Review: Empty Theatre by Jac Jemc

  • Title: Empty Theatre
  • Author: Jac Jemc
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Intended audience: adult
  • Format read: audiobook ARC
  • Publisher: MCD
  • Pub date: February 21, 2023
  • Content warnings: “period typical” homophobia and sexism, suicide attempt, death, ableism (particularly with regard to mental illness), forced institutionalization
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

A wildly over-the-top social satire reimagining the mad misadventures of the iconic royal cousins King Ludwig and Empress Sisi, from the incomparable Jac Jemc.

History knows them as King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Empress Elizabeth of Austria, icons of the late nineteenth century who died young and left behind magnificent portraits and palaces. But to each other they were Ludwig and Sisi, cousins who shared a passion for beauty and a stubborn refusal to submit to the roles imposed upon them.

Ludwig, simultaneously spoiled and punished for his softness and “unmanly” interests, falls hard for the operas of Richard Wagner and neglects his state duties in the pursuit of art. Sisi, married at the age of sixteen to her beloved Franzl, bristles at the restrictions of her elevated position, the value placed on her beauty, and the simultaneous expectation that she ravage her body again and again in childbirth. Both absurdly vain, both traumatized by the demands of their roles, Sisi and Ludwig struggle against the ideals they are expected to embody, and resist through extravagance, petulance, performance, and frivolity.

A tragicomic tour de force, Empty Theatre immerses readers in Ludwig and Sisi’s rarefied, ridiculous, restrictive world―where the aesthetics of excess belie the isolation of its inhabitants. With wit, pathos, and imagination, Jac Jemc takes us on an unforgettable journey through two extraordinary parallel lives and the complex, tenuous friendship that linked them.

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Jac Jemc’s newest novel, Empty Theatre, is a fictional biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria and King Ludwig II, but that phrase fails to capture the true nature of the story. Indeed, that may be better portrayed by the extravagantly long subtitle: “Or The Lives Of King Ludwig II Of Bavaria And Empress Sisi Of Austria, Queen Of Hungary, Cousins, In Their Pursuit Of Connection And Beauty Despite The Expectations Placed On Them Because Of The Exceptional Good Fortune Of Their Status As Beloved National Figures. With Speculation Into The Mysterious Nature Of Their Deaths.” Empty Theatre is epic adventure, a love story, and a tragedy. Jefferson Mats’ narration of the audiobook successfully delivers both the sarcastic and sympathetic. It is a campy novel which has no reservations about portraying the good, the bad, and the absurd of monarchs in the 19th century.

The novel opens with compressed biographies of Sisi and Ludwig. We are given an expedient rundown of two lives that will play out over the course of the next 400 pages, both of which will conclude with mysterious deaths. The reader is tantalized from the start with this enigma, but before they are allowed to read Jemc’s conclusions, they will be taken on a twisting ride through the fantasia of the lives of these monarchs. Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein castle was the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Disneyland, but the further you descend into Empty Theatre, the less it looks like the happiest place on earth, and the more it appears a house of mirrors, where Ludwig and Sisi contort and distort themselves into who society wishes them to be.

Indeed, the strength of Empty Theatre is that it manages to acknowledge the lived experiences of Sisi and Ludwig without diminishing their intelligence, but also while pointing out how ridiculous it is. Jemc acknowledges both the pain and privilege that come with Sisi and Ludwig’s positions. Ludwig is forced into a job he neither likes nor is good at, and is unable to live truly as himself. On the other hand, his enormous wealth allows him to fritter his money away by sponsoring operas which take a suspiciously long time to complete, and grandiose palaces which won’t be completed in his lifetime. Sisi is isolated, with few true friends. Her overbearing mother-in-law isolated her from her children. Her true passions are horseback riding and Hungary. She is known for her beauty, and as a result goes to extreme means to keep up appearances and conform to traditional beauty standards. She also pushes her husband away and ignores her children when they truly need her. They had more wealth and power than a person could possibly need, but of course those things failed to make them happy, as they constantly struggle against society’s expectations and personal tragedies.

The more I write, the more I feel I can’t accurately capture Empty Theatre in my own words, it is just something you have to read for yourself. The audiobook is perfect for anyone who might traditionally shy away from historical fiction or long books, because it makes Jemc’s loquacious writing incredibly digestible. It is a novel that is fun, but will also make you think deeply about art, the monarchy, and the construction of the self.

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