*I received a copy of this title from the publisher in exchange for an honest review*
Title: Empress of All Seasons
Author: Emiko Jean
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: November 6, 2018
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 really loved that this story was so steeped in Japanese mythology. There were origin stories in between chapters about the gods and goddesses, which was fun. This book definitely dealt with a lot of powerful themes in terms of objectification, stereotypes, slavery, and overthrowing a patriarchy.
The story starts off with Mari, a yōkai trained to kill in preparation to compete to win the prince and become Empress. Her only problem is that she has to hide her true nature to do it. If she succeeds, she’ll marry the prince, steal his fortune, and hopefully return and bear a child. But if Mari fails, she will be ostracized by her people. She’s a pretty rebellious characters and she has a lot of compassion for a monster.
Then we have Akira, who is half yōkai. He’s Mari’s friend and when she leaves for the palace, he follows her. He’s always been an outcast and forced into the shadows, but he learns to fight and definitely develops a lot.
Taro is the third POV in the book. He’s the prince who doesn’t want to rule and he plans to get away from the palace. The prince sees himself as more than some prize to be won and he hates being objectified. While he and Mari did have initial chemistry, their romance was very rushed and I couldn’t get into it like I wanted. There was also a sort-of love triangle happening and it didn’t work for me.
I did enjoy the overall story, but I feel like it would have benefitted more if it were a duology. It felt like there was so much the author wanted to say and oftentimes things were rushed. As a result some things suffered for it. The pacing was also strange for me too and the story felt like it happened in mere days. I would have loved to see more of Mari’s journey to the palace to get a better feel for the world.
While there were some things that didn’t work for me, it was overall an enjoyable story. The Japanese mythology was amazing and it is definitely a unique book. There were some great characters in this story and I thought they had a great dynamic between them. Although I would have loved to see more depth, I was interested to see where the story would go and couldn’t put it down. If you loved Shadow of the Fox, then you’ll probably enjoy this one as well.
Content Warning: infanticide
This story is inspired by your Japanese heritage. Why did you decide to write this story specifically? Was there a lot of research involved?
Emiko: I read a lot of fantasy growing up. Most of the fantasies I read were dominated by Western mythology. Asian writers and Asian protagonists were hard to come by. I wanted to write something for my teenage self—the girl who longed to see her self in book pages and as a hero.
There was a ton of research involved! I spent half a year combing through historical texts while world building.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
When Emiko is not writing, she is reading. Most of her friends are imaginary. Before she became a writer she was an entomologist (fancy name for bug catcher), a candle maker, a florist, and most recently a teacher. She lives in Washington with her husband and children (unruly twins). She loves the rain.