I am loving the current push in YA fantasy for settings outside the usual medieval-England-alike, and one of the books I’ve been most excited for has been Empress of All Seasons, which combines Japanese-inspired mythology with a girls-only survival contest!
Book: Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean
Read before: No
Ownership: Paperback copy sent by Gollancz for fair review. All opinions my own.
This book is fantastic. It tells the story of Mari, a yokai (or demon), who enters a competition to become Empress in order to prove that she belongs in her tribe. She must battle through the four seasonal rooms in the palace, which are controlled by a weather magician and filled with deadly traps and riddles (not to mention the other competing girls!). If she wins, she will win the hand of the prince – but as we see in his viewpoint chapters, he isn’t too keen on the idea of being a prize, nor indeed of being Emperor. Our third main character is Akira, the Son of Nightmares, a half-yokai who will do anything to see that Mari comes home safely…
All three of our viewpoint characters are gorgeously written and very believable. Even when their desires came into conflict, I found myself wishing there was some way for them all to have a happy ending! At the start of the book, I thought I was going to dislike Akira, as he is treading on the edges of believing in the ‘friend-zone’, but his growth over the course of the book is excellent. The way that the strands of the story build together, until the three relatively simple plot lines crash into each other in a huge, all-encompassing tale, is just so good! The side characters are also great – I really liked Asami, Mari’s fellow competitor, and Sei, Mari’s yokai maid.
Speaking of Sei, there’s a strong theme of persecution and slavery running throughout this book. All yokai must be registered and collared, to be controlled by the Emperor, and the different characters’ reactions to this are very interesting. There’s a fascinating bit where Asami calls Mari out for accepting Sei’s service as a ‘maid’, when she is in fact a slave – though Mari is wholly against the enslavement of the yokai, her background (growing up among uncollared yokai) gives her a different, and somewhat naive, picture of the day-to-day oppression of her people. It’s extremely thought-provoking.
The concept of the seasonal rooms was amazing! I’d have loved to have spent the whole book exploring them and the dangers they could bring. They are beautifully described, and you can almost feel the crushing heat and the biting cold. Comparisons to the arenas of The Hunger Games is only partly fair, especially since the girls are forbidden from killing one another, but there’s the same feeling of threat from the environment that made Catching Fire so thrilling. The competition was far and away my favourite part of the book.
I was really, really impressed with the way that the author handled the end of the book. I did completely ship Mari and Taro, and was hoping for them to find a way for their love to survive their ideological differences, but loved that Mari actively chose her ‘right path’ over love. It’s not a case of ‘no love for me thanks, I’m on a mission’, but rather, she is willing to cut out her heart in order to do the right thing by her people. She does love him, and he loves her – but it’s not enough. There’s three ways that fantasy romances between rebels and royalty can go: ‘I love you and we’ll make it work’; ‘I don’t love you, I was just using you to gain power’; and the one opted for here, which is ‘I love you, but that doesn’t change my people’s needs’. I’ve not seen it done before in YA, and it’s so good to see.
Overall, this is a compelling read with amazing world-building. I loved Mari, and was so proud of her journey! If you’re looking for some YA fantasy that manages to be exciting and deep at the same time, or just looking outside the borders of traditional Fantasy-Europe, then this is a gorgeously written, exciting, and thought-provoking read you should definitely pick up. Five out of five cats from me.