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.
Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Publication Date: November 6th, 2018
Not everyone is all good or all bad.
I’m going to use this quote as a starting point, and say: not every book is all good or all bad. Because it perfectly encompasses how torn I feel about Empress of All Seasons.
I think that ultimately, and sadly, I fell in love with the idea of this book based on its synopsis more than I did with the actual book itself.
I loved the idea of Mari setting out to win a competition based on wit, cunning, strength, daring, and confidence, defying expectations placed upon women of having to be beautiful in order to matter, be seen, or be worthy.
The rules were simple: Survive the Rooms. Conquer the Seasons. Win the prince.
My excitement and curiosity were also sparked by the set-up of the competition—four rooms representing four seasons that need to be conquered—and by the fact that Mari wants to win the competition, yes, but not for the reasons others may think.
I appreciated the representation of Japanese culture immensely; all the little details such as descriptions of food, and clothing, that were woven into the narrative so delightfully, and made me want to board a plane, and fly to Japan myself, and I also loved that the book was very much feminist.
Men are conditioned to take. Women are conditioned to give. (…) Long ago, [we] decided to stop giving and start taking.
What disappointed me a lot, however, were the pacing of the story on the one hand, and the characters on the other. Too much of the book, it seemed to me, dwelt on Mari’s life in the village, laying out scenes that felt negligible to me, and seemed to be at odds with the part of the story taking place at the palace.
In contrast, the actual competition, and what I expected to be the heart of the book, felt almost as if it was sped through, and passed me by in what seemed like the blink of an eye.
I wish the characters had had a more carefully crafted personality, and more depth, and didn’t feel like pieces in a chess game, their traits and actions molded to suit an already established plot with a clear-cut path.
The character development itself lacked finesse, and resulted in some of the characters suddenly feeling almost as if they were completely different people—and the one character I did take to, and found very intriguing, turned out to be merely a minor side character, much to my dismay.
What saved Empress of All Seasons for me were the last fourth or so of it, the conclusion that made my head spin, and its empowering, and powerful message, depicting so very clearly that we create our own happy endings—happy endings that don’t hinge on romantic entanglements.
Do not let your fear decide your fate.
I believe that this book will appeal to a lot of readers, and definitely those who favor a plot-driven story over character-focused arcs, and who find happiness in experiencing a wonderful Japanese representation.
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.
Have you read Empress of All Seasons? What did you think?
Is it on your TBR?
What are some Asian-inspired fantasies you’ve read, and loved?