Member Reviews

I loved "Empty Theatre," and I think jemc's masterful balance is what makes it such a striking, exciting book. It's a long book that reads like a breeze. It's historical fiction that feels fresh and alive. It's humorous, but it doesn't forego heavier questions of beauty, meaning, and legacy. Even the structure of the book works well to balance all these elements, as we move from Ludwig to Sisi and back (although not predictably back and forth, keeping the reader enthralled).

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My fascination of Empress Sisi led me to this book. I love the mix of history and facts with fictional bits and novelization and guesses to who Sisi and Ludwig truly were deep down. loved the style of writing and the characters. Very quick bits. It’s definitely not a major narrative story/plot, so don’t expect that going in. It is more about the people and time passing. Great vibes. I did find myself thinking the end get a lot more rushed than the beginning of the book, so that is one thing to dock my rating. I would definitely recommend to any history lover. I will also be suggesting this to my students who seem interested in this time period.

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The last chapter of this book bumped this from a 3.5 to a 4 star for me tbh. The discussion of loneliness and all of its different forms - feeling unheard, feeling that your story is not worth sharing or letting other's dictate your story because it is so small and meaningless in your perspective that why bother? - and the importance and the RISK of making connections was so wonderfully done and made these messy, frustrating, maddening characters almost endearing for the same ways they were annoying. 

We follow Ludwig and Sisi and how they have both ended up in these positions of power that only feel like a prison rather than a reward - and we follow how they react to this position in severely, but equally destructive, ways. Ludwig indulges in the arts, investing in opera theaters, castles, busts, actors, etc. while Sisi practices the opposite - diminishing her size by only having one orange and a cup of broth a meal to cope with the fact that she feels so small and powerless in her daily life. They're incredibly destructive and its almost hard to read about but also you ... can't seem to look away. 

The Great meets The White Lotus because you're like wow these royals are insufferable and yet .... I need to study them like a bug ...

Thank you Netgalley for an early copy~

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I had recently finished another novel about Sisi, so naturally I was interested and reading more. I found this book very entertaining from the start. The novel is written in short chapters that give your bit-sized glimpses into the lives of Sisi and Ludwig. However, I quickly become uninterested in the book because of the lack of depth into the stories. Yes they were amusing, but they were short with abrupt endings. This was not my favorite read and I ending up only reading half through and skimming the rest. I think those who have a better background on the true story of Sisi and Ludwig would really enjoy this book. For me not knowing very much this was just exhausting to keep track of.

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I found Empty Theatre to be a very interesting historical fiction about King Ludwig II and Empress Elizabeth of Austria. I liked the insight into their day-to-day lives.

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I really enjoyed this book. I was fascinated by these two characters, and would love to know what parts of their stories were true. I liked the writing style; I appreciated that though this is historical fiction, it is written in a more contemporary style than most books of this genre, which really made it come to life. Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Empty Theatre is a work of art—both literal and metaphorical in its theme. This unhappy reimagining of a somewhat true tale leaves me feeling quite at a loss. And I suppose that is appropriate, given the tenor of the tale.

Another reviewer described this book as a feast of cupcakes—plentiful, but unsatisfying. And I am inclined to agree. There was so much to tell about Sisi and Ludwig. The episodic nature of this book lent itself well to recounting the stories of each on their individual escapades and adventures. But for all the telling, there was a lack of richness, or rather, a lack of depth. But again, that makes the title rather more appropriate, doesn’t it?

It was difficult for me to accept the role of uninvolved observing party in this story. The omniscient unnamed narrator is unattached in this retelling, keeping the reader at a distance from the action of the story. But keeping the reader disconnected was part of the art of Empty Theatre. It summoned a pitying sympathy, rather than a compassionate empathy, within me as I read.

Sisi embodies the struggle against both unwanted and unmet expectations. Being the Empress is not for her. Motherhood is not for her. Freedom is not for her. Aging is not for her. Ludwig desires and desires and desires anything and everything, except what he is given and is, by his own will, insatiable. He ultimately bars anything and anyone he could love out of his life for fear of his own exposure.

I could go on about the scandal that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing paired with stories of royalty, but I digress. This book is not for the faint of heart.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that this book was a masterpiece. The style is so intentional and so effective in communicating both the loneliness and impulsiveness of Sisi and Ludwig. Literal empty theatres and lives that were empty performances, devoid of purpose or will.

The crowning glory of this piece was certainly the prologue. I kept hoping we would see the prose mirror that of the prologue throughout, but it was an ill-fated wish. Though beautiful in its own right, the prologue outshone the rest of the book by far.

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This was very different from the usual type of historical fiction I read. Told in alternating chapters, the reader gets to know these two over-the-top rulers in short vignettes. Entertaining and informative.

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Review to be published in the Historical Novel Review, February 2023, Please see details of the reasons for the rating there.

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Empty Theater was a pretty good book about Sisi and Ludwig. Their parallel lives were interesting, but I wish this book had more crossover between the cousins. It really felt like I was reading two separate books.

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This book was so delightful! A historical fiction novel about two incredibly fascinating historical figures. One a king and the other a queen. Both incredibly ill suited to their positions and also cousins. They wanted to change how things were done and both ended up dying in incredibly tragic instances. I really like historical fiction that has a modern edge to it and this really worked for me.

Empress Elisabeth and King Ludwig II have such fascinating histories that come out so vividly here. We get instances of their every day lives, their families and the waning days of their respective empires. Change is in the air but the privilege aristocrats don’t want to see it and hope it goes away… it doesn’t. Don’t sleep on this fascinating novel about the lives of two unique figures who, had they been born in a different time, might have had been able to thrive.

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I don't know, man. This was aggressively average. I was under the impression there would be a more concrete plot to this, but nope.
✨No plot, just vibes✨
The vibes being two royals that kinda sucked.

This is a fictional account of the lives of King Ludwig II and his cousin, Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) of Austria.
(P.S. There is actually a new Netflix show all about Empress Elisabeth called <I>The Empress</I>)
The narrative is a chronological one, following them from birth up to their deaths. We get to see what unfolds as Ludwig and Sisi take on their new roles as King and Empress.
Aaaaaand that's pretty much it.

This being a fictional account of two historical figures, I was expecting there to be more embellishment to the plot and narrative. But as I have already stated, there isn't a plot, and the narrative was very straightforward.
Without quoting anything from this ARC, here is an example of how the narrative read in my head: "This person didn't like this person, so they avoided them at all costs. This person decided to go to Italy to not have to deal with said person." Lol.
It was all just so blunt and...boring.
That being said, I can see how others will not take issue with the narrative. As I was reading, I could recognize moments of sarcasm, wit, and whimsy, but unfortunately, I was still bored for the majority of the book.

<b>So, why is it just hella average?</b>
✨Because I didn't hate the writing style, but was not engaged by the way the story was told.

✨Because I did find it interesting to learn about these young royals (a lot of what's in this book really did happen), but I was expecting a plot, not a history lesson. And this is coming from someone who has read a lotttt of historical fiction and tends to love it.

✨And because Ludwig and Sisi honestly suckedddd. They were entertaining in the way reality TV can be entertaining, but I don't like reality TV. A novel would have been a good opportunity to add more to these characters; make them juicy, dynamic beings. But they came off as caricatures after a while.

2.5 rounded up. I didn't have a great time with it, but this is one of those books where I would recommend it to the right person. I can appreciate what was done even if I didn't enjoy the way it was realized.

Thanks so much to NetGalley and FSG for this advanced reader copy in exchange for my honest review.

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This was such a fun read! Went into this with really no idea what it was about and I was so pleasantly surprised!

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"Empty Theatre" is one of the most original books I've ever read. While it was described as a tragicomedy, I don't see it that way. To me it was more of a psychological retelling of the parallel lives of King Ludwig II and Empress Elizabeth (Sissi) of Austria.

Author Jac Jemc does an excellent job presenting a very engrossing novel about two unique figures in European history. King Ludwig II is portrayed as being the spirited, vain, eccentric ruler of Bavaria (who happens to be gay) who cared nothing for politics and everything for beauty and art. Empress Elizabeth (Sissi) is portrayed as a restless soul who chafes at the restrictions of being empress and disliked being valued only for her beauty and ability to bear children.

But as you read, you notice the following contradictory aspects:
1. Both were very extreme in their emotions. They vacillate between great passion and great melancholy, never finding true satisfaction or content in their lived.
2. Ludwig was a closeted gay man who was ashamed of it. Yet he couldn't stop himself from indulging in secret relationships.
3. Both felt as if their physical beauty was a burden, yet did all they could to maintain that beauty for as long as possible.

Ultimately, both were people who were prisoners of their own warped emotions. That doesn't absolve the behavior of those around them, because that plays a factor in their lives. Yet, both Ludwig and Sissi chose to wallow in their melancholy. Neither wanted to live in reality. They would both be excellent characters in Shakespearean tragedies.

I feel the author had two goals: provide an entertaining, engaging read and to impart the lesson of finding joy in and appreciation of what one has. For me, both goals were accomplished thoroughly. Definitely a worthwhile read for fans of historical fiction.

Thanks to NetGalley; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; and Jac Jemc for access to this advanced copy, which I voluntarily read and reviewed.

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I only made it about halfway through Empty Theatre, even though I enjoyed each vignette, they didn’t seem to come together at any point into the story. It felt like a book of short stories, some fascinating and some not.
I have ordered Empty Theatre for the library and I am sure lots of people will enjoy it.

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Empty Theatre: A Novel
or, The Lives of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Empress Sisi of Austria (Queen of Hungary), Cousins, in Their Pursuit of Connection and Jac Jemc is an entertaining and unique presentation of the infamous couple.

I really enjoyed this historical fiction that I feel has a slightly modern edge to its presentation with alternating points of view and chapters between Sisi and Ludwig. It also almost has a somewhat abstract and breezy thread to a story that is full of loss, sorrow, anger, torment, and death. The balance helps keep the serious and true life subject matter from becoming too dark and desperate.

I have read this sad history before, but reading it again in this way made it feel new and engaging. I still have a hard time identifying with both, however…their story is definitely fascinating.

4/5 stars

Thank you NG and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux/MCD for this wonderful arc and in return I am submitting my unbiased and voluntary review and opinion.

I am posting this review to my GR and Bookbub accounts immediately and will post it to my Amazon, Instagram, and B&N accounts upon publication on 2/21/23.

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I have to admit, from the very beginning, I was deeply curious about “Empty Theater” by Jac Jemc. Its subject—a loosely fictionalized biographical account of Ludwig II of Bavaria and Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) of Austria—was not an area I was familiar with; but that very obscurity seemed to offer the freshness of novelty. The unique wealth, privilege, and historical prominence of the main characters would offer plenty of material for careful research; but would also require a steady hand to balance the demands of authenticity and relatability. What angle would the author—a horror fiction writer with teaching roots in academia—choose to take? The very cover art seemed to be expressive of something tongue-in-cheek—but what? It was all intriguing enough for me to pick up the book and find out.

For all the glitter and grandiosity one might expect in the lives of a king and an empress, page one of “Empty Theater” sets the tone with a grim forewarning: Ludwig and Sisi are tragically doomed. Ludwig will one day be declared unfit to rule by reason of insanity, and soon after found mysteriously murdered. Sisi, too, will meet a violent end, stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist. Knowing this, we take a deep breath and begin at the beginning, settling into a slow pilgrimage that traces the paths of Ludwig and Sisi’s lives. Each one is born into a uniquely…sub-optimal childhood. Using their friendship as both a narrative frame and a foil, Jemc illustrates how genetics, gender, upbringing, and social expectations send both Ludwig and Sisi down very different, but equally…sub-optimal paths.

There are a lot of plot details I could highlight: much of Sisi’s story (obviously) centers around her roles as wife, mother and empress. We witness her loveless, political marriage; her ambivalence towards motherhood, at odds with the trauma of maternal loss; the way she vacillates between rebellion against any sort of expectations/responsibility in her role as empress, and resentment that the world only recognizes her as a pretty face. Ludwig’s tale is also shaped by a complete aversion to the demands of state (but an inability to resist the lure of wealth and power). Fueled by an obsession with the composer Wagner, Ludwig reimagines his life as an artistic/spiritual leader (whose primary function, apparently, involves spending fantastical sums of money on music and palaces). Unfortunately, the pressures of reality, Ludwig’s deeply conflicted sexuality, and the looming family specter of mental illness contribute to ever-increasingly intense bouts of depression and social anxiety.

The chapters are very short and flip back and forth in focus between Ludwig and Sisi. I understand it’s a literary style Jemc has utilized in the past, but it’s incredibly effective here. With two main characters, there is SO MUCH content to cover. The short chapters are absolutely necessary to keep the reader’s interest and prevent the story from bogging down. Even so—there are times when “Empty Theater” feels like a billion-course meal of miniature cupcakes.

Jemc’s prose isn’t unappealing; but, like an actual supper of only cupcakes, I started to feel a bit of indigestion after the hundredth one. It’s not so much that the story isn’t a happy one; (and, make no mistake—in spite of Jemc’s slim, proffered fantasy of a happily ever after? for Ludwig with his stable hand/lover—“Empty Theater” is a tragedy.) Ludwig and Sisi were real, historical people, and their stories should be told with honesty and integrity. Life was not kind to them, and their characters and choices clearly reflected that. But—even so…the deeper I read, the less I enjoyed Ludwig and Sisi, or felt patience with their flaws. There was no redemptive arc; they did not learn or grow from their experiences; there was no reason for or purpose wrought from their respective tragedies. In the end, I could only feel a sense of disgust and relief that it was over…

…Which begs the question…why tell such a tale? Maybe Jac Jemc’s affinity for horror drew her to this story. Was it supposed to be a sort of literary bauble, sparkling on the outside, but filled with a disturbing ooze on the inside? (I suppose in that sense, historicity heightens its sense of macabre.) For me, “Empty Theater” did not really satisfy—but if you’re a fan of slow-burn, historical tragedy, maybe that was the point.

Thank you to the author and the publisher for a digital copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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I tried so hard to get into this book, and I just couldn't. The writing style is very breezy and irreverent, which I usually enjoy, but I just couldn't connect with it here. I had to DNF, but that's just me. It might be a great read for others!

Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC!

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this was such a fun satire novel, I really loved the historical elements in this book. It worked perfectly to what I wanted from this type of book, I had enjoyed the way Jac Jemc wrote this story. Everything worked for me and I loved the historical elements in this. I can't wait for more from Jac Jemc.

"Sisi, hearty as ever, tends to them with little rest. She wonders if she has made a mistake, if it’s too late to charter another boat to take her home with the babies, but when the yacht enters the lagoons, Sisi is overcome with the magic she’s heard about only in stories."

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Fantastic book. Great use of satire and so interesting, I was totally enthralled by Sisi and Ludwig.

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