+ on bisexuality, and solid story and storytelling, too, despite my quibbling. It seems The Rules for Hearts catches up with the same characters several years later. I’ll definitely be checking it out.