In this first YA book by award-winning author Candice Carty-Williams, Empress, a bright girl of Nigerian origin, starts her scholarship at the private Chancellor School for Girls, among rich girls, trying to outdo each other in accounts of lavish holidays over the summer, and many pupils and some teachers are deviously racist. Her scholarship does not cover school uniform, so she has an obviously second-hand blazer, nor does it cover expensive school lunches, and she survives on chips or pretends not to be hungry, but Aniya realizes that she is not getting enough to eat and takes her home to her relatively palatial home, meeting her lovely Dad Abib and her cool Mum, Dawn.
The friendship grows, and the girls, discovering that they share the same birthday, experiment with a body-swap spell. To their surprise, when they wake up at Aniya’s on their 16th birthday, it has worked. Aniya, as Empress, experiences racial prejudice in a café and life in an untidy flat with single mum Pauline, who is failing to look after toddler Leo, and resents Empress for her resemblance to her father, who had abandoned them, and her brains. Empress, as Aniya, discovers the parental pressure put on Aniya to be perfect and to follow her father into a career as a barrister, and both are relieved when, after trying to get help from the public librarian (but the relevant books are in another branch!), they are relieved when they wake up again in their own bodies. Aniya takes action to rescue Empress, and two years later, as the girls approach their 18th birthday, they seem set to follow their own paths, and we discover what has been happening to Pauline and Leo. It is a feel-good story, even if a bit far-fetched, and not as well paced as ‘Queenie’, as it all seems rather rushed towards the end, but it has a lot to say about prejudice and expectations, without overdoing it.