Title: Empress of all Seasons
Author: Emiko Jean
Review: I have read Empress of all Seasons before, but I was excited to re-read it. The opening to Empress of all Seasons introduced us to Mari; a yokai demon who wants to compete in the competition that is held to find the next empress of Honoku with the crown Prince Taro as the prize the victory claims. We learn from the opening chapters that Mari is an executioner that kills people that come into their territory while Taro is a Crown Prince who has no intention of marrying the girl that wins the contest. Taro also has very different opinions on yokai than his father who likes killing them in the seasonal rooms. We see that neither Taro or Mari fit in with their cultures; Mari doesn’t fit in with the Animal Wives because she doesn’t possess their extraordinary beauty and while she is the executioner she never kills anyone her mother sends to her, rather she uses her friend Akira; a half yokai, half-human to sneak them to safety. Akira we learn is also in love with Mari but hasn’t said anything to her about it. Taro doesn’t fit in with the Palace because he doesn’t see the yokai as monsters, they are just like a human trying to survive in this cruel world and while he doesn’t want to marry he does want to change the way things are.
As we approach the ¼ mark in the novel, Mari is preparing to leave the cold and cruel Animal Wives village to compete in the tournament for the Prince’s hand as this is the only way she can be of use to the village. So far, all the relationships we have seen are very complicated especially the relationship between Mari and her mother; Tami. The other Animal Wives wanted Tami to get rid of Mari the way she did her sons because she isn’t beautiful, but Tami comes up with the idea of sending Mari to the Imperial City where she won’t be suspected of being a yokai because she is plain. This is what Tami has trained Mari her entire life for and despite Akira’s offer of taking her away she refuses, this prompts Akira to follow her and come up with a plan to free Mari forever. Mari is escorted to the Imperial City by two ronin; Masa and Hiro, on the journey Masa is injured and it seems like he is going to have to have his arm removed but Mari saves him putting Hiro in her debt for saving his friend’s life. It turns out that Hiro is a boy Mari was meant to kill but instead she broke his knee and set him free and he still remembers her but offers his aid should she ever need it. Meanwhile, Taro is planning to escape from the Palace the day before the competition is meant to begin, which puts all the work Mari has put into this mission in danger.
As we cross the ¼ mark in the novel, Mari has arrived at the Imperial City and she quickly learns how yokai are treated here, but she also ends up running into Taro although she doesn’t know who he is. That is until she arrives at the Palace for the contest to begin and she learns he is the Prince, but she can’t dwell on this information as she is about to enter the Summer Room where only 10 of the hundreds of competitors can proceed to the next room. Akira meanwhile has sought out the Resistance and the Weapons Master in order to train and free Mari from her family once and for all. The Weapons Master turns out to be a Snow Girl called Hanako which wasn’t what Akira was expecting but he agrees to become her spy and in return, she will train him.
As we approach the halfway mark in the novel, Mari enters the Summer Room and seems totally unprepared for the challenges she is about to meet, however, she also seems very conflicted about her mission especially when girls start dying. Despite all this, she does manage to progress to the next Room although barely as she claims the last scroll that is needed. Now the hundreds of girls have been narrowed down to ten and Mari ends up becoming allies with a girl named Asami but there is something off about her from the moment we meet her. Mari also meets Taro again and we can practically see the romance between them and while Taro is truthful about the fact that boy she meets in the gardens is the real Taro, she is harboring a massive secret and can’t let herself get close to him even if she wins the competition. Mari prepares to face the fall room which doesn’t seem too bad since she has found some allies in Asami and Nori, however, there is more going on behind the scene as a priest unchains 5 oni which kill all but four of the girls; Nori, Asami, Mari, and Sachiko. Satoshi, a priest also learns that one of the oni has strange wounds which are probably from Mari, but it also seems that a few of the girls were killed by another competitor not anything in the Fall Room. With only two rooms left to face; Spring and Winter, Mari seems to be doing ok, but it is plain to see that without some help from others she wouldn’t have got this far. Between the competition chapters, we follow Akira and his training with the resistance with the weapon he has chosen when the shuriken or throwing star.
As we cross into the second half of the novel, I was really enjoying the story and how it merges mythology with the underlying story of rebellion and unrest regarding the treatment of yokai. We also see that Mari isn’t the only yokai competing as Asami is one. I had Sachiko pegged as the murders of the other girls’ first time around as she seems the silent and deadly type, but I know better re-reading this book and see the signs to the killer’s identity a lot clearer. Akira knows Mari is in the tournament and has to protect her no matter what. Meanwhile, Mari finds herself falling in love with Taro and he is beginning to love her to the point where he is willing to burn if she is the fire, but she has secrets to keep hidden at all costs. However, Taro is nothing like his father and if Mari wins the tournament and marries Taro then they could change the world.
As Mari learns there is more going on than the competition through Asami, she knows that even once the tournament is finished it will not be the end of her fight. As she emerges the sole victor of the Winter room, she now has to face the Spring room alone. As Mari is declared the winner of the tournament Akira relays the information to the Weapons Master who plans to storm the castle. He tells her that another yokai won the competition as together they can kill the prince and the Emperor inside the palace walls before morning and the Master agrees. However, we know that there is no way Mari is going to hurt Taro and she will be forced to pick a side, but if she chooses Taro there will be a war as yokai storm the palace at dawn if Akira doesn’t complete his mission. The revolution begins fairy quickly after that and all Mari dreamt of, all of her hope crashes down around her when she realizes what has been set in motion. However, Mari can’t think of Taro at this time because she needs to warn her family and get them to safety, the whole before the self. With other yokai, they begin heading towards the home Mari had always dreamt of escaping.
In the end, I felt that this was a good book, but I didn’t love it as much as I did the first time around. The first time it was novel, and I was paying that much attention to the way the book was written, however, re-reading it I really saw the issues with the pacing and content. The first half of the novel was perfect as Jean takes real time and care to explain all the lore and how everything works to complement or oppose each other. She also dives really deep into the relationships and histories of the characters which really got me investing in this novel. The second half, however, was a disaster, despite the story. If you ignore the plot and just look at the way the story is written, the second half seemed rushed and unfinished in comparison with the first half. I believe that this story needed to be expanded into a trilogy or at a minimum a duology. More depth needed to be given to the revolution and the Resistance group in general, like Hanako’s history, how the group was formed, what had they done up until Akira joined them. Akira’s training and role within the Resistance also needed more time and the pacing is really off, literally one page he has just joined, then a few pages later he has earned his weapon, but we don’t get much in between. Mari’s perspective also suffers from this while Jean goes into a lot of depth about the Summer room, the Fall, Spring, and Winter rooms seemed rushed in comparison and they needed to be developed further especially since a lot of the action and revelations take place within the rooms. Looking back on it now I have to lower my rating of Empress of All Season from 5 stars to 3 stars.
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