Reading Progress:

Finding Myself in a Teenager: Empress & Aniya by Candice Carty-Williams

by Lyzzie

If Queenie is the black Bridget Jones, then Empress & Aniya is the black Freaky Friday. Friendship and black girl magic permeate these pages, shaped by Candice Carty-Williams’ deep understanding of the nuances that set apart the haves from the have-nots. Having grown up in an area of relative poverty, Empress’ life really struck a chord with me. I got her. I knew what it was like. This truly is a book I wish I had when growing up and learning how to navigate my friendships and my blackness in a world not made for me.

Empress & Aniya is a fun novella with just enough intrigue to keep the pages turning. A brief book, it is evenly paced and spared lulls by a wholesome storyline. Friendship and black girl magic permeate these pages, shaped by Candice Carty-Williams’ deep understanding of the nuances that set apart the haves from the have-nots. Empress & Aniya shows us what it really means to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Queenie, the critically acclaimed debut written by Carty-Williams and published by Orion in 2019, turned out to be an instant bestseller and won Book of the Year at the 2020 British Book Awards. The novel follows 25-year-old Queenie Jenkins, giving insight into love and life for the young black British woman. A gem in chick lit, Queenie has been hailed as the “black Bridget Jones” with a focus on reducing damaging stereotypes. It was something of a surprise, then, to hear that Carty-Williams has gone on to publish a YA novel. If Queenie is the black Bridget Jones, then Empress & Aniya is the black Freaky Friday. In wanting to “reflect on, and reconcile with, her painful younger years,” this author has started her foray into children’s stories with that of Empress and Aniya. 

Empress & Aniya shows us what it really means to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

The story opens with Empress’ first day at Aniya’s elite private school. She is there on a tuition scholarship and wearing a second-hand uniform that immediately makes her a target. Once they get past a rocky start, the pair quickly become best friends. When they find out that they share a birthday, Aniya decides to host a birthday party sleepover which quickly turns into something of a nightmare. After casting a spell found on the internet, Aniya and Empress wake up the next morning to find they have switched bodies! The two friends quickly learn what life is like on the other side, and hope that their friendship will come out stronger for it.

Widely marketed as a YA title, I came to Empress & Aniya expecting to confront hard-hitting topics. I quickly ran into problems, wondering why the friendship felt fickle, going from complete disinterest to best friends within the span of a few pages. I wondered why the voices of the characters felt too young to be 15, almost 16-year-olds. It soon became apparent, though, that this book was for a much younger YA readership, and perhaps even a middle-grade one. I suspect Empress & Aniya may have been mistakenly marketed as a YA novel because of the difficulties these black characters face in a world that robs us of the innocence of childhood.

The fact that middle-grade novels are not yet fully part of British publishing’s repertoire adds to the challenge: titles tend to be labelled either children’s or YA. Books aimed at readers under 14 tend to be marketed as children’s books, meaning there is a gap in the market where the middle-grade novel should slot in. For example, series like Percy Jackson and Harry Potter are better labelled as middle-grade than children’s. While Carty-Williams—having been a marketing executive in publishing prior to releasing Queenie—could have pushed for a more accurate representation of her story, ultimately, this misrepresentation speaks to the limitations of the publishing industry and everything it fails to deliver, even for bestselling authors.

“It soon became apparent, though, that this book was for a middle-grade readership.”

After realising that this novel is aimed at a slightly younger reader and consequently taking off my adult lenses, Empress & Aniya and its characters sprang to life. The pair’s symbiotic dynamic slowly began to speak to me and I found myself really caring about their lives. Aniya’s naive trusting in people counters Empress’ more guarded character, creating situations that you can’t help but laugh and cry along with. Having grown up in an area of relative poverty, Empress’ life really struck a chord with me. I got her. I knew what it was like to have to wear secondhand clothes, to have people look at you differently because you don’t have what they do, to be judged solely because of what you don’t have. Empress’ maturity far surpasses that of a girl her age and I truly empathised with her at every point, even when she was perceived to be prickly. Sometimes, we are just trying to make sense of the cards we’ve been dealt.

The characterisation of Aniya’s parents, while independently unremarkable, work well together. The depiction of a warm, loving two-parent black family in fiction was so wonderfully refreshing. Aniya’s father welcoming demeanour offered a sharp contrast to the relative coolness of her mother. Not only does Empress not have a warm relationship with her parents, but she also does not have the stability that Aniya does. Empress faces a neglectful and dismissive mother in Pauline, reflecting the truth that young black children—particularly girls—are rarely ever seen as just kids. They must be strong and enduring, never vulnerable, and must cope with everything life throws at them. Queenie, in that sense, tells a similar story: the protagonist has a strained relationship with her mother, mainly because she was never looked after growing up. When asked how she has made sense of her difficult childhood, Carty-Williams says: “I haven’t really. I’m still very scared, just of the dark and things like that, because there was a period of my life when I was just alone … the reverberations of that are still very present today, the trauma is still here.”

While Empress & Aniya offers a simple story with an easy-to-follow plot, I applaud Carty-Williams for her willingness to tackle difficult topics such as racism, discrimination, economic inequality, scarcity, and neglect. She truthfully portrays how the pair’s socio-economic backgrounds influence their characters, steadying the pages with background story without ever overloading the plot. Some things, however, deserved more exploration. This fluffy feel-good middle-grade novella forefronting female friendships and family couldn’t quite deliver everything it promised. I wanted to read more about Pauline, to figure out if she is truly irredeemable in eyes of Empress. I wanted to see Carty-Williams speak specifically on the microaggressions Empress experiences throughout the novella. At times, Empress & Aniya was idealistic and prone to neatly-packaged solutions. 

“Black children, particularly girls, are rarely ever seen as just kids.”

But, then again, maybe that’s what we need. Maybe we don’t need to constantly struggle. What’s wrong with easy solutions to difficult problems? My younger self would have cherished the opportunity to read about two black, British, and privately educated girls, learning through them how to navigate life in the intersection of blackness, adolescence, and burgeoning womanhood. I saw so much of my younger self in Empress, in her willingness to answer back and stand up for herself, even when it meant getting in trouble. We all want that magical friendship that recuses us: Empress and Aniya found it in each other. A younger me needed someone like her. This truly is a book I wish I had when growing up and learning how to navigate my friendships and my blackness in a world not made for me.

by Lyzzie

LYZZIE is a third year PhD candidate and longtime lover of sci-fi. When not nose deep in the nearest book, she can be found eating cake, playing Minecraft, or hanging out with her cat, Sable. You can find her on Twitter @underafelledsky.

CANDICE CARTY-WILLIAMS is a writer and author of the Sunday Times bestselling QUEENIE. QUEENIE has been described as “vital”, “disarmingly honest”, and “boldly political”, and has been shortlisted for the Waterstones, Foyles and Goodreads Book of 2019, as well as selected as the Blackwell’s Debut of the Year. In 2016, Candice created and launched the Guardian and 4th Estate BAME Short Story Prize, the first inclusive initiative of its kind in book publishing. Candice has written for Guardian, i-D, Vogue International, every iteration of the Sunday Times, BEAT Magazine, Black Ballad and more. She will probably always live in South London. You can find her on her website or @candicec_w on Twitter and Instagram.

Finding Myself in a Teenager: Empress & Aniya by Candice Carty-WilliamsEmpress & Aniya by Candice Carty-Williams
Published by Knights Of on 7 October 2021
Genres: Coming-of-age, Fantasy, Middle-Grade, Black British
Pages: 104
Format: Paperback
Afrori
Goodreads
three-half-stars

The first YA novel from the bestselling author of Queenie. When Empress starts at Aniya's school, they're not exactly best friends. But, when the two teenage girls accidentally cast a spell on their 16th birthday and end up switching bodies, they quickly learn that friendship is the most important magic of all. South London's answer to Freaky Friday, Empress and Aniya is a moving portrayal of the importance of real friendship and the ups and downs of being a teenager.

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