Empress Charlotte 1: The Princess and the Archduke

Fabien Nury summons the magic that made The Death of Stalin so wonderful, with a fascinating poke into a strange and complicated period of European royal history

Fabian Nury is probably still best known for writing the graphic novel The Death of Stalin, charting the chaotic vacuum in power that occurred in the days following Josef Stalin’s death. In Empress Charlotte he’s back on familiar historical territory, this time telling the life story of Princess Charlotte of Belgium.

Empress Charlotte comes face-to-face with the brutality of war

In this first volume we follow Charlotte’s early life, briefly passing through her childhood, her courting by Archduke Maximilian of the Austrian Habsburgs, and her eventual marriage to him. While it seemed early on that Charlotte fell in love with Maximilian, he didn’t share her honesty and integrity. After a brief but unsuccessful stint as Viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia, under which the Austrian lost the region to revolting Italian locals, Maximilian and his wife are confined to their royal palace by the Archduke’s brother.

Max’s whoring and disrespect eventually get the better of him, but with a bit of help from her family, Charlotte gains control of her husband and her own life. At which point, Napoleon the third does a deal with the Archduke and offers him the opportunity to build a new empire in Mexico.

The situation is almost completely absurd, but firmly based in historical fact. Of course, Nury puts dialogue in the mouths of the main characters and takes liberties with the precise happenings, but it’s firmly based in fact and is just as enjoyable a read as The Death of Stalin is.

Charlotte starts to take control of her life and her husband

Nury’s artistic partner for this exercise in period drama is Matthieu Bonhomme, who does a fabulous job of creating the characters and the world they inhabit. I can’t possibly comment on the authenticity but it appears convincing to my untrained eye, and that’s arguably more than enough.

Between the two of them, Nury and Bonhomme bring Charlotte and her strange world to life, drawing you in to her bizarre situation of arranged marriages and forced subservience to ridiculous men. However, with her character shaping up to be a good deal feistier than either her family or the Habsburgs suspected, this is a brilliantly fascinating, entertaining and accessible poke into a strange and extremely complicated period of European royal history.

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