Review: Empress & Aniya

3 stars

THE PLOT: “Empress & Aniya” by Candice Carty-Williams is a YA novel about two unlikely friends. When Empress gets a scholarship to an elite private school, popular and wealthy Aniya is tasked with showing her around. The girls become friends, but when they cast a spell on their sixteenth birthday, they end up swapping bodies. Will walking a mile in each other’s shoes show them that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side? And will they ever be able to swap back?

RATING: Okay, despite the marketing campaign, I can’t review this like it’s a YA novel. Everything about the book, from the pink cover to the short length; the writing style focused on dialogue over description to the simple characters is middle grade. Therefore, I need to review it in the context of the target audience – 9- to 12-year-old girls. And, for that audience, I’d say it’s good. So, although I wouldn’t recommend it to a fourteen-year-old, I would buy it for an 11-year-old, and therefore I’m giving it three stars.

GOOD BITS: This is a well-written book with interesting and loveable characters. What it lacks in description, it makes up for in witty dialogue. The plot is very basic, but let’s be honest – white people have been writing freaky Friday-style narratives for years, so I don’t think it’s fair to criticise this book on originality. In fact, this is a somewhat fresh take on body-swapping and the South London setting reminded me of home. Well, it is home… Anyway, the multiplicity of black characters demonstrates good representation for younger readers.

NOT SO GOOD BITS: My (rightly) calling this novel middle-grade isn’t a criticism. However, when I compare it to other middle-grade novels that I’ve loved (as both an adult and a child), it doesn’t have enough nuance or layered themes. It’s just that the book is very one-note, everything is on the surface and there is no subtlety. Plus, even though I liked the characters, there is no way they were sixteen. The dialogue was well-written and natural, but everything about their voices screamed thirteen to me, and I found it hard to picture them as older.

OVERALL: This is a hard one. You know how with some novels for younger readers, they talk about crossover potential? Well, this isn’t that… Honestly, I can’t see adults getting much from it. However, I would 100% buy this as a present for an 11-year-old girl. I prefer to review a book based on what it is, rather than what it’s not, but there is also an issue of expectation from the marketing campaign. When I hear “Candice Carty-Williams’ YA debut”, I imagine a bold, contemporary narrative that would sit next to Juno Dawson, John Green and Jenny Han. And I’m so sorry, but if that’s what you’re looking for, this is not it…

Thank you to Knights Of and Chapman Storytelling for a #gifted copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Empress & Aniya will be published on 7th October 2021.