YA Weekend: Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Book 1
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (November 6, 2018)
Length: 384 pages
Here’s another one for fans of Asian-inspired fantasy: Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean is set in a world reminiscent of feudal Japan with historical and supernatural elements. It is also a world where humans and yōkai live side by side—but not as equals. Whether you are a kappa demon or a near human-looking harionago or “hook girl”, all yōkai in Honoku are required to be registered and fitted with an unbreakable iron collar which would enslave them and keep their powers in check. The only free yōkai are those that live far away from the cities, hiding in little pocket communities in the wilderness. Mari, our protagonist, grew up in one such village with her clan the Animal Wives, a class of shapeshifting demons who can turn into beautiful women in order to seduce men and steal their fortunes.
Mari, however, was raised by her mother to follow a different path. Trained to fight and to survive, she has been groomed from childhood to become an empress and steal the treasures of the royal family itself. Each generation, a competition is held in the capital of Honoku to select the crown prince’s new bride. Hundreds of young women from clans across the empire would gather and attempt to conquer the challenges in the four enchanted rooms of the imperial palace, one for each of the seasons. Only one girl will prevail to marry the future emperor Taro, also known as the Cold Prince because of his utter detachment to anything to do with ruling, preferring to spend his time tinkering in his workshop. He especially despises the idea of being a prize, but is nonetheless drawn to Mari, who has arrived to enter the competition. Mari on her part is determined to win, but must contend with the difficulty of hiding her true nature while simultaneously trying to best all the other girls in the seasonal rooms. That’s because the rules strictly forbid yōkai from competing, and it would be an immediate death sentence if she is found out.
Well written and entertaining, it’s a shame the story wasn’t a little more original because then this book would have been even better. The first quarter was interesting, introducing readers to the mythology and background of the world, as well as the compelling role-reversal of warrior women competing to win a prince’s hand. But after that, the plot falls prey to the usual YA tropes. There was not much complexity to the parts where Mari had to survive the seasonal rooms. By and large, these sections played out exactly the way you would expect them to, with no surprises, and I’m somewhat disappointed we didn’t get more out of the rooms beyond a riddle and a scroll to retrieve. There’s also a case of instalove, which was especially annoying because of all the excessive hand-wringing and the “oh why oh why did not I see this coming?” later on in the story, and it’s like, well, maybe if you hadn’t thrown your heart at a guy/girl you’ve only known for all of five seconds, this might not have happened?
For better or worse though, this is the kind book where you really have to go through the motions before getting to the good parts. It’s not an ideal situation, but it also pays off in spades once you reach the point where the plot actually starts offering up more conflicts. In a way it felt like the second half of the book was an entirely different book all together, where the real meat of the story came in the aftermath of the competition, which turned out to be the gimmick. That said, some of the later parts of the story still felt scripted and contrived, but at least there were moments of unpredictability that kept things interesting.
This is also a book where the secondary characters far outshine the protagonists. Akira was the only perspective character I admired, the other two being Mari and Taro, whose voices were engaging enough but their personalities did not strike me as too different or special. Mari was not in fact as bold or dangerous as we were first led to believe, whereas Taro struck me as stiff and ineffectual, whose role was very limited and lacked any real kind of agency. On the other hand, Akira was written in a way that felt more alive and full of spirit. The Son of Nightmares was a wild card where anything could happen, and I also think his character went through the most changes. There were other side characters I enjoyed but a couple of them met untimely ends which rendered them somewhat pointless, and it was doubly frustrating because their deaths didn’t even elicit the intended emotional impact. A notable exception was Hanako, who only became more prominent after the first half of the story, and I found myself always looking forward to what further mischief she can do.
At the end of the day, do I think Empress of All Seasons worth reading? It depends. If you’re looking to read more Asian-inspired fantasy, this would be a good novel to add to your shelf. One of my favorite things about it was the handling of the supernatural elements, including the yōkai, who are an intrinsic part of this book’s world. Japanese culture is rich with legends and myth, and I loved how so much of it has been incorporated into the story. On the other hand, story-wise this is a very typical YA novel, and some may want to skip the mostly paint-by-numbers characters and tropey plot. Still, I experienced fun and excitement while reading this, even if it wasn’t always consistent, and I think it has potential.