Reading Progress:

Finding Myself in Empress & Aniya

by Lyzzie

Having grown up in an area of relative poverty, Empress’s 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 to navigate my friendships and my blackness in a world not made for me.

A fun novella with just enough intrigue to keep the pages turning, Empress & Aniya is a story of black girl magic and friendship. But what makes it special is Candice Carty-Williams’s 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, her critically-acclaimed debut from 2019, turned out to be an instant bestseller. A gem in chick lit, the novel follows 25-year-old Queenie Jenkins and offers window into the traumas of love and life for young black British women. It came as something of a surprise, then, to hear that Carty-Williams has gone onto 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 means to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

The story opens with Empress’s first day at Aniya’s elite private school. She arrives on a scholarship and wearing a second-hand uniform that makes her a target right off the bat. After a rocky start, the pair quickly become best friends and when they find out they share a birthday, Aniya decides to host a sleepover. The morning after casting a dodgy spell from the internet, Aniya and Empress wake to find they have switched bodies! The two friends quickly learn what life is like on the other side.

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, shifting from disinterest to closeness within the span of a few pages. Empress & Aniya was most likely marketed as a YA novel because of the difficulties these black characters face in a world that robs us of the innocence of childhood. Middle-grade novels are not yet fully part of British publishing’s repertoire: titles tend to be labelled either as children’s or YA, meaning there is a gap in the market where the middle-grade novel should slot in. Series like Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, for example, are better labelled as middle-grade than children’s. Ultimately, this misrepresentation speaks to the limitations of the publishing industry and everything it fails to deliver, even for bestselling authors.

When I realised this, Empress & Aniya sprang to life. The pair’s dynamic slowly began to speak to me and I found myself really caring about their lives. Aniya’s naive trust in people counters Empress’s 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’s life struck a chord with me. I got her. I knew what it was like to have to wear secondhand clothes, to be judged solely because of what you don’t have. Empress’s maturity far surpasses that of a girl her age, even when she was perceived to be prickly. Sometimes, we are just trying to make sense of the cards we’ve been dealt.

Aniya’s parents make home out of a house, and while the depiction of a happy two-parent black family in fiction was so refreshing, not only does Empress not have a warm relationship with her parents, but she does not even have stability. Empress faces a neglectful mother in Pauline, reflecting the truth that young black children—particularly girls—are rarely ever seen as just kids. They must be strong, never vulnerable, and 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. When asked how she has made sense of her difficult childhood, Carty-Williams responds“I haven’t really. I’m still very scared… the trauma is still here.”

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

While Empress & Aniya is a simple story, 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 without ever overloading the plot. But this fluffy, feel-good middle-grade novella exploring female friendships and family can never truly satisfy on an intellectual level. I wanted to know more about Pauline, to know if she’s truly irredeemable in Empress’s eyes. I wanted Carty-Williams to speak on the classist micro-aggressions.

But, then again, maybe that’s exactly what we don’t need. What’s wrong with easy solutions to difficult problems? What’s wrong with rejecting struggle? My younger self would have cherished the opportunity to read about two privately-educated and carefree girls at the intersection of blackness, adolescence, and burgeoning womanhood. Don’t we all want that magical friendship that recuses us? A younger me certainly did while growing up and learning how to navigate my friendships and my blackness in a world not made for me. I wish I’d had Empress & Aniya.

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. 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. Find her on her website or @candicec_w.

Finding Myself in Empress & AniyaEmpress & Aniya by Candice Carty-Williams
Published by Knights Of on 7 October 2021
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 104
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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