Title: Empress of All Seasons
Author: Emiko Jean
Publisher: HMH for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: Available now
Summary: 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.
Review: I’m not too sure what I expected from this novel, but I did not anticipate such a moving novel that not only was beautifully written and fantastical, but also a deep reflection on identity, fate, and oppression.
The novel, told through three POV’s give a complex story that is more than just a “heroine who falls for the cold prince” story. The addition of Akira, who is yōkai like Mari, changes the feel of the story at times as he is more the voice of the outside world, of what is happening outside of the Palace of Illusions while the competition takes place. I found this additional storyline to be intriguing as many fantasy stories, where the heroine ends up in the palace for some reason, focuses only on palace intrigue and I often wonder what is happening to the people, the citizens of the country, as changes happens with their leadership. It was one of the aspects of Crown of Thunder that I really liked, so I was extremely happy to have Akira’s narrative be included in the story.
Another aspect of the novel that I loved was the world building that Jean created. Jean included brief vignettes that gave the mythology of her world, such as the creation story, and brief stories about the various gods & goddesses that make up the world of Honoku. I really loved these passages because they grounded the world but also somewhat served as a brief foreshadow of what was to come. Jean book ends the novel with these mythology vignettes and the last one is particularly lovely, especially in light of the way Empress of All Seasons ends. Speaking of the end, Jean subverts the classical “Happily Ever After” trope and I am here for it. It was so unexpected and wonderfully executed that I was left wanting to stay in the world a bit longer after I finished the story.
I really enjoyed Empress of All Seasons as it felt different from any other fantasy novel that I’ve read. The story moved at a quick pace, not much time passed between Mari’s time in the seasonal rooms, and the action in the story pulls the reader in. If you love fantasy, you need to read this novel.