Emiko Jean’s EMPRESS OF ALL SEASONS is a surprising fantasy with teeth!
In the world of Emiko Jean‘s Empress Of All Seasons, there are humans who rule the land and there are yōkai, supernatural creatures that the emperor seeks out and enslaves.
Mari is an animal wife– a human-appearing shapeshifter yōkai hiding deep within the empire with one goal: Go out into the world, marry well, then steal their husbands’ fortune to bring back to their community.
Singled out as the least lovely of the group, Mari has been trained her whole life and tasked with the biggest challenge of all animal wives. She must go to the imperial city and be the one girl to conquer the often deadly seasonal rooms in the Palace of Illusions, winning the hand of the reluctant Prince Taro and his vast fortune along the way. Mari could cheat death and bring a royal fortune to her people, but she’s not the only one who’s trying to dismantle the power of the royal empire. A yōkai resistance group has schemes of their own and unbeknownst to them all, Prince Taro has hopes to change the empire with his succession.
Just by virtue of her situation, Mari is a character you’re eager to follow. She’s tough and capable but always underestimated. She’s got something to prove and you want to see her prove it. However, she’s not the only narrator. We also see the perspectives of Prince Taro, who is reluctant to inherit the horrible prejudices of the empire, and Akira, a half-human, half-yōkai “abomination” new to the yōkai resistance who also happens to be Mari’s only friend outside her community.
Empress of All Seasons has some introductory world building– and there’s plenty of lush world to build– but doesn’t take long to dive into the action of the story. Though they only represent about a third of the story, the seasonal rooms gave me a definite Hunger Games vibe with its own creative twists. There’s true danger in these spaces and Mari will need skill and cleverness to survive. Her fellow competitors are more than just stock characters, adding depth and wit to the journey.
I wish we saw as much action from Akira’s entry into the resistance, which, despite being dangerous, found its most action-packed scene buried in a cutaway. He oozes a dark, unpredictable strength and is a true loyal friend. I just wish he got a bigger bite of the action. However, his scenes introduce us to Hanako, the silver-tongued resistance leader who was definitely my favorite among the secondary characters.
Taro is the least action-oriented of the three, but he also provides most of the political intrigue. He can’t speak out against his all-powerful father, he can’t stop the seasonal room competition that he hates, but when his time comes, he thinks he can change the world. Often called the “Cold Prince” due to the way he isolates himself from royal life, he has a charm of his own when he tries– which is exactly what he does with Mari.
Though both Taro and Akira are attracted Mari, there’s no love triangle and in fact, there’s very little romance at all. We see splashes of flirtation between Mari and Taro, we feel the tension between them, we see Akira’s longing. But it’s not the focus and if you’re hoping for a love story, you might want to look elsewhere. This is a story of a young woman coming into her own.
While I’m plenty pleased with the ending and its message, I struggled with how the book got there. About three-quarters of the way through, there’s a shift and it seemed like one character personality in particular that had been built up changed very suddenly. It was meant to reveal their “true underlying self” but without any careful threading leading up to that, it felt like an easy means to an end and not a true character progression.
It all leads up to an explosive ending, though. If like me, you often think you know exactly where a book is headed, you’ll probably be wrong. I never saw that conclusion coming! As you close the book for the final time, I bet you’ll be murmuring “What just happened?!” Take that as you will.
RATING: 3.5 OUT OF 5 STARS
Empress Of All Seasons is out on November 6th. Preorder via Amazon or Indiebound!
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.