Book Review: The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki
I must begin by warning you that I am about to rave about this book! I read and reviewed Ms. Pataki's first book The Traitor's Wife last year, and thought it was amazing. She has absolutely outdone herself with The Accidental Empress. She shows great attention to detail and her historical research is outstanding. Her characters are so real--none of them are black and white. Sometimes you love Franz, and sometimes you hate him. The same is true of nearly every character in the book, including Elisabeth, the title character. The only exception would be the Archduchess Sophie, who I hated the whole time.
This book is set in the late 1800s, a very tempestuous time in Europe. Young Franz Joseph has come to power as the Emperor of Austria. He is lead and guided (or perhaps ordered) by his mother, Archduchess Sophie. When Franz is nearly killed by an assassin, Sophie decides it is time for him to find a wife, and produce an heir. She chooses her niece, Helene, who is her sister's daughter. Helene makes the trip to Austria from Bavaria with her mother and her beautiful, wild sister, Elisabeth. Elisabeth, whom everyone calls Sisi, is only sixteen years old, but Emperor Franz Joseph falls in love with her immediately. She returns his feelings, but knows that she cannot have him, and must help her sister win his heart. However, for the first time in his life, Franz stands up to his mother and tells her it is Sisi he loves and he will marry her. And so, while Sisi is barely more than a child, she becomes the Empress of Austria. Even though she and Franz are in love, Franz still answers to his mother on every subject, many times leaving Sisi out of decisions or conversations altogether.
The people of Austria love Elisabeth, perhaps even more than they love Franz Joseph. But more importantly, the people of Hungary love Elisabeth. They see her as an outsider like themselves. Hungary has long been under the rule of the Habsburgs of Austria, but they long for some freedom, and their own parliament. Years of time, hurt feelings, separations and betrayal have nearly destroyed any love between Franz and Sisi, and she is beginning to find love with someone else. But when she is asked by the Hungarians to help them gain their independence, Sisi finds an opportunity to finally find the happiness and love she has been without for most of her life.
These few short words, and this basic summary cannot even convey to you how much I loved this book. Allison has a way of tantalizing with little snippets of a future story--just glimpses of what will be, that make me want to keep reading just one more chapter before I close the book. From the beginning the reader knows that Franz and Elisabeth's love will not last, but reading through the pages of their courtship and early marriage, it hardly seems possible. You have to keep going just to see where it all goes wrong.
It is so easy to identify with the characters. You can't help but feel hurt along with Sisi as she does battle with her mother-in-law time and again and her husband never steps in on her behalf. Any mother definitely feels her pain as each of her children are taken away from her to be raised by their grandmother. And even though I cannot agree with Sisi's choices, I feel almost happy for her when the book comes to an end, and she is perhaps on the road to happiness again.
My European history is pretty rusty, and I could only remember that this royal family experienced an assassination that led to the star of World War I, so I looked up Franz and Elisabeth online. What I found made me a little sad, but very excited to see where Allison may take this story next. I truly hope that there will be at least one sequel to this book. While The Accidental Empress could stand alone, it left me hungry for more of Sisi's story.
I received an advance copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own and a favorable review was not required. Look for The Accidental Empress on or around February 17.