Empress of the World is not a Gay Kid Book, and that is precisely one of its charms. Too often, literature and films aimed at a queer audience, especially one consisting of teenagers, fall into the Oh My God, My Life Sucks trap. You know the one—it is easily recognized by its common markers: the macho dad whose only wish is for his theater-loving (secretly gay) son to be a quarterback. The perfect girl with the perfect boyfriend whose life is turned upside down by one glance from the new girl. Constant bullying. Parents disowning their newly-outed children.
It's not that these aren't experiences that queer youth sometimes have to face, and it's not that books like these don't have value. It's just that sometimes it can feel like you are defined by your sexuality—bi, gay, straight, whatever—and Gay Kid Books, where the main character being or finding out they are gay is the central plot-line, just reinforce that feeling. Sometimes, it's nice to read a good book that just happens to include an intriguing character who is something other than straight. And that's exactly what Empress of the World is.
Nicola Lancaster is a quiet 16-year-old theater techie, future archaeologist, and dedicated if slightly disinterested violist. Empress of the World tells the story of her time at the Siegel Institute Summer Program for Gifted Youth. It is the summer she comes out of her shell: the summer she makes real friends for the first time (as she says, "It's not like I have no friends back home, but they are all associated with activities... I'm pretty short on just plain friends"), discovers that her dream career of archaeology is both better and worse than she'd imagined, falls in love, has her heart broken and healed, and learns that while constant analysis may be a virtue where archeology is considered, it is sometimes a vice in relationships.
Yes, she falls in love with a girl. Yes, she finds this a bit confusing. Yes, there are some homophobic comments made by other campers. But her friends, spunky, psychedelically-dressing computer nerd Katrina and sweet, laid-back Isaac, are supportive, treat Nicola no differently than anyone else, and are even extremely appealing characters in their own right. Nicola's parents are obviously not around, but they seem to be pleasant enough people, and disownment is not a looming threat. All in all, Empress of the World is not a book about 'coming out', or even simply falling in love, although it contains elements of both. It is a book about growing up and growing confident. Nicola's greatest flaws are her timidity and her tendency to over think and overanalyze, and it is these that are the biggest threat to her budding relationship with the beautiful but complicated Battle Hall, not the disapproval of others.
In conclusion, whether you are straight or gay, shy or outspoken, if you are looking for a compelling, gentle story of life, first love, and finding oneself, stop here. Empress of the World is your book.