Monday, 13 August 2012

The Second Empress

Author: Michelle Moran
Genre: Historical Fiction (France)
Type: Kindle Advanced Reading Copy (ARC)
Publication Date: August 14, 2012
First Line: "Cairo, July 25, 1798 -- You will see in the newspapers the result of our battles and the conquest of Egypt, where we found resistance enough to add a leaf to the laurels of this army."

Synopsis: The terror of the French Revolution is still fresh in the minds and hearts of France when Napoleon is at his peak of power in the late 1800's.  A ruthless and powerful ruler Napoleon is feared by many but there is one thing that Napoleon still needs.  An heir.

After Josephine's downfall Napoleon is focused more than ever on having a legitimate heir for his empire.  He casts aside Josephine and sets his sights on eighteen year old Maria-Lucia, the daughter of the Austrian king and the great-niece of the infamous Marie Antoinette.  Maria-Lucia has lived a quiet, idyllic life with her family.  She is well educated and spends her time painting and looking forward to marrying than man she loves. 

She is therefore shocked when Napoleon 'honours' her by requesting her hand in marriage.  Maria-Lucia has a wonderful life in Austria but to ensure her family and country's safety in these tumultuous times she decides to do her duty and marry the ruthless, power hungry leader.  

When she arrives in France, Marie-Louise (as she is now called) is shocked at the decadence of the French court and the rancorous personality of her new husband.  Despite her fears she is adamant that she will be a good wife despite her husband's flamboyant and ruthless reputation.  

She quickly learns that she has enemies in the French court, namely the women who dominate her new husband's life - his former wife and true love, Josephine and Napoleon's sisters Caroline and Pauline.  Pauline has a very peculiar relationship with her brother and is fiercely loyal to him.  She has always pictured ruling Egypt alongside her powerful brother just as the ancient pharaohs once did and doesn't take kindly to Marie-Louise's interruption in her plans.

As Napoleon's need for power reasserts itself war is on the horizon again and this time it threatens Marie-Louise's homeland and family.  She decides to use the power that she has been given and takes matters into her own hands to ensure the safety of those she loves.

My ThoughtsI know I've said it before but Michelle Moran continues to be one of my favourite historical fiction authors.  So it should come as no surprise that I was more than thrilled (I 'may' have done a happy dance) when I was given an ARC to review for this upcoming book.  

Although "The Second Empress" feels a little lighter in detail and length than her previous works I had no trouble delving into the lives of this very famous and highly dysfunctional family.  Once again Ms Moran provides her readers with a riveting fact-based historical read that was hard to put down. 

Although this is a historical read it is not weighted down with too much detail and tended to be very character driven.  The main character, Marie-Louise is a dignified, brave and sympathetic main character who you can't help but like.  Here's this young girl who has her life planned out and is looking forward to a quiet life with the man she loves. Suddenly this infamous tyrant comes into her life who basically only wants to rent out her uterus. Their wedding is done by proxy (ahhh, l'amour) and Mary-Louise's life is thrown off course. 

Marie-Louise is a total contrast to the conniving Pauline Bonaparte who would give everything (yes, everything) she has to be in Marie-Louise's shoes.  She is a vile woman whose obsession with her own brother and increasing the Bonaparte family's power knows no end. 

Napoleon is portrayed as I've always pictured him - a power hungry, egotistical and temperamental {little} man who is out to prove himself.  He's prone to embarrassing the women in his life, he's difficult to please and with his mercurial disposition no one knows what he'll do next.  Yet, Moran delves even further into his personality quirks giving me a much better picture of him as a person.  Yes, he's all those things that I just described but you also see a more human/weak side to him as well. 

Here's a guy who is hopelessly in love with Josephine yet cannot be with her if he wants an heir.  We also get a glimpse of his fear and weakness which intrigued me.  He's a ruthless military dynamo who is not as brave as you'd think and is so in fear of those around him not being true to him.  He NEEDED to be the foremost thought in his family and followers' lives -- even Josephine whom he cast off.  He is this powerful man who is so obsessed and overly attached to the main women in his life that it's almost sad.  I was almost to the point of having the teensiest bit of sympathy for the wee man.  Almost.

While I realize that this book focuses more in the relationships of the Bonaparte family I would have loved to see more of his strategic military thinking and to see how and why so many people followed Napoleon.  What was his true motivation for conquering everything in his path?  How did he become so twisted and power hungry?

There are many characters in this book but the reader is told the story using the points of view of three people -- Marie-Louise, Pauline Bonaparte and Pauline's Haitian chamberlain, Paul.  I think that giving the story three viewpoints helped me better understand the storyline but unfortunately I didn't feel like I got to know Pauline or Marie-Louise as well as I would have hoped.  Paul gave an interesting point of view especially since he's torn between his love for Pauline and his growing compassion for Marie-Louise but I never really took to him.  I had a hard time believing that power hungry Napoleon took the time to ask the advice of a 'lowly' servant.  Plus, I don't think it helped that I just never saw what he saw in Pauline.

Overall, this was a fairly quick, yet engaging character-driven read that kept me interested the entire way through the craziness that is the Bonaparte family.  As someone who knew little of Napoleon I found it easy to follow along (and learn a bit in the process) with the general storyline.  While it is a shorter book than I'm used to from this author it did give me a good insight into that era.

If you haven't picked up a book by Ms Moran before I highly recommend "Nefertiti".  Also, as a little background French Revolution history lesson I'd suggest reading "Madame Tussaud" by this author.  It's not necessary but that era is referred to in this story so having that information in the back of my mind helped me understand the terror that influenced France's history.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Note: My sincere thanks to Michelle Moran and Crown Publishing Group for providing me with this Advanced Reading Copy for my honest review.

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