Review: Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean
I’m loving the move to more diverse worlds in YA fiction recently. This is the second Japanese inspired novel I’ve read this summer and I’ve loved both of them.
The premise is very high-concept. What would happen if a magical woman whose very freedom is banned tries to win the hand of the emperor’s son in a high-stakes contest? Mari is a yokai. She is an Animal Wife whose people seek wealthy husbands in order to take their wealth for themselves. Mari sets out to do her duty and try and win the hand of the emperor.
YA novels involving competitions are usually very predictable and what I loved about this story was that the contest didn’t occupy every moment of the novel.
Mari wasn’t preoccupied with the idea of finding love through a game, like so many of the heroines of past stories. Instead, she was going to find herself and do her duty by her people. And that is exactly what she did. She is fierce!
The other characters are also fascinating. The emperor’s son Taro loves to make mechanical creatures. Seeing the journey of his clockwork bird high into the sky as it crashed, trapped just as much as he was, was one of my favourite scenes in the first part of the novel.
Mari and Taro are the first two point of view characters. The third is Akira, Mari’s friend and another yokai. He is known as the Son of Nightmares. The details about his origins felt real, adding depth to the world Emiko Jean has created. Even though I liked Akira, I didn’t enjoy the chapters from his perspective quite as much. I wasn’t entirely sure why. The other side characters, including Mari’s maid Sei, were much more interesting to me.
The world building in this novel was incredible. Japanese influences were blended with the existence of fantasy monsters to create a world that felt so real. The idea of priests who could hold back monsters through curses written on their skin felt so real, as did the mountaintop village Mari came from.
My favourite aspect of the world in this novel, however, was the rooms of the four seasons. Our first insight into the power of the rooms is early on, through Taro’s eyes, when we see how one poor captured yakoi will be tortured on the orders of the emperor in one of the rooms. During the competition the competing girls have to make their way through the four themed rooms. In the Summer Room they will face punishing heat, with fires burning in the trees. In the Winter Room there will be snow and punishing cold. In short, the weather will be turned against them. It is described how nature will reward the competitors for their positive actions and turn against them for their mistakes. Some will kill for the chance to become empress, as Mari will find out…
I wasn’t so keen on the lack of happy interludes that might have added a bit of lightness to the story. I know this novel was focused on the feminist message that Mari could gain happiness without seeking to please a man, which I really enjoyed, but I liked Taro’s character too. I would have liked more scenes where they were together and perhaps a slightly less bittersweet ending for him.
The Empress of All Seasons was an exciting journey through an original world with characters that grew on me with each page.
I’m going to give it an overall 4.5 stars, rounded up to five for Goodreads, as on the whole I loved the adventure Mari had. I hope Emiko Jean considers writing more novels set in this world as the worldbuilding was phenomenal and the experiences of the yokai were so engaging. I’m looking forward to seeing what she writes next!
Thank you to Orion Publishing Group, Gollancz, Emiko Jean and NetGalley for the opportunity to read in exchange for an honest review.