I was absolutely drawn into Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean from the moment I started chapter one. It presents such a lush and dimensional world, full of monsters and oppression and girls hiding their true forms. It’s also based on Japanese mythology, by an ownvoices author, and just getting lost in the legends, weapons, food and monster lore was fascinating and brilliant.
The story follows Mari who’s off to enter the contest of the seasons to win the prince’s hand. Except she’s actually a yokai, a supernatural monster, and it’s her nature to destroy. She’s been trained by her family for this exact moment — succeed in the trials of Winter, Spring, Autumn and Summer, and marry the prince before stealing his fortune and fleeing back to her family. But there are tangles in the plot, which Mari soon finds as she enters the palace. The prince, Taro, doesn’t even want the throne, and Mari discovers she’s been followed by her half-blood yokai friend, Akira, who is getting mixed up in people craving rebellion. And as much as Mari needs to help them, she also has to focus on just surviving the rooms of death with other contestants who will do anything to beat her.
The world building is a standout in this one. It takes time to show us the world, from the reclusive mountains where Mari originally lives, to the gorgeous and lush emperor’s places. There are four magic rooms, each built to reflect a season, and filled with deathly trials for the girls to compete in and I loved how creative and intriguing they were. Stakes were high. Girls were dying. It reminded me of The Hunger Games!
I also loved the twist of how it was the girls competing for the prince’s hand for once! It’s a nice twist on an old tale, and the whole concept was done fantastically from the fights to the secret rebellions to the prince who doesn’t fit in and Mari masquerading as human when she’s not.
We have three narrators to cover the whole tale: Mari, Taro and Akira. Mari was the standout for me, and I adored her right from the start. She’s not afraid to get bloody, but she’s still a really soft and sweet person. She’s an Animal Wife, a type of yōkai who basically woos men into marriage and then runs off with their fortune. She’s incredibly good with weapons and is also a strategist. She’s the complex and intriguing kind of character you can’t help but root for (especially when she sighs at the annoyingness of men) and I also liked that she enjoyed being feminine and carrying a sword. You go, girl, smash the stereotypes.
Taro is the emperor’s son and he’s into inventing things, not oppressing the monsters. He makes adorable mechanical birds and tries to just stay out of his snarky father’s way, but when he meets Mari, he starts to think getting married might not be horrible after all. (Mwahah he has no idea she’s a yokai herself.)
Akira was an intriguing narrator, with less space to tell his tale then then the others. He was scarred and quiet, a tortured monster who’s just trying to find his place in a world where he is half yokai and half human. He does have a bit of an obsession with Mari, though she has no interest in him.
The plot is exciting and full of twists! No dull moments and you’ll honestly fly through the chapters.
Empress of All Seasons is a Japanese-inspired fantasy of monsters, murder and mayhem. It’s clever and exciting and if you have a heart that melts for tragic monsters and badass heroines? This is for you.