Earlier this year, I received an ARC of Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean to read, for the purpose of an honest review. Firstly, can I say a huge thank you to Gollancz for the opportunity to read such a beautiful, stand-out book?!
Today, I want to tell you how glad I am that I requested this book to review! I do read a little YA fantasy, but I wouldn’t describe myself as a YA reader. Instead, what compelled me to request the book is the Japanese influence and culture. Most fantasy I read is heavily influenced by Western ideals and society… so Empress of All Seasons was going to be a completely new experience for me!
Empress of All Seasons
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.
The Eastern culture really shines through in this novel, as I hoped it would! Combined with several well developed main characters, a complex social structure and growing unrest giving rise to conflict and rebellion, Empress of All Seasons is the whole package.
Mari is the fierce strong female lead I hoped she would be. She is brought up to take part in the competition to win the title of Empress. She is naturally competitive, thanks to her mother’s tutoring. But she has a secret. She isn’t the girl her mother thinks she is. Mari fights to become Empress to end depravity against her people. She longs to be treated as equal.
Animal wives, in human form, are famed for being the most beautiful. They seduce and marry rich men so they can take off their wealth and have their children to sustain the population. If caught, they are enslaved. Mari’s village is isolated and remains hidden from everyone for protection. Such is the price of freedom from the collar. Mari longs to change that.
As Empress of All Seasons is so different from my usual reads, immersing myself in Emiko Jean’s fantasy world, steeped in an unfamiliar culture, took a little getting used to. I spent three or four days of picking this up and putting it down periodically to digest who was who and what was happening. At that point, I had only gotten around halfway through the narrative, but quickly after that everything fell into place. The conflict in the plot piqued and I was hooked. I read the rest of the book in less than two days.
Mari, Taro and Akira are all vastly different characters whose lives collide in this tale. Even though they each have their different backgrounds and privileges, what struck me the most is that despite this, they are all desperate to break away from the expectations others have of them. That’s something I think we readers can all relate to.
For all the reasons above, Empress of All Seasons is a really enjoyable standalone read. For that reason, I think it will appeal to all fantasy readers – especially those in the market for a breath of fresh air in a popular, saturated genre.