I have given Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean a ☆☆☆☆ rating. It is a standalone. It is Young Adult Fantasy. HMH Books for Young Readers publishes it. It was published November 6th, 2018.
The blurb reads:
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.
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Thank you greatly to Rafe of The Royal Polar Bear Reads and Carmel of Bookablereads for hosting the PH Blog Tour of Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean. I’m so excited that today is my tour stop and I can’t wait to share this book with you! As always, my reviews may contain spoilers. I say may because what’s a spoiler to you may not be a spoiler for me.
Empress of All Seasons takes a traditionally Western-centric concept of the “Chosen One” competition a la The Hunger Games and The Bachelor and mixes it with Japanese mythology, traditions and culture to form the perfect YA novel for Asian readers. It’s basically Yanxi Palace with more fantasy, magic and is built for young adults.
On the surface, the Empress of All Seasons is no different than Kiera Cass’ The Selection. It’s about women competing to become the empress and a reluctant prince, not interested in participating in the games. Instead of a live broadcast a la The Bachelor, Empress of All Seasons has the hopeful girls competing in different “rooms”. Each room has a corresponding room designed by a Master of Seasons, essentially an elemental. In each room, the seasons are the enemies and the girls are not allowed to eliminate each other. Which to me, sounds like an easy way out but that’s the whole point of the competition: the seasons are somewhat sentient and they will pick the empress. At the same time, Empress of All Seasons is also about the war between humans and yokai.
Mari is an Animal Woman, a clan of yokai known for their beauty and marrying men and stealing their fortune. However, unlike her clanswomen, Mari was not born with beauty but she made it up with her skill at weaponry, courtesy of her mother. She is sent to compete for the prince’s hand, the biggest fortune of them all. I felt a little indifferent to Mari; because the book is so plot-based, I found it hard to capture Mari’s personality. She always felt a little bland to me.
Taro, is the Cold Prince and reluctant to ascend to his emperor duties. He is an inventor and would rather spend his days creating until he meets Mari. While I thought he was kind of interesting at first because we did spend quite some time in his head, as the plot progressed, I began to dislike him immensely. He appeared to have an obsession with Mari, often singling her out and over time because unlikeable.
Akira, is a half-human, half-yokai known as the Son of Nightmares. I disliked Akira at first because he was clingy and a mess but as his character developed, I fell more in love with him. He was determined, loyal and smart. I was rooting for him towards the end.
Finally, we get to Hanako who is the famed Weapons Master and Akira’s mentor. She leads the yokai resistance and is as quirky as the yokai she surrounds herself with. She’s one of my favourite characters and did I mention, she’s a queer princess?
Much as I was glued to Empress of All Seasons and I woke up tired and bleary for work because I just had to finish it, it is not without its faults.
The ending was incredibly rushed with too many things happening at the same time and an ending that made me cringe, roll my eyes and sigh with exasperation. I didn’t have any time to digest what was happening before it jumped to the next action point. At times, it read a lot like how I would picture an anime playing out with loads of action streaks and wild punches.
Another thing that irked me was the insta-love. At heart, Empress of All Seasons’ message is that you don’t need a boy to love you, you don’t need the romance because you’re a fucking queen! But that doesn’t mean the book didn’t try to squeeze in an attempt at a relationship, although because it was such insta-love, it felt extremely forced and unbelievable.
Now, I’m sure you pop culture enthusiasts have heard of the “Bury Your Gay” trope. So, if you’re reading Empress of All Seasons, do take it with a pinch of salt. The only openly lesbian character in the book has her love interest (it is implied that the love was unrequired) killed off. I’m more straight than I am bi but, I’m tired of seeing f/f couples in fantasy or science-fiction YA books die. Furthermore, the Animal Woman clan is an entire clan of women, fair enough. But the entire time I was reading it, I was hoping that at least one of them was a lesbian because come on!
What truly sets the Empress of All Seasons apart is the immensely beautiful worldbuilding. I loved how much mythology and culture is weaved into the plot. We don’t get just one yokai, we learn about so many others from oni, yuki-onna, kirin, kappa and even a half-human, half-yokai among many others which I thought was really great because it wasn’t a half-hearted attempt to be unique!
Empress of All Seasons is also told with interludes of the gods’ lives that helped to tell the story of how and why; which is incredibly important in Asian culture as religions like Buddhism have many gods that govern our lives and each one has a unique story and influence on the way we do things.
Empress of All Seasons blew my expectations out of the water in both good and bad ways. Despite it being incredibly plot-driven, leading to weak character developments. The way it is written, I’m excited to see what more Emiko Jean has in store for us! Because I cannot believe that it is the end and I need to read more of her mastery. It’s truly a great read that you need to add to your shelf immediately.
Thank you to the publisher and the hosts of the tour for providing me with an ARC copy in exchange for an honest review. This review edition may differ from the final edition.