Empress of All Seasons: Review
Hi everyone! How has your 2019 been? This new year has been off to a shaky start for me, but with such an incredible TBR ahead of me, I can’t help but feel some sort of happiness. I’ve been taking a step back these first few weeks of January and experimenting with “me time” that actually works for me. That might mean a few changes to the blog in the next couple of months! But first, I’m back with a review of a novel that I was really looking forward to, Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean. It’s a YA fantasy inspired by Japanese mythology that might remind readers of The Hunger Games or The Selection.
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.
On the surface, Empress of All Seasons seems like a book just waiting for me to love it. It’s right up my alley, with heavy inspiration from Japanese mythology and culture, which Emiko Jean drew from her own background. It has no shortage of monsters and demons straight out of your favorite anime or manga, and plenty of strong female characters to root for.
However, the inspired setting and rich cultural background of the book is all that I can give it points for, because the plot and character development falls short of what Jean promised to deliver in terns of an “edge-of-your-seat” YA fantasy.
Mari is an Animal Wife, a type of demon that typically takes the guise of a beautiful woman and tricks men into marrying them before running away with their riches. We are reminded many times that Mari is, for some reason, not as beautiful as the other Animal Wives and so her mother, the leader of the clan, trained her in the art of the naginata instead of the feminine arts. If she could not easily win the hearts of men, then she would conquer the seasons and become empress by force.
Taro is a prince whose birth killed his mother in the process, and his father has never treated him warmly. He steels his heart to the cruelty that his father impresses on demons in Honoku, but there’s a tenderness inside of him that he dares not show anyone.
Lastly, the half-demon Akira is head-over-heels in love with Mari and would follow her to the end of the world to prove it. He’s always been mocked for his appearance, but there’s a fire inside of him that wills him to prove to himself that he is more than his birthright.
I found the clan of Animal Wives fascinating, and their appearances were by far my favorite parts of the book. A clan of fierce women warriors who slyly subvert men’s expectations of their womanly responsibilities? Yes please!
The relationship between Mari and Taro is anything but romantic. It’s insta-love, which is so strange for two characters who spend the first part of the book trying to escape their destinies and steel their wills about potentially being forced into a loveless marriage. The architecture of the book does little to help us understand the characters. Every chapter alternates to a different character, either Mari, Taro, or Mari’s childhood friend, Akira. No two characters have back-to-back chapters, which ruins the flow of any and all plot or character development. I understand this tactic as a way to present a more holistic view of the plot and allow the reader to invest in all characters involved but in this standalone novel, I believe that this does more harm than good. It’s spastic and I never got the chance to become fully invested in any one character because my time with them was far too short.
Another aspect of Empress of All Seasons that irked me was how underutilized Akira was as a character. He was such an enigma and could have had a more pivotal role, I think. instead, he was a very flat character who turned out to be more of an accessory to the plot (and to Mari).
Lastly, the ending made no sense to me whatsoever. I typically love standalone novels but Empress of All Seasons suffered from being cut too short. The entire book read like it was meant to have a sequel, up until the last chapter or so. It felt like there were a few chapters missing and the author had to somehow wrap things up with a ribbon and send it on its merry way regardless. Because of this abrupt ending, be warned that you will be left with more questions than you started the book with. And an unsatisfied reader is never a good thing.
Fans of The Hunger Games and The Selection series may enjoy Empress of All Seasons- after all, they share a very similar plot. Japanese mythology enthusiasts will similarly be delighted by the world of Honoku. But if you’re looking for a substantial YA fantasy novel that leaves you wanting more, you will be disappointed. I certainly was.