The Empress: A Novel

Written by Laura Martínez-Belli
Review by Janice Derr

Wanting to establish Mexico as a part of France, in 1863 Napoleon appoints Archduke Maximilian of Austria as emperor. Maximilian and his wife, Charlotte, a Belgian princess, travel to a world unlike any they have ever known before. The emperor knows his new role comes with very little actual power, and devotes his time to decorating his palace and having affairs. Neglected by her husband, the empress, now known as Carlota, puts all her energy into trying to run the country. Keeping up with quickly changing political alliances is challenging enough for her, but things become even more complicated when she falls in love with an army commander.

Despite being on the longer side, this book is a quick read. Filled with backstabbing, deception, secrets, and rumors of illegitimate children, the subject matter is pretty juicy. Also enticing are the author’s vivid descriptions of Mexico’s lush jungles and sumptuous food, which transport the reader to another time and place. One drawback is the overly large cast of characters. The author does provide a two-page list of who’s who, but it doesn’t cover everyone, and I had to refer to it frequently while reading to keep from getting confused. Unfortunately, despite being the title character, the empress gets lost in the shuffle, and I found it hard to connect with her. Fewer characters and a more chronological story structure may have helped make Carlota the star of the novel. Despite some issues, this book will appeal to those who love sweeping royal sagas.