After reviewing Danny Saunders’ unintentionally hilarious debut novel The Captive Queen I couldn’t resist having a go at his new work, Sissi: The Last Empress. I am delighted to say that I was not disappointed.
Sissi: The Last Empress is a historical novel following the life and times of Elisabeth of Wittelsbach who, upon marrying Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria at the age of sixteen, finds herself an empress. She is separated from her family in Bavaria and subjected to the protocols of courtly life and the machinations of her aunt Sophie, who despises her.
Unfortunately Sissi: The Last Empress suffers from the same flaws as Saunders’ previous novel, namely: dry writing style, odd turns of phrase and an enormous numbers of typos and grammatical errors. It also heralds the return of his signature hackneyed and anachronistic prose and dialogue and pointless plot diversions. Not to mention the blurb on the back of the book tells us that “she will die a tragic death at the hands of a fanatic,” giving away what could have been a shocking finale.
The predominant issue with Saunders’ work is that there is no atmosphere or mood whatsoever. Rather than allowing the reader to discover anything subtly, events and character development are always relayed by the narrator in a bland matter-of-fact fashion: ‘She had just experienced her first heartache’, ‘At the end of the day…the imperial couple found out the child was a boy’, ‘They still had feelings for each other’, and most amusingly, ‘Impatient, the foreigner shot him in the head.’ It’s as though the action takes place in a sterile environment, which makes it exceedingly hard to care that the man was shot in the head.
This tonal insipidness led me to dread the impending sex scenes which were indeed as excruciating as I had expected. However the most nauseating part has to be reserved for a discussion of puberty, ‘Helene told Sissi that her body was starting to change. Her breasts were getting bigger and hair was growing on different parts of her body.’ This section reads uncomfortably like a man fantasising about what titillating things teenage girls might say to each other.
As with his previous novel, Saunders can’t seem to decide whether he wants to write a historical novel or a biography. When a new character is introduced, jarringly a non-fictional section is forced in to explain, with dates, their life, times and sometimes even their ultimate demise, before continuing with the story.
The Wikipedia entry for Sissi was a more engaging and interesting ten minute read than the onerous three hundred pages I endured. To be honest though, I did get exactly what I was hoping for.
‘… if his wife hadn’t sought refuse at his residence.’ Why was she looking for that?
‘…misfortune stroke Franz Josef.’ Did it indeed?