“Their barriers are broken down and rebuilt throughout the novella, revealing the beautiful process of platonically falling in love. It’s an exploration of friendship I seldom see in YA, and one that I devoured very quickly.”
YA is a rare feature in this column, but when it’s included it’s truly glorious. The thing about adolescent friendships, especially between girls, is how they are essentially our first relationships. When I think of my first real heartbreak properly, it’s not from a person I had romantic feelings for, it’s when I fell out with a best friend.
I can’t speak for boys, but there’s a layer of deep vulnerability I’ve noted women share in best-friendships, especially when we’re in our teens. That vulnerability is wrapped up with trust and almost codependency as we navigate exploring our thoughts, feelings and maturity with one another. For a lot of women, falling out with a best friend can feel akin to the end of the world.
That’s why when Empress & Aniya arrived in the mail, I was dying to relive those feelings of complete adoration. Empress & Aniya is a novella, though Candice Carty-Williams’ debut delivers on so many fronts that many authors cannot accomplish within the length of a novel.
Empress is new to Aniya’s all girls school, notably reserved and in secondhand uniform. Empress and Aniya get off to a rocky start when they first meet. Most – if not all – of the girls who attend are wealthy with influential parents, and the state school background of Empress often makes her the butt of the joke in her classes. Eventually, the pair become friends, and soon enough it’s made apparent that the pair are, in fact, perfectly matched to be best friends.
“Readers are sure to thoroughly enjoy and fall in love with it … For the girls who loved Louise Rennison and Meg Cabot – here is a new classic.”
Where Aniya is overly friendly, and almost naive to other people’s intentions, Empress is guarded, and it takes a little more than a smile to earn her trust. Carty-Williams excellently shows how each girl’s background has influenced their respective dispositions, packing enough nuance into the short story without convoluting the plot.
Soon, readers learn that the girls share the same birthday, and as the weeks pass by their closeness increases. On the night of their shared birthday, Aniya convinces a reluctant Empress to recite a Latin spell which will make them switch bodies. Of course, chaos ensues. If you repeatedly banged out the Lindsay Lohan classic Freaky Friday, then you’re going to love this as much as I did. For the entire day, Empress and Aniya are stuck in each other’s bodies, desperately searching for a way to reverse the spell.
Along the way, the two learn things about each other that they didn’t already know. Aniya comes to learn the amount of responsibility Empress shoulders when caring and providing for her baby brother, and Empress learns of how trapped Aniya sometimes feels because of the pressure of her parents’ expectations.
In the meantime, Aniya learns to stand up to terrible friends, and Empress learns it’s okay to lean on Aniya for help. Their barriers are broken down and rebuilt throughout the novella, revealing the beautiful process of platonically falling in love. It’s an exploration of friendship I seldom see in YA, and one that I devoured very quickly.
Their friendship develops into a sibling-like relationship, and reading the development of it drew me back to yet another Lohan banger, The Parent Trap. Watching the twins become comfortable with each other, and spend time together to slowly become best friends and actual sisters was a theme I saw repeatedly throughout the book.
In some ways Empress & Aniya feels like a love letter to the 2000’s Lohan era of teen movies and shows. We all know that back then was peak artistic cinema.
There are laugh out loud moments; like when Aniya dashes a ball in a particularly nasty girl’s face, breaking her nose (proud of you, Aniya). To the heartbreaking climax of the book when Empress has to say goodbye to someone, for her own best interest. I’m very open about the fact I cry easily, so obviously this set me off. Those familiar with Carty-Williams’ work will know how easy it is for her to cause your emotions to fluctuate so much while reading, but it is truly going to be a pleasant surprise for new, younger readers who delve into her worlds.
For so long in the younger side of YA, exploring ‘firsts’ in a light yet moving way has been dominated by white women, but this has slowly quietened down recently as the genre has started to thankfully expand beyond that. Empress & Aniya is an addition to this which has been a long time coming, and it’s so welcome. Readers are sure to thoroughly enjoy and fall in love with it.
For the girls who loved Louise Rennison and Meg Cabot – here is a new classic.
I hope this isn’t the end for Empress & Aniya, and I thoroughly hope that this is the beginning of Candice’s long and excellent YA career.
If I had to sum it up? Short but oh so fucking sweet.
Alexa, play Best Friend.
Soraya Bouazzaoui is Aurelia’s Literal Hotties columnist which whilst never giving too much away, focuses on reviews and recommendations of titles by women of colour, both fiction and non-fiction. @halalltakeaway
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