ARC provided by HMH in exchange for an honest review.
Title: Empress of All Seasons
Author: Emiko Jean
Genre: YA Fantasy
Publication Date: November 6, 2018
My Rating: ★★★★
In a palace of illusions, nothing is what it seems.
Each generation, a competition is held to find the next empress of Honoku. The rules are simple. Survive the palace’s enchanted seasonal rooms. Conquer Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Marry the prince. All are eligible to compete—all except yōkai, supernatural monsters and spirits whom the human emperor is determined to enslave and destroy.
Mari has spent a lifetime training to become empress. Winning should be easy. And it would be, if she weren’t hiding a dangerous secret. Mari is a yōkai with the ability to transform into a terrifying monster. If discovered, her life will be forfeit. As she struggles to keep her true identity hidden, Mari’s fate collides with that of Taro, the prince who has no desire to inherit the imperial throne, and Akira, a half-human, half-yōkai outcast.
Torn between duty and love, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness, the choices of Mari, Taro, and Akira will decide the fate of Honoku in this beautifully written, edge-of-your-seat YA fantasy.
I’m so happy I had the opportunity to read this book because I forgot how much I adore Japanese fairy tales and mythos. While I had a few issues with the pacing in the beginning, I loved the imagery and world building Emiko Jean brought us.
This book stars Mari, a young warrior from a small mountain village in Japan. Her village is ruled by women (animal wives); any boys born into the families are immediately sent away and the girls are raised to use their beauty to seduce men and steal their riches. But these women are also yokai — supernatural monsters that look like animals. The yokai in Mari’s village live freely but many are not so lucky; they are enslaved and have to wear collars that prohibits them from transforming. But Mari doesn’t have the ability to transform into a full yokai and she is not considered beautiful. So she spent her entire life training to become a warrior. Her mother then forces Mari to enter a dangerous mission: Win the Seasons competition to marry the prince.
And what is the Seasons competition? Well, it’s four enchanted rooms in the palace that correspond to each season (equipped with brutal natural elements). Hundreds of women from all over enter the competition for the prince’s hand in marriage but they must survive all four rooms: Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall.
Taro is the prince but he does not care to rule the Empire. Instead he considers himself an engineer; inventing complex machinery and robotics. He wants nothing more than to escape the Empire but he changes his mind when he meets Mari.
And there is another young man, Akira, who is half yokai and half human, and dubbed “the son of nightmares.” Akira is probably one of the most complex characters of the book. He is also Mari’s friend and has feelings for her…
… Which leads me to: The insta-love and love triangle. Both things I know are not everyone’s cup of tea. I was a bit put off by the insta-love between Taro and Mari at first but it wasn’t the main focus. Same with the love triangle; it did not distract me from the story and was actually done very well!
I loved how atmospheric the writing was and how martial arts was such a key player in the story. Akira’s training were my favorite parts and I especially loved any scenes with his trainer, Hanako. Just getting to read about yokai brought back so many great memories of my childhood living in Asia and watching anime. And it is written so beautifully that I felt transported to those mountains. It truly felt like a fairy tale and was very whimsical.
Yokai slavery was also a huge theme and driving force for the plot. So much so that the Seasons competition felt secondary (I will get to that in a bit). The story toes the line between rebellion and loyalty, and you’re often left wondering who you can trust. Also I totally appreciated the “gender role reversal” you often see in fairy tales: The prince is the one who wants to escape the palace and the girl is the warrior.
But like I said, I was a bit put off by the pacing at first. And the Seasons competition felt very rushed and didn’t get as much “screen time” as I would’ve liked. I also wasn’t a huge fan of Taro. He started out as a very intriguing character with so much potential and then he quickly turned into a dud for me. But Akira, Hanako, and Mari really were the shining lights for me in this book. As for the ending, it felt very rushed; I would’ve liked to see more played out since this is a standalone.
Overall I really loved how it wrapped up, though! I think it’s important to remember that this book follows the structure of a Japanese fairy tale; it is both beautiful and brutal but also such a quick, easy, fun read that transported me into that magical world.
Buddy read with Melanie!