Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Summary: 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 attempts to weave together a daunting number of plot threads. There’s Mari, an Animal Wife yōkai attempting to prove to both her and her village that she’s worthy of being an Animal Wife by stealing the ultimate fortune: the Emperor’s son. There’s Taro, the prince who doesn’t want to inherit the throne and dreams of a world where he can be left alone to engineer mechanical animals. And there’s Akira, half-human, half-yōkai who finds himself enveloped in a yōkai Rebellion to overthrow the Emperor and (justifiably) take back their rights. Unfortunately, I just didn’t think these three storylines properly meshed into one book.
Firstly, I didn’t find the characters all that compelling. Mari was alright, we get enough of her that she was decently compelling and I found her struggles to be real and empathetic. Born to a village of Animal Wives (female yōkai who are supernaturally attractive, seduce and marry unsuspecting men, then steal their treasure), Mari’s somewhat of an outcast because she’s considered plain and unattractive. Luckily for her, to become the Empress of Honoku, you have to be strong with a weapon and clever, not attractive. Instead, her mother trains her with a Naginata, and she sets off to the capital to vie for the crown and prove to the village that she, too, is an animal wife.
Taro and Akira, on the other hand, I both found dull and uninteresting, Taro especially. Despite being the crown prince, Taro has no interest in taking the throne, probably because his dad is a cold man who disapproves of his one hobby. Also because one of his earliest inventions is now mass produced and used to enslave the entire country’s yōkai population. However, instead of doing anything about it, he locks himself in his room and makes mechanical trinkets. Which is lovely, except throughout the entire book, he never changes. He’s continually mopey, unambitious, and generally useless until he bumps into Mari, in which his interest in mechanical trinkets turns into a one-sided obsession with a girl he’s barely met. Suddenly, he’s convinced that ‘she’s the one’, that he ‘loves’ her, when frankly his interactions read like a somewhat creepy stalker who has too much power and time on his hands.
Akira, on the other hand, simply feels washed out, despite having the most important plotline in the book. Mari attempting to steal the Emperor’s son and treasure is one thing. Akira getting enveloped in a plot to overthrow an Empire who has systematically enslaved the entire yōkai race in his country through the use of priests and magical collars that burn to touch is an entirely different animal. That alone could have been its own book. And unfortunately, that plotline felt both rushed and underdeveloped, with Akira coming in at the tail end of the planning. Akira himself seems to treat Mari like Taro does: an object. After she (quite brutally) rejects him early on, he follows her to the capital telling himself he’s just there to watch over her, not because he can’t take rejection well and isn’t over her. Much of his inner monologue that we do get seems to be him moping over her and clearly being not-over-it. Which, frankly, is just not interesting to read.
Predictably, Mari and Taro do get together (for a short while at least), and when they do, it’s probably the most uncomfortable thing. Because damn I really can’t think of a book where the two leads have less chemistry for one another. Their conversations are stilted and not things normal people would say, Mari has significantly larger concerns on her mind than actually falling in love, and really nor do we see any evidence of the two actually falling in love other than the author saying so. Then conveniently, when certain plot things happen, Taro just as quickly flips on his word and suddenly starts caring about things he definitely didn’t seem to care about originally and Mari seems to actually love him? Why girl? Why?
Story aside, there were two snippets in this book that just really seemed to bother me. Interspersed between chapters were snippets of the Gods and Goddesses of Honoku and short stories of them. One of them starts with Umiko, the goddess of the Moonlight, storms, Sea being too alluring that gazing upon her was to be consumed by a lust like madness. She then proceeds to get raped by Eoku, God of War, Military, and Night. When she asks her brother Sugita to cast him down, he responds that if she wasn’t so beautiful, it wouldn’t have happened. Already, gross. In “revenge” in the next snipped, Sugita is sad because he planted two trees next to each other and one of them grew faster and accidentally killed the other. When he asks Umiko and her sister Aiko for help, they basically tell him “you reap what you sow”, like Umiko did with her beauty. Firstly, the insinuation that the Umiko got revenged for being raped because haha fuck you your tree died is disgusting. But secondly, the comparison of getting raped and planting your trees a little close together made me rather uncomfortable. For a book with so many quotable feminist lines, did this bit really get overlooked?
Finally, I’d like to say that the pacing, well, was rather terrible. There are cool individual moments where Mari is attempting Seasonal Rooms or Akira is training with the Rebellion, or Taro is testing an invention, but they simply don’t mesh together in a well-conceived book. The Rebellion, which really should have been its own book, was relegated to the last several chapters. The attempted “romance” between Taro and Mari was dragged out for far too long, and I think more time should have been given to Mari’s fights in the rooms and also her interactions with the other female contestants.
Overall, I rate this book a 3/5. I was pretty harsh in the review, but I did think it had its moments of greatness. However, moments of greatness do not make up for the poor pacing, character development, and utter lack of chemistry between the two leads.
/r/Fantasy 2019-2020 Bingo Squares
- Title with 4+ Words