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.
**** Huge thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review! ****
Trigger Warnings: Lots of Death, Slavery, Torture, & Physical Abuse
I was truly surprised by how much I ended up enjoying “Empress of All Seasons” especially since I didn’t quite enjoy Emiko Jean’s other book “We’ll Never Be Apart”, however, both books are vastly different. I loved this ‘Own Voices’ Japanese YA fantasy and we definitely need to see more ‘Own Voices’ in YA especially the fantasy genre!
The plot itself is fairly straight forward and doesn’t get too complicated or messy. Mari has been trained her whole life to compete in the competition to become Empress and steal a fortune for her clan, Taro is the crown prince who is conflicted about his father’s treatment of the yokai (supernatural beings) and doesn’t want to be the competition’s “prize”, and lastly Akira who is half human, half yokai and is considered an outcast though he would do anything for Mari. Each character has their own sort of plot line that intersects with the others throughout the story. The main drive behind the story was the yokai slavery and revolution though and to be honest it took away from the Seasons competition which I thought was supposed to be the main theme. I don’t mind that the slavery being challenged was a big plot device, I really did enjoy it, I just would have loved to have seen more of the competition than what was given.
There were times where the story was hard to read with its depictions of the yokai’s mistreatment and enslavement. While this is all challenged by the end of the story it doesn’t make it any easier to read, there were times where I was tearing up and had to set my book down. I did include this in the trigger warnings above but just to warn other readers again that there are some graphic and upsetting death and torture scenes that are hard to read.
The competition itself in the Seasonal rooms was really rushed through, it was written well and very interesting to see what challenges the girls came across in each room BUT there just wasn’t enough of it. This is why I think the story should have been longer than just one book, so it could have included a longer experience with each Seasonal room. Also on a little side note here: I thought the riddles for each room were way too easy, that’s just me, but I’m not that great at riddles and I figured it out immediately. It was kind of bugging me that it took the character’s so long….
Bringing me to my next point: this book is a standalone which is both good and bad, in my opinion. The good is that it’s kind of nice to have a fantasy standalone where you get your whole story with just one book, it’s refreshing. However, the bad side to this fantasy book being a standalone is that I felt things weren’t fleshed out enough and left me wanting more. I feel by the end of the story things were VERY rushed and abrupt and the ending didn’t hold a lot of satisfaction because of this. I would have very much liked this to have been a series instead.
Also that ending! What?! What happened?! Why did it happen?! There was one part that I just didn’t GET! I can’t explain because of spoilers but AHHHHH!
The world building and mythology were really well done, I was fascinated with the tales of the gods and goddesses that are woven throughout the story and the stories of the different kinds of yokai as well. I felt everything was well explained especially since this is just a standalone novel and there wasn’t any info-dumping. I would have loved more though!
This brings me to another thing I’d just like to quickly mention: gender roles. I really loved how gender roles were challenged and reversed in this book with Mari being the warrior and Taro being the crown prince whose hand in marriage will be won. There’s also a side character named Hanako who is a woman and also happens to be a weapons master.
Overall I really loved how well written and atmospheric this story was, though I did have problems with how abrupt, rushed, and conveniently things happened right at the end.
There are three main characters and POVs in this book: Mari the warrior yokai trained to become Empress by winning the competition, Taro the crown prince who wishes to be free of his royal status and resents being a prize in the competition, and Akira a half human half yokai outcast who gets caught up in a revolution in order to protect Mari.
I really enjoyed all three POVs though I will admit that Akira’s POV did feel irrelevant at times and less interesting. Every character had their own development and complexity though which I was a bit surprised by since there’s three central characters. I have to say though that my favorite characters were the side characters especially Hanako who was a badass weapons master and also a lesbian, her oni companion Ren was also really great. Hanako’s sexuality is the only LGTBQ+ rep I could confirm in the book though, unfortunately. There were a bunch of other great side characters too but none got a lot of “page time” to be of significance.
This was strange for me, normally I strongly dislike love triangles and insta-love but in this case it didn’t actually bother me that much. It is insta-love between Mari and Taro but honestly I really liked their relationship and thought they were pretty cute so the insta-love was fine. I also didn’t feel the romance completely overshadowed the rest of the story, which was nice.
What I Loved:
- Straightforward, engaging story
- Even pacing
- World building and mythology were interesting and developed
- Great writing
- Challenged and reversed gender roles
- Well developed and complex characters
- Interesting and likable side characters
- Diversity! Own Voices Japanese Fantasy!
- I actually enjoyed the romance
What I Didn’t Love:
- Would have liked to have seen more of the competition
- Akira’s POV felt unnecessary at times
- A certain thing that happens at the end…..
- The ending was very abrupt and rushed since it’s a standalone
Overall I really enjoyed this book and definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys YA fantasy and Asian inspired fantasy. I really think there’s something for everyone to enjoy here from the action to the world building to the romance!