UK Publisher: Gollancz
Genre: Epic fantasy, Young Adult
Release Date: 8th November 2018
In a deadly tournament to become empress, any may enter but only one will survive, and one competitor doesn’t just plan to win, she’s going to steal the Emperor’s fortune. . .
In 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, and you can 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.
There perhaps might be an instinct to compare Empress of All Seasons with The Poppy War. Both released this year, both East Asian, own-voice, second-world epic fantasy with close ties to real world culture and history. Both are coming-of-age stories. Both have compelling, strong female leads with hidden powers. Both use the writer’s culture and knowledge to really ground the story and make the settings feel solid and well-developed. Both of them are high points in my 2018 reads. (On a similar note, I am extremely excited to read Girls of Paper and Fire, which looks to me to fit nicely into a trio of 2018 fantasy books from East Asian women authors who have incredible female leads – the release of this alongside the other two feels extremely satisfying to me).
These generalisations do overlook the themes and nuances of each book, however. The Poppy War is based on Chinese history, and deals brutally and deeply with the trauma of war atrocities. It’s dark and unforgiving. Empress of All Seasons finds its roots in Japanese folklore and history, weaving Japanese mythology around the narrative. It looks at the tensions between the humans and the yōkai, the monsters and demons and ghosts, and how this has built into a system of oppression against the yōkai at the behest of the Emperor.
The focus of the story is an Animal Wife, a type of yōkai who appears as a beautiful woman, but can turn into a terrifying animal. They are known for tricking men into marriage and stealing away with all their treasures, bringing the wealth back to their women-only village, hidden in the mountains. Mari has been trained all her life to get one specific husband – the Emperor’s son, Taro. When he comes of age a competition is held to find his true Empress, a woman who is able to conquer all four magic rooms in the palace, one for each season. Mari isn’t beautiful, but she is strong, skilled and smart – she is convinced she will beat the rooms and become Empress.
She doesn’t factor in her attraction to Taro, who looks just like his father, but inside is different – a peaceful, quiet sort he wishes for peace between humans and yōkai, he doesn’t want to fight and just wants to be left alone to build little machines in his workshop. He doesn’t want the trials to go ahead either, but after a chance meeting finds himself inescapably drawn to Mari.
The romance between these two characters was quite lovely, I found them both well-developed and enjoyed their chemistry and interactions. Two socially awkward shut-ins trying to work out how to deal with their feelings and with each other. Every character in this book was wonderfully realised, and there were so many beautiful details for each of them which made them all feel just that bit more special.
The nature of the trials is a little Hunger Games/Battle Royale-esque. So many girls enter, only one can leave. Whilst they don’t necessarily have to die to be removed from the contest – each level contains a riddle and a race, with a maximum number of finishers each time – the truth is that many do die. Unlike The Poppy War, which focuses over trauma across an extended period and on a mass level, Empress of All Seasons shows this brutality over a short period – a week, maximum – and barely gives the characters time to come to terms with their experiences. This builds as the book continues, as each new trauma and act of violence piles onto the previous, so by the end the characters are wound tight and strung out, reacting rather than processing, alternating between numb shock and panic, and things begin to snowball.
I think perhaps that is where my one niggle with the book comes about. A lot of work is done to set up the society, and the conflict beyond just Mari and Taro. There’s a yōkai resistance and Akira taking control of his own fate, Mari’s self-realisation and the knowledge of her position within the wider world – there are repercussions from their actions which ripple so far throughout the country, and you find yourself with 7% of the book left to read and an awful lot of ‘splaining to do. At this point I was beginning to think that we were going to get the ending of a book and the beginning of at least a duology – it felt like there was so much that still needed to be explored and untangled to get to the happy ending, and this was simply the catalyst which started a much bigger journey.
The structure of the story fit that as well – pretty much set all in one place, it worked perfectly as a first book in a series, with things contained and kept comparatively streamlined to allow readers to get used to the setting, and with the fallout at the end of the book meaning the world can be opened up fully in the sequel. Narratively and structurally, it made sense as a first book.
The ending, however, made it seem as though this was going to be a standalone and I found this a little disappointing. What must have equated to several months in-narrative, with lots of struggle and character development was instead summarised across a few pages, making what was likely more of a conflict and battle seem fairly easy and underwhelming after the strife which led up to it. I don’t know if there are plans to flesh this summary out more in a sequel, I hope there are because it seems a shame after such a wonderful, gripping, and engaging story to just gloss over the equally meaty follow-up.
If my only criticism is that I wanted more, however, it shows how much I enjoyed the book. I hope there are sequels, where I get to see these characters developed even further and see their struggle. At present, the ending feels a little too easy for me as a reader, because I haven’t been there for the hard work to reach it.
- An excellent Coming of Age story with a fascinating cast of characters and a well-developed world.
- I loved the contrast between the demons and the human culture, as well as the mirroring with the mythical narratives alongside the main story. There is so much more about this world I want to see and explore.
- I would have liked it to be longer. The ending perhaps felt a little quick, almost an epilogue after the struggle which led up to it. I would have much preferred it being set up for a second book which dealt with the consequences of this one. I hope there is more, because I want to spend more time in this world and with these characters.
- Also I flipping love the cover.
Rating: 4/5 – and it is literally only because it was over too soon for my liking.