Book: Empress of all Seasons by Emiko Jean
I picked this up as part of my ongoing effort to read things set in at least a background of non Western cultures, especially ones written by PoC. When I read the blurb for this one I was pretty captivated. Japanese mythology is something I do not know nearly as much about as I would like (see previous rants about the lack of decent mythology books for so many cultures) so I was definitely interested to read something inspired by it written by someone of Japanese decent.
It also has a very beautiful cover, which never hurts to attract me (I am a magpie that way). Seriously, look at that, it’s gorgeous.
But anyway, the book is the story of Mari, who is part of a group called the Yokai, who are considered to be monsters and are not looked well on by most people in the Empire. She has trained for a long time to take part in the competition to win the Prince’s hand and become Empress. Taro is the Prince of the Empire and struggles with his position as it stops him from following his own passions and hates that he must be a prize. Akira is an unusual man in that he is half-Yonkai and half-human. All three of them have a part to play and their decisions may change their Empire.
Well first of all I loved the idea of women competing for the Prince so they can become the next Empress, it’s such a fascinating reversal of the usual tropes of women being a prize for men and it’s very well executed as a premise.
The worldbuilding was also well done, I felt like I could see the society and the people within it very well. The characters also felt quite real for the most part, a little light in some places, but generally well done and that includes some of the secondary characters.
Pacing wise it does get a little weird in places and speeds up towards the end in a way I would have preferred to be a bit more drawn out. Still, the way things wrap up mostly fits with the characters and their behaviour through the novel up to that point and I generally found the conclusion satisfying and leaving me wanting perhaps a bit more of it.
The book does deal with some deeper issues regarding both the enslavement of people and discrimination and dehumanisation and does it well. I also appreciate female friendships playing a strong element in the story, too often those can get sidelined in favour of connections with the men in a female character’s life but that isn’t done here.
My biggest complaints were perhaps that some things felt a little shallower than I would have liked. It’s hard to explain what I mean without examples and I don’t want to do that in the spoiler free part so more on that below.
Overall it was good though, I would guess it’s pitched at a YA audience but there is enough to enjoy for adults too.
So I liked a lot of what was done. I was a little fed up with the possible love triangle (so tired of those) but I liked that Mari only considered Akira a friend and that didn’t change. The attraction between her and Taro was also done well as she is unsure of her feelings towards him, she believes that she could grow to love him but it is not presented as love from her during the course of the book.
On his part it feels a bit more like an obsession than real love. She is the first person to treat him like an actual person and not his title and he’s so starved for genuine affection and attention that he latches onto her and assumes it is deep love that he feels, when it’s not quite that. This also comes through when he finds out the truth of what she is and absolutely loses it. That wasn’t love to me, that was someone who finds their image of someone shattered and it was the image, not the person, that they truly loved. His grief and anger make him lash out and that felt pretty realistic.
Some of the secondary characters were a little too easy to guess though. From Sei, her maid, who was made to betray her to the prince’s bastard brother being the one behind the plot. I guessed that one quite a bit before it is shown and that was a little disappointing. I would have liked to see a bit more of both of their motivations seen to flesh them out better.
Other things I enjoyed include the message of Mari getting to find her own inner strength and beauty and that not having to depend on a man whether or not she chose to be with one or not. There was a lot of women working together and even the difficult female relationships were shown depth and that was excellent.
The main problem for me was the very ending. It felt as though there is another book in that summary at the end and maybe no one would pick it up or maybe she doesn’t want to write a sequel, but that felt a shame to me because I would have liked to see how Mari won people to her cause and took back the Empire, that would make an excellent story too.