I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers on November 6, 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
Pages: 384 •Goodreads
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.
Empress of All Seasons may be another title in a sea of YA fantasy releases, however it immediately stood out to me within the first few chapters for several reasons, the strongest being the feminist themes and inversion of tropes generally associated with the male and female privilege in society. Protagonist Mari lives in a village comprised of shape shifting “Animal Wives” who are a kick-butt, take no prisoners, matriarchal society who highly value the birth of female children over males. The plot centers around a competition for warrior girls to win a male’s hand in marriage while he sits idly by as the prize. The protagonist’s value is constantly reiterated to be in her strength, her tenacity, and her cunning, and not whatsoever in her beauty. I didn’t know about most of these elements of the story going into the book, but they alone would have been enough to compel me to read it even if I wasn’t already planning on doing so. Empress of All Seasons is a lush, diverse fantasy that’s not afraid to commit to the feminist themes it weaves throughout its plot.
Told in a three part POV structure, the most compelling chapters were those narrated by protagonist Mari, who has been training all of her life training for a deadly competition that could make her the empress. I appreciated how Mari’s strength and purpose as a characters was rooted in her physical and mental capabilities rather than her appearance, but the story also didn’t go so far as to make her hideously unattractive- she’s just a rather plain, average looking person living among a community of unusually beautiful women. The message of the book didn’t go so far as to say “attractive people are evil,” rather it highlighted that there are plenty of plainer looking people out there who have just as unique and important capabilities as beautiful people. The balance the story strikes surrounding this topic is just right.
As can be inferred from the synopsis, the main focus of the plot is Mari’s participation in the daring and deadly competition to win the prince’s (and future emperor’s) hand in marriage, by defeating and surviving the four “seasonal” rooms in the Palace of Illusions. I was worried that the story would feel too Hunger Games-ish with the whole “battle against other young adults and the last one standing wins” premise but it was actually surprisingly unique. The Palace of Illusions holds four doors, each one leading to a seasonal realm where participants have to survive the elements and obstacles thrown at them, solve a riddle, and then find a scroll that allows them to move on to the next room. It was interesting to see what kind of seasonal challenges were thrown their way in each room, and I found myself interested by the juxtaposition between the dangers the competitors faced in the seasonal rooms compared to the fond memories the prince had of playing in them growing up (for example: horrifying, deadly blizzard vs. serenely ice skating during a gentle snow fall). However, one of my biggest disappointments during my reading experience is that I wish more page time had been dedicated to the competition rounds inside the rooms- the first room (Summer) is fleshed out pretty well but we spend progressively less and less time in each room as the story goes on, and the numbers drop really rapidly (from hundreds of competitors to just ten between the first and second seasons).
As mentioned previously, the book had two other POV characters aside from Mari- Prince Taro and “Son of Nightmares” Akira. View Spoiler »In a twist that will likely surprise no one, a love triangle ensues, that’s definitely susceptible to some insta-love since the book takes place over the course of just a few short days. « Hide SpoilerHonestly (I feel like I say this increasingly in my reviews) this story would have been just as strong (if not STRONGER) with less romance. I understand why some was needed since it is a competition for marriage after all, but I found myself not invested in any of the ships and kept eagerly awaiting when I could return to Mari’s chapters.
Perhaps the uniquest thing about Empress of All Seasons for me was the inclusion of folklore and myth about the Pantheon of Gods in the fictional universe. Every so often (usually before entering a seasonal room) there would be a short little vignette telling the tale about gods/goddesses that explained some seasonal or natural phenomenon- how humans and yokai (chimera like creatures) were created, why winter happens, etc, and the end of the novel actually wraps up with one of these stories too in a way that ties all of the loose ends of the plot together View Spoiler »potentially a little abruptly, but it was cool to see Mari’s story immortalized along with the other myths that were included. « Hide Spoiler I’m always intrigued to see religion/mythology included in books especially fantasy where it really adds to the world building.
Overall: Empress of All Seasons’ commitment to feminist themes and dedication to its world building make it a unique choice among YA fantasy novels. While the story ended a little abruptly for me and I could have done without the multiple POVs, I greatly enjoyed Mari’s journey, the unique settings of the seasonal rooms, and matriarchal themes throughout the story.
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