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The Second Empress
by Michelle Moran

Michelle Moran is one of our favorite authors here at Fashionista Piranha. To read about her work or reviews of her past books, click here.

As the daughter of the king of Austria, Marie-Louise has long considered her future settled: she’ll marry an Austrian noble and stay in Vienna, acting as regent for her simple brother when he takes the throne. Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, throws all that into disarray when he makes a marriage proposal her family cannot refuse. The teenager is soon married by proxy to Bonaparte and on her way to France to meet a husband more than twice her age. Despite her young age, Marie-Louise has many enemies awaiting her in Paris. Napoleon’s first wife, Joséphine, still holds the heart of her former husband, even after she has been put aside for her inability to produce an heir. Caroline Bonaparte resents Marie-Louise for her Austrian roots, but her sister Pauline is even more dangerous. Obsessed with Egypt and as ambitious as her brother, Pauline has long dreamed of ruling the empire alongside Napoleon as a sister-queen, just as the pharaohs once did. When she finds her plans thwarted by this Austrian princess, she is furious. Attempting to reign in the excesses of the Bonapartes is Paul Moreau, a Haitian who came to France many years ago with Pauline. His efforts to keep Pauline’s outrageous behavior under control and promote the abolition of slavery in French colonies often leave him the sole voice of reason in this turbulent, flamboyant court.

The story is told through three narrators: Marie-Louise, Pauline and Paul. One thing I have really loved about Moran’s previous novels has been the intimacy formed between the reader and the main character through the course of the story; I found that this effect was lessened by multiple voices competing to relay events. Each person offered a unique point-of-view. Marie-Louise’s sudden transportation from Vienna to Paris and difficult marriage prove daunting challenges for the young woman, and I wanted to spend more time cheering her on. On the other hand, Pauline’s obsession with power, her Egyptomania and unusual relationship with her brother promised a juicy, scandalous tale – but I felt like I was being whisked away every time her craziness threatened to erupt on a grand scale. Paul’s unusual background for a Parisian – born in the New World, half-black ancestry, and his position as an insider to the royal family without being royal himself – told the story from a perspective rarely explored. Each of these characters was interesting enough and powerful enough to carry his or her own novel, so having all three of them crammed together in a relatively short book (~300 pages) left me unsatisfied. I wanted more!

On the flip side, I suppose the fact that I want more indicates that the characterization was successful, because I care about the characters and want to keep going.

Of course, the sun which these men and women circle like planets is the great Bonaparte himself, a historical figure I know very little about. After reading this book, I’m not sure that I want to! He’s quite an unpleasant man. He insults women freely, even his wife and Empress Marie-Louse. He’s tyrannical and mercurial, difficult to predict and please, which makes life extraordinarily difficult for his companions. He may be a great general, but he’s also a coward who abandons his men in Russia to starve and die of disease. It’s an altogether negative portrayal of Napoleon, highlighting the worst of his character. But I can’t say it’s unfair, because let’s face it – a man who conquers half of Europe probably isn’t going to be a kind, compassionate philanthropist.

This was a very quick, character-driven read. Like all of Moran’s novels, I could not put it down. At the end of each chapter, I had to keep going to find out what would happen next! Yet when I finished, I felt unsatisfied. The Second Empress is a very good and entertaining novel – I just don’t think it’s quite on par with Moran’s previous works.

3.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about The Second Empress, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
Tales of the Tudors Giveaway
2010: n/a
2009: Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Don Quixote
2008: Discussion Question: Explain your screen name!



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