Review: The Second Empress by Michelle Moran

Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 448 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: August 14 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3.75/5

National bestselling author Michelle Moran returns to Paris, this time under the rule of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte as he casts aside his beautiful wife to marry a Hapsburg princess he hopes will bear him a royal heir

   After the bloody French Revolution, Emperor Napoleon’s power is absolute. When Marie-Louise, the eighteen year old daughter of the King of Austria, is told that the Emperor has demanded her hand in marriage, her father presents her with a terrible choice: marry the cruel, capricious Napoleon, leaving the man she loves and her home forever, or say no, and plunge her country into war.

   Marie-Louise knows what she must do, and she travels to France, determined to be a good wife despite Napoleon’s reputation. But lavish parties greet her in Paris, and at the extravagant French court, she finds many rivals for her husband’s affection, including Napoleon’s first wife, Jos├ęphine, and his sister Pauline, the only woman as ambitious as the emperor himself. Beloved by some and infamous to many, Pauline is fiercely loyal to her brother. She is also convinced that Napoleon is destined to become the modern Pharaoh of Egypt. Indeed, her greatest hope is to rule alongside him as his queen—a brother-sister marriage just as the ancient Egyptian royals practiced. Determined to see this dream come to pass, Pauline embarks on a campaign to undermine the new empress and convince Napoleon to divorce Marie-Louise.

   As Pauline’s insightful Haitian servant, Paul, watches these two women clash, he is torn between his love for Pauline and his sympathy for Marie-Louise. But there are greater concerns than Pauline’s jealousy plaguing the court of France. While Napoleon becomes increasingly desperate for an heir, the empire’s peace looks increasingly unstable. When war once again sweeps the continent and bloodshed threatens Marie-Louise’s family in Austria, the second Empress is forced to make choices that will determine her place in history—and change the course of her life. 

I used to read all I could about Napoleon; I had a favorite biography that I must have checked out of the library at least 6 times alone.  I've loved history since I was little (when I was 10, I dreamed of being an Egyptologist instead of a movie star or singer) but after a while, my fervor for Napoleon and the French Revolution led to me other interests and I hadn't cracked a book on this subject in years. Michelle Moran's offering of the last 6 years of the rule of "Ogre of France" is a solidly fun and well-researched historical fiction; one that easily entertains and presents a new, vivid interpretation of figures who have fascinated the world for hundreds of years. One that has reignited my love for Gallic historical fiction. Based on extensive research and a multitude of primary sources, The Second Empress is well-rounded and detailed novel, one that reads both quickly and easily despite the amount of information shown. The beginning infodumps and a few vocabulary anachronisms aside, it's obvious how much time, care and attention to detail has been shown in creating The Second Empress.

Engaging and fun, the narrators of Pauline, Napoleon's indulged and selfish sister; Paul, her Haitian chamberlain; and Marie-Louise, the eponoymous second Empress of the title, all serve to illustrate a colorful, diverse picture of life in Napoleon's court. The POV switches between the three narrators are smooth, and though initially each character sounded similar to the two others used, they each grow into easily distinguishable and unique voices. The overall plot of Napoleon's downfall may wear a bit thin through the entire four-hundred pages of the book, so The Second Empress can read a bit like episodic vignettes rather than a streamlined narrative. A minor complaint, but because of it, there are times when the tension during crucial events was lacking or lost. Furthermore, I'm not usually a huge fan of the use of first-person present tense in historical fiction, but it's not too distracting here. Events feel real, pressing and occasionally, dangerous, thanks to the characters' immediate reactions and thoughts. Moran has proven herself to be an involving and talented storyteller and that eventually extends to her handling of the characters.

The rotating scheme used for the narration shows different events from different eyes and creates a version of Napoleon, especially, that is less than favorable. The Bonapartes are as much a force to be reckoned with in Moran's version as they were in real life, and the versions shown here are no exception. Unafraid of the Europe, the Allies and event the Pope himself, Napoleon is a catalyst for everyone else while remaining personally aloof from the reader. His sister Pauline commands nearly as much attention as Napoleon. She's one of those characters you love to hate: somehow managing to be charismatic in her supreme selfishness and petty jealousies. I'd reckon as akint o reading ab out a car accdient: you have to keep reading to see what this woman is going to do. Moran walks the knife edge with the sanity of this character. Is she sick? Or is she just hedonistic and uncaring? The answer is never laid down, and the character is more interesting for it. Marie-Louise is easily the most sympathetic character of the novel and though it takes a while for her to grow into her own, she matures into a capable and aware Empress. I couldn't done without the narration by Paul, but he provides a nice, humble foil for the more outlandish, entitled princes and princes of Napoleon's court of gossip, infidelity, and jealousy.

The Second Empress moves along at a decent pace once the initial exposition has been laid down and the characters established. The beginning may stumble a bit when it gets out of the gate, but by the time Napoleon and Marie are married, I couldn't put this book down. The final part of the book felt a little rushed and too condensed for what it tried to cover, but overall, didn't affect my enjoyment of this engrossing historical fiction read. Fun but flawed, Michelle Moran definitely impressed me with this latest, and first for me, novel - I will be on the lookout for her Egyptian-set books as well as her other France-centic novel, Madame Tussaud. Fans of these earlier novels by Moran will find more of the same to enjoy in The Second Empress.


  1. Great review! I've really been wanting to read The Second Empress, hopefully I'll get around to it soon! :)

    1. Thank you! This was a lot of fun - I'll definitely be reading more from this author :D

  2. I read Moran's two first books set in Egypt and loved them. Haven't gotten to the rest yet but it's good to see she's a prolific writer continuing to give her fans more of what they like. Thanks for the review!

    1. I definitely have to read her Egyptian novels! Apparently, they're really good - I never have read a bad review!
      And thank you :)


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