Empress Of All Seasons by Emiko Jean
Publisher: HMH Books For Young Readers
Release Date: November 6, 2018
Summary: 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.
*Received ARC through Yallwest*
My Rating: ★★★★☆
My Thoughts: Empress Of All Seasons is a character-driven YA Fantasy inspired by rich, deeply woven Japanese mythology, great cast of characters, a plot filled with intrigue, politics, action, & adventure!
Empress was a book that had such a unique premise and what really made it shine, was the characters and their development!
Set in the country of Honoku, there’s strict rules against yokai, or those who have the ability to transform in to monsters or other supernatural creatures. They are treated as a lesser class and for those that are caught, are enslaved and forced to wear an iron collar that subdues them and their powers. More importantly, if any are found anywhere near the palace, they are either tortured or killed.
Mari is a Yokai. She lives in the all-female village of Tsuma, hidden away in the mountains of Honoku. She has been trained all her life by her strict mother, who along with all the other women in the village, are Animal Wives!
Animal Wives are women who use their Yoaki abilities to trick men into marrying them & take their fortunes.
Because Mari is assumed to never have the capability of becoming an Animal Wife, her mother has trained her in combat to ready herself for the competition that takes place in the Imperial City, mainly the Palace Of Illusions where all female contestants must battle within the 4 seasonal rooms for the prince’s hand in marriage!
Though she has never felt quite at home in her village, she does have one friend who she cares for deeply, Hissa! She is reminded of what it could mean for her and the yokai, but more importantly herself if she wins the title of empress.
Now a part of the competition, she must lie and deceive the court, pretend she is human and win the competition.
Within Mari’s village, we learn of a boy named Akira, who’s mother was a ghost yokai and father was human, he is known as the Son Of Nightmares. He has the ability to disappear and is one Mari’s other best friend!
They both care for each other, but its clear Akira really loves her!
When he learns she’s left for the competition, he takes charge to ensure she’s safe and tries to convince her to run away with him. He gets told to find a Weapons Master, which quickly leads him towards a new path and fate when trying to look after Mari!
Little does he know, he gets caught up in a rebellion, where there is a secret Yokai resistance, ready to destroy the system that keeps them enslaved. The rebellion is led by Hanako, aka Snow Girl, a yokai who has gathered a rebel army in secret + hiding to free the yokai!
Prince Taro, doesn’t want anything to do with the upcoming competition and spends his days in his workshop, creating and inventing. One of his favorite inventions is a mechanical bird! However, when Mari finds herself hiding behind a palace wall, she without knowing, ends up meeting prince Taro.
He becomes intrigued by her and the two have this almost unsaid crush on each other. What I loved about Jean’s development to the “romance” is that its never really a central aspect to the story. Mari is focused more on herself and where her goals will lead her & those she loves throughout the competition. Though its clear that Taro & Mari are interested in each other.
Akira becomes part of the rebellion to bring about a better world for Yokai, while with Prince Taro we are shown that he is not okay with how the yokai are treated (which started with his father, the Emperor), but still wants nothing to do with the throne.
I loved how these characters are so different than when the book begins and seeing them develop in such unique ways really kept me invested!
Empress is presented as a single and linear story focusing on a competition within seasonal rooms, but its so much more than just that! The summary really leaves out the different sides to this story, but it works so well, because you don’t really expect it!
Now I don’t want to spoil the end, but it really weaves together all these different plot threads and leaves on such an unexpected, but overall really satisfying note!
This novel is told through 3 POVs: we have Mari, Akira, & prince Taro! I loved how the differing POVs were not only distinct, but explore the world of Honako and the incredibly layered story.
I loved all 3 povs equally! Each character goes through so much development and undergo such unexpected journeys throughout the book.
There were also so many great side characters, like Asami who is alongside Mari w/ the other competitors to win title of Empress. She was so incredibly developed and I loved the interesting friendship they form when they both agree to be allies in the competition.
Asami is a character who is a bit of an enigma, but I love how there’s so much more to her reasoning for entering the competition + overall just her personality shines so much in this book. She was definitely one of my favorites!
Also aside from this novel being #ownvoices for Japanese rep./culture, was also the hint to Hanako being a lesbian (& that she loved Asami).
Now as to why I’m rating this 4 stars, is due to the uneven pacing, a couple elements to the writing-style, & development in regards to the seasonal rooms!
*TBH though, I find the rating on this to be super difficult for me to state because on an enjoyment scale its a 4.5, but if I’m looking at it overall, 4 seems to make the most sense? Ratings can be super difficult for me! 😂📚🌟
As the story progresses, the pacing becomes a bit slow especially throughout the middle and nearing the end. Yet, its also fast-paced near the end. So, above all the pacing fluctuated all throughout.
I did read an ARC so, this may have changed a bit, but the writing-style at points was rather direct and simplistic? So a lot of what what was introduced (in regards to characters, what they were feeling/development) did seem more like it was being told rather than shown.
I also loved the seasonal rooms within the palace, but I wish there was more even more development and inclusion of them with the overall story. Though with the background we do learn about them, it was fascinating– the rooms have a mind of their own and the extreme weather or obstacles the girls encounter within them, are a way of bringing balance to the rooms (which was so interesting!).
But, what I really loved about Empress Of All Seasons is that it accomplished what I expected more of in Forest Of A Thousand Lanterns, in terms of delivering a morally grey main character & the world-building!
Mari, to me seemed to be a bit of an anti-hero, there’s this dark side to her because she’s on this journey not just for her village, but along the way she learns its okay to go after things for yourself! She is showing these two differing sides and with the palace intrigue, its a mystery whether she’ll be able to keep her secrets!
Same goes with the world-building! The world isn’t just stated by the names of places, many elements to the world are explored, developed, and its incredibly immersive! I found myself picturing the world each and every moment I picked the book back up!
Overall, Empress Of All Seasons surprised me in many ways I was not expecting and ends on a note that really subverts tropes and expectations.
Empress Of All Seasons is a unique YA Fantasy, which is very character-driven, filled with intrigue, action, and adventure! If your looking for a standalone YA Fantasy with Japanese mythology, a competition, politics, & a rising rebellion, this is a fantasy you definitely want to check out!