Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 25, 2016

New York Times bestselling author Allison Pataki follows up on her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Traitor’s Wife, with the little-known and tumultuous love story of “Sisi” the Austro-Hungarian Empress and captivating wife of Emperor Franz Joseph. The year is 1853, and the Habsburgs are Europe’s most powerful ruling family. With his empire stretching from Austria to Russia, from Germany to Italy, Emperor Franz Joseph is young, rich, and ready to marry. Fifteen-year-old Elisabeth, “Sisi,” Duchess of Bavaria, travels to the Habsburg Court with her older sister, who is betrothed to the young emperor. But shortly after her arrival at court, Sisi finds herself in an unexpected dilemma: she has inadvertently fallen for and won the heart of her sister’s groom. Franz Joseph reneges on his earlier proposal and declares his intention to marry Sisi instead. Thrust onto the throne of Europe’s most treacherous imperial court, Sisi upsets political and familial loyalties in her quest to win, and keep, the love of her emperor, her people, and of the world. With Pataki’s rich period detail and cast of complex, bewitching characters, The Accidental Empress offers a captivating glimpse into one of history’s most intriguing royal families, shedding new light on the glittering Hapsburg Empire and its most mesmerizing, most beloved “Fairy Queen.”

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*** NOTE: This review contains spoilers. Please take heed and proceed at your own risk. 

An ARC of Alison Pataki’s The Accidental Empress sat on my kindle for nearly two years. Howard Books granted me a copy sometime before the novel was released in February 2015, but the first chapter of the book left such a bad taste in my mouth that despite multiple attempts, I was unable to reach chapter two. I’ll grant that Maximilian was a womanizer, but I felt Pataki’s depiction of the man as drunk and slovenly boob clashed with the historic record which evidences him as a cultured patron of the arts. I was flat out appalled by the author’s illustration of Karl calling his sisters whores, but it was Duchess Ludovika’s declaration that she’d “never allowed [herself] to hope” that one of daughters might marry the emperor that caused my jaw to clench.

It’s of little consequence to the average reader, but long story short, this line drew the author’s research into question and led me to abandon the novel several times over. Excuse me for pointing it out, but records show there were more than thirty marriages between the Hapsburgs and the Bavarian Wittlesbachs. It’s a pretty significant trend when looking at the family histories so the idea that Ludovika hasn’t considered the prospect is pretty preposterous. I found equally difficult to believe this fact could have been overlooked as the consequences of these marriages are pretty significant. In my mind, the research either wasn’t done or the facts were being ignored and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with either explanation. Similar instances throughout the book gave me reason to pause and I found it an uphill battle to ignore the inconsistencies I recognized during my reading.

I also struggled with the novel’s structure. The reader is aware that something isn’t right from the get go as Andrassy is introduce in the prologue, but Pataki dedicates the next eighty percent of the story to developing Elisabeth and Franz as a couple, building up their romance and slowing tearing it apart. I get the idea, but I honestly felt she was beating a dead horse. The affair was already established and spending so much time on the circumstances that gave rise to it seemed moot. I didn’t want to know how they got there, they were there, and I wanted to know what happened next, but it seems that is a story of another day and is not chronicled between these pages.

Character development was another issue for me as I found Pataki built Elisabeth up by dumbing everyone else down. The presentation also struck me as inconsistent and I often found myself wondering how Elisabeth got from Point A to Point B. For the sake of example, there is a moment where Elisabeth declares she will take back her household and be mother to her children, but paragraphs later she pulls a one-eighty, her fervor vanishes and she is seen abandoning the family out of jealousy and spite. Instances like this were common and made a significant impression on my opinions of both the primary and supporting cast.

I freely admit that much of my difficulty has roots in the passion I have for the material, but that aside, I was unconvinced by the style and tone of this telling and would have great difficulty recommending The Accidental Empress to other readers. It's an interesting idea, but the book hit all the wrong notes and lacked the charisma and dramatic appeal I expected when I requested it for review.

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"A deity does not quake simply because the crowd yells. An empress stands fixed, immutable: the calm that continues on, even as the world rages."
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