Goodreads: Empress of All Seasons
Source: City Book Review
Published: November 6, 2018
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.
Empress of All Seasons promises readers an epic fantasy story of a young girl finding herself while facing incredible challenges as she seeks to “beat” each season in the Imperial Palace’s magical rooms. If she can do this, she wins the hand of the prince, power for her people, and the approval of her mother. There is so much imagination in the book and so much at stake in the plot that the novel seems poised for success, but uneven pacing and sloppy characterization in the last quarter of the novel mean that a story that could have been great ends up being just okay.
Though the first part of the novel has its flaws, I can imagine myself giving the initial 75% of the book four stars. The idea of a (secret) half-demon girl competing in a contest to “conquer the seasons” is stellar, and I loved watching it all play out. There’s also the cool twist on the arranged marriage trope, since it’s a man who’s being offered as a prize in the competition rather than the woman. The world-building is also rather strong, though I did find the little interlude chapters about the gods/goddesses a bit odd and almost unnecessary. I liked that most of the characters were layered, and it was hard to say whether anyone was particularly “good” or “bad.”
[Minor spoilers this paragraph.] However…the last quarter of the book undoes any good that occurs at the start. Jean spends a lot of time setting up a few ideas: 1) that Prince Taro and Mari love each other (though frankly I never thought they had any chemistry at all), 2) that Prince Taro is invested in a future where demons are not enslaved to humans. All this changes at the drop of a hat, as if it had never been. Perhaps there’s something profound in this, the question of whether Mari really loved, what it means to love, etc. However, I’d have to to reread the book and several scenes and really sit and ponder this. On first reading, it looks as it Jean throws her own characterization aside to make the plot more dramatic, which is a tired habit of YA.
The pacing of the end is also incredibly off. Rarely do I think a book should have been longer, but Empress of All Seasons really needed to be a duology (or have a different ending to make it fit in one book). The epilogue, which is only a couple pages, could have been the topic of an entire book. Everything was rushed and underdeveloped, and it’s disappointing that a promising book ended by kind of fading unmemorably away.
On the bright side, the book does have a lot of quotable pieces of wisdom, and as a general rule I tend to be baffled how other readers manage to pick quotable gems out of novels. Empress of All Seasons is a veritable mine of strong prose and thought-provoking ideas. It just deserved more (aka a second book deal from the publisher to expand everything out).